Breast Cancer Awareness Month: one mum's story
October is all about Halloween, Black History Month and settling down with a hot chocolate, but it's also the month that the light really shines on a super important topic: breast health and breast cancer. Yep, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and while we should absolutely be aware of this all year round, this month we also get to celebrate those men and women who kicked breast cancer's ass. We've been speaking to mum of two, Nicola, about her own diagnosis, and the rollercoaster treatment and recovery ride she's been on, as well as getting her advice when it comes to regularly checking our breast friends.
Hi, Nicola and thank you so much for telling us your story. First off, can you tell us a little bit about you and your family
Well, I've been married to Mike for nearly 20 years, and we have two kids - Jack who is nearly 19 and is half way through his A levels, and Chloe who is 16. Both kids are football crazy so we spend lots of our time ferrying them to training and watching them in matches!
We live in Chislehurst, a leafy suburb of London, having returned here 8 years ago after an amazing 6 years living the expat life in Singapore.
When / how did your breast cancer diagnosis come about?
In the Summer of 2018, my mum fell over at home. She had Dementia and it was a really stressful time. I spent most of the summer driving backwards and forwards to my parents' house and finally to the hospital where, sadly, my mum passed away. At some point during that time, I noticed a recurring pain in my armpit but I didn't take too much notice as I really didn't have the time time to do anything about it. I couldn't feel a lump, so I just put it down to stress or maybe a pulled muscle.
My mum died at the end of July and her funeral was a month later. Just as we were heading towards the beginning of the new academic year and trying to adjust to life without my mum, I heard on the news that Rachael Bland, a BBC journalist who had launched a podcast called You, Me and the Big C, had just finished her last ever podcast. Her breast cancer had been diagnosed when she found a lump in her armpit, and although I didn't have a lump, something prompted me to make an appointment with my GP after hearing her news.
My appointment was booked for 5th September 2018 and as I was getting ready to go to the GP, I heard on the radio that Rachael had lost her battle with cancer that day. My GP examined me and said that while she wasn't overly concerned, she wanted to send me for a mammogram to rule out anything sinister. I wasn't too worried either, so when the hospital called me the next day to make my appointment, I was really calm and just took it in my stride. I went for my mammogram five days later, on my daughter's 12th birthday.
The radiographer took the mammogram, did an ultrasound and then called the consultant in to take a biopsy as they had found an area that they wanted to test further. Again, they were very reassuring and so I wasn't in panic mode... yet! I'd previously had a couple of cysts so in my mind I just thought it was likely to be that again.
On 19th September 2018, I had my follow up appointment with the Breast Surgeon. I remember walking into his office with Mike and smiling at him broadly, but thinking he was a bit miserable because he didn't smile back! I then looked around and saw a nurse sitting there too, which was when I realised that the news coming was probably not good. I was diagnosed with grade 2 invasive ductal carcinoma ER and PR +ve, however, the doctor was very reassuring and told us that the prognosis was good, and that he would do everything in his power to make me better. He was true to his word! I don't really remember much else about the appointment as I think I was in shock. But I will always remember him giving me the news that no one ever wants to hear.
What was your immediate reaction to the dreadful news?
I think I cried a little bit but I don't clearly remember - I was in shock because I really didn't think it would happen to me! I still feel a little bit disappointed that my instinct let me down - I've always trusted it, but I really wasn't prepared for that dreadful news. But then on the other hand, hearing the news of Rachael's battle was what prompted me to act and see the doctor in the first place. Also, two breast consultants have independently told me that the pain in my arm was nothing to do with cancer: the lump was nowhere near the pain (which I still feel every now and then), so maybe intuition did play a part, after all!
My appointment was late afternoon so while we were in the car on the way home, we decided to be honest with the children and tell them straightaway. I'm not very good at hiding my feelings so they would have known that something was wrong, so being upfront seemed like the best course of action, and it was definitely the right call. Of course the kids were upset, but we reassured them and they went off to football training, and I went off to teach my evening class at college! The next morning, I made an appointment to see my boss to give her enough time to arrange cover for my classes. I was very focused on getting organized!
When did your treatment begin and what kind of treatment did you receive?
And so began a whirlwind of hospital appointments. I had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy (this is under the arm to check if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes) a month after that first visit to my GP.
After the op, I remember someone coming to see me (it must have been the surgeon) as I was struggling to wake up from the anaesthetic. All I wanted to hear was that it had not spread to my lymph nodes and that they'd found clear margins. Thankfully it hadn't spread and there was no lymph involvement, which was the biggest relief!
Next there were more check ups and tests to make sure it hadn't metastasised. The worst part of all was waiting for a date for a bone scan, and then once that had happened, waiting for the results. I think that was the point at which my fear of dying really took over: I have never been so scared in all my life. It's really hard to put into words how I felt. I couldn't bear to talk about anything further in the future than the next few days, just in case.
Fortunately, when the results came back and there was no evidence of it having spread. I was incredibly lucky that I didn't have to have chemotherapy, but I did need15 sessions of radiotherapy. I did get a break over Christmas that year from treatment which I really needed: the treatment could be quite sore at times, with the risk of skin burns too. My final day of radiotherapy was on my 16th wedding anniversary, so it was a double celebration that day for sure.
After radiotherapy, I was put on Tamoxifen, a hormone inhibitor that I need to take daily for five years post active treatment. There can be numerous side effects and I seem to have most of them! However, as part of my treatment, I see an Integrated Cancer Consultant who prescribes me a number of homeopathic treatments which help combat the side effects.
How did you feel both physically and mentally during treatment?
During treatment, I think I was on autopilot. It was something that had to be dealt with and crying or moping about wasn't going to help me! I did feel very protected as everyone was looking out for me, which really helped me through the agonising waits for tests and results. Any concerns I had were always dealt with really well, and I'm so thankful for that. It was mentally and physically tiring keeping up with all the appointments, but I just kept going, determined to get to the treatment finishing line.
How did your family cope and support you during treatment?
Everybody was really strong and we all tried to carry on with normal life as much as we could.
Did you turn to any support groups for advice after your diagnosis?
Not immediately, but I did find a really good Facebook page which I am still part of. The women on there are supportive and pretty amazing human beings. It feels good to be able to share my experiences as hopefully I can offer reassurance and be a support to others in a similar situation.
When / how did you find out that you were cancer free?
I was told that I was officially cancer free on 15 January 2019, so only four months after diagnosis. I am unbelievably lucky - so many women (and men) have treatment that lasts for so much longer and is so much tougher. And sadly treatment doesn't work for everyone, which only adds to how thankful I feel to have come out the other side.
What advice do you have for men and women facing a similar diagnosis?
Listen to the experts, but also listen to your body. I know I said I had lost a bit of trust in my own instincts, but in reality it didn't really fail me. If you think something is not right, even during treatment, or you don't agree with the treatment plan being offered, say so! It's your body and absolutely your choice.
I would also say don't Google: you will diagnosis yourself with at least 10 different types of cancer and worry yourself all the more. Leave the diagnosis to the experts.
What advice would you give when it comes to breast checking and breast health?
Check your breasts for lumps or other abnormalities on the same day every month. The first of the month is a good date to plump for as it's an easy date to remember. When you check, do it while you are in the shower and make sure your hands are wet and soapy as this makes it easier to detect any issues. Do get to know your body so that you can recognise any changes, and if you do find anything at all, make sure you act and get to your GP asap. Early detection is so important. I can't stress that enough.
Tell us a little bit about life post-cancer
Life post-cancer is good! I feel very, very lucky to be here and to have received, and continue to receive, such amazing treating from the NHS. I have been very fortunate.
I did have a little scare two years ago, so I called my Breast Cancer Nurse (you have a hotline to this service until you are officially signed off), who booked me in for an ultrasound on the very same day, despite all the Covid-19 measures in place at the time. Everything was fine, and they were hugely reassuring: it's so good to know that I can call them whenever I need to, and that they're there for me when I need them.
These day, I am more conscious of my diet, even though I thought I ate pretty well before all this, but now I am a lot more committed to exercising regularly (well, most of the time!) and making good lifestyle choices.
While I was waiting for my op, I really needed to focus on something positive, so I decided to do some fundraising... this resulted in a group of friends and I doing the Moonwalk and between us we raised just under £11,000 for cancer charities. It felt so good to get people together for such a great cause, and it taught me to get into better exercise habits: we get given one body and one life, so keeping myself as healthy as I can these days is really important to me.
Thank you so much, Nicola, for sharing your story! We're sure it will be inspirational to many, and we are so proud of how you not only kicked cancer's ugly butt, but how you continue to do as much as you can to help highlight this evil disease. You rock, lady!
Breast cancer awareness
Remember, people: checking your breasts regularly should be as much a part of your routine as brushing your hair. It might be National Breast Cancer Awareness month, but this is something we all need to pay heed to every day of the year, not just in October.
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