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“I had heard about the whole range of side effects that come with chemo, and I was really worried about being sick. I even bought myself a Tiffany blue bucket just in case, but I never ended up needing it! Other than the fact that I am still here today, the great outcome of chemo is that it has changed how I taste things- I now love stilton cheese, which I hated before! During the treatment, I had cravings for fish finger sandwiches and shepherd’s pie, but hated the taste of chocolate – thankfully my taste for that has come back!”
Back in 2006, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 34, with no family history of breast cancer and living a normal, healthy lifestyle. I definitely didn’t see this coming. I can’t quite explain to you how I found the lump, I stretched my arms while I was opening my bedroom curtains one morning and just felt something that wasn’t right. I could only feel it when my arm was outstretched, but there was definitely something there. I can only feel that finding it was fate.
The GP I saw was not my usual doctor, and he told me to go away and come back if it was still there in a couple of weeks. I was really worried and a friend encouraged me to call Bupa, as I had policy with them. They arranged a quick referral to the Princess Royal Hospital, where I saw Mr Usman, who was absolutely amazing.
The tumour was about the size of a baked bean, and was between my breast and armpit. Even though we weren’t sure what it was at first, I knew I would be having surgery as Mr Usman was keen to take it out either way. I had a needle biopsy, then an ultrasound scan and mammogram to help identify what it was.
My cancer diagnosis was confirmed the day before I went on a three-week holiday to America with my husband, David. My first question was “is this going to mean I have chemo?”. I didn’t get an answer at the time – they are very regimented about what they tell you and when, which I can understand as it would be really overwhelming getting all the information at the same time. I just remember him saying that because of my age, and the grade of the cancer, they were “going to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.
My doctors encouraged me to go on the holiday, reassuring me that my surgery would be at least three weeks away anyway. I’m so glad they did; we kept ourselves busy through the trip, visiting some amazing places and sometimes my worries from home seemed just like a bad dream.
It was really surreal telling other people. You find yourself comforting them, which doesn’t really make sense. You really find out a lot about people and about who your friends really are. We told both sets of parents before we went on holiday, and left them to tell the rest of the family- it is exhausting to keep talking about it and it was easier to see people when they already knew.
When we got home, I had surgery to remove the tumour, followed by eight rounds of chemotherapy, each three weeks apart. The surgery went fine, and I really committed to the physiotherapy that followed- in my mid-thirties I was not prepared to live with one of my arms not working properly, so I did all the exercises I was given and they were really effective. It was definitely a case of “no pain, no gain”!
During my chemotherapy, I’d have a blood test on a Thursday, to make sure I was fit for the treatment. The chemo itself followed on the Friday, then an injection to protect my white blood cell count on the Saturday. The wheels fell off a bit on Sundays, then I would have a few rough days, before feeling better just in time for another dose three weeks later. The treatment made me feel progressively worse as it went along.
I had heard about the whole range of side effects that come with chemo, and I was really worried about being sick. I even bought myself a Tiffany blue bucket just in case, but I never ended up needing it! Other than the fact that I am still here today, the great outcome of chemo is that it has changed how I taste things- I now love stilton cheese, which I hated before! During the treatment, I had cravings for fish finger sandwiches and shepherd’s pie, but hated the taste of chocolate – thankfully my taste for that has come back!
I began to lose my hair after my second chemotherapy treatment. When it started, I went to my hairdresser and asked for a grade two shave all over. My hair has always been short, and I didn’t want to experience it falling out in clumps. It was incredibly liberating- I really think every woman should have their head shaved once in their life, whether they have cancer or not! You get really cold with no hair, and hoodies are a great thing to wear so you can keep your head warm when you need to.
I got a lot of support and was directed to Wills Wigs, an NHS approved wig supplier who visits the Hamar Centre at RSH every week. They were great, but I only wore the wig once. It made me so uncomfortable and I felt more like me bald, than with a wig. I did get a few people pointing at me in the street, which is a weird thing to do, and not helpful when you’re not feeling great.
I was assigned a breast care nurse, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of the relationship with her- I had a lot of friends and family I could talk to, so for me it wasn’t something I needed. I think for some people it could be useful to have that contact though.
Overall, chemo was not as bad as I expected. Following this, I had 18 sessions of radiotherapy over three and a half weeks. The treatment itself was fine- it doesn’t hurt, and it’s really quick. The only real issue is the inconvenience of having to come every day. If your appointment is in the middle of the day, it can take up your whole day with travelling and waiting for your turn. I was a bit surprised to be given some permanent tattoos to guide the radiotherapists in my treatment- they are tiny though, and don’t bother me now.
Every day during radiotherapy, I went walking around Attingham Park, which made me feel a lot better. I started to really appreciate things like birdsong, which sometimes annoys my husband when I make him stop and listen while we’re out on a walk!
My boss was supportive, and I ended up taking almost a year off from work. I work in an office where there are 1200 people, and treatment affects your immune system so badly I realised I needed to look after myself and not go back too soon. Since I returned, I now work four days a week- a step that I don’t think I would have taken had I not become ill. I now spend my Wednesdays mainly visiting my family; walking the dogs with my dad and catching up with my mum over a coffee. The experience has made me appreciate quality time with my family and friends and given me a different perspective to my work.
At the end of my treatment, David and I got involved with Lingen Davies Cancer Fund as we wanted to make a donation to the cancer centre. David went over with a cheque, and came back to announce that we had become Area Coordinators for Wellington and Telford! We have been involved in loads of events, including eleven years manning the gates at the wonderful Snowdrop Walk, an annual event at Winsley Hall. It’s nice to be involved and give something back to those who helped me.
Ten years later, I have the occasional wobble, usually around check-up time, but I am mainly doing well. It never goes away, you just get used to it. I don’t think about cancer every day, but to think “I was there, as a patient”, it’s hard to get your head around. I am a lot more conscious of my health than I was before. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have your health, you really don’t have anything.
Read more patient stories
Rachael shares the highs and lows of her cancer journey which started at the age of 33. Her honesty about her fear of not being able to breathe, but learning not to panic gives a great insight into her experience.
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