February this year started out like any other month, chilly with bursts of sunshine and a bit of snow, pretty uneventful, until the day I was diagnosed with HER2 positive inflammatory breast cancer.
Before Christmas 2018 I noticed something odd, not really a lump, but a thickening above my left breast tissue, more towards my chest, so I did the usual google search, as you do, which reassured me. I’d always been vigilant at checking my breasts, having regular health assessments and mammograms, as one of my besties had breast cancer 16 years ago and I have family history (a cluster, not hereditary). Menopause was changing my body, and I’d also just had a clear mammogram at the end of September, so I didn’t panic.
I went to see my GP and she wasn’t too concerned, suggesting I keep an eye on it over the next 4 weeks to see if it changed or went away. Christmas and New Year came and went, I didn’t feel poorly but the lump was still there. Then in January, whilst on a course and staying in a hotel, I saw my reflection in a bathroom mirror, and my left breast looked red. It wasn’t red where the lump was, but it was definitely red, and I knew instantly that this was no muscle strain!
When I got back, I went straight back to the GP and she referred me to the breast clinic; I opted to skip the NHS queue, and used my medical insurance; I had an appointment within 3 days. My consultation with the specialist was followed by a mammogram and then an ultrasound. They advised an immediate needle biopsy and my heart sank as I knew that this was not going to be the outcome I’d hoped for. I remember what my consultant said: “let’s not get excited or ahead of ourselves, let’s see what the biopsies show,” but I knew that he knew.
My results took 5 days to come through and they were the longest 5 days of our lives for my husband Simon and I. They turned out to be the toughest 5 days of my whole cancer journey. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat or concentrate, as my mind wandered into the what ifs….
Results day came, and my worst fears were confirmed: I had an 8cm tumour, contained to the breast (it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes) and was, thankfully, in its early stages. It was however an aggressive cancer, which is why it had grown so big, so fast. The treatment was going to be “belt and braces,” long and invasive but the outlook was very good; I can’t tell you how relieved I was to have plan, no matter how frightening that plan looked.
And so, on Monday 25th February 2019 I started on the cancer treadmill, just 10 days after being diagnosed. Someone I met referred to treatment as “an arson of drugs,” and they were right - 15 rounds of chemo to shrink and control the cancer spread, together with 18 rounds of targeted therapy (12 months), the magic drug. Then full mastectomy surgery and 15 back to back days of radiotherapy thrown in, for good measure.
Chemo terrified me, and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience of my life, but the aches and pains, nausea, hair loss, cold sores and sheer exhaustion were all manageable. I almost celebrated the side effects, because I knew if it was making me feel this bad the cancer inside me was feeling worse. We had nicknamed my cancer Clive (C for cancer, live for living!!) and I knew that if I felt so bad, Clive was getting a real kicking.
Once treatment starts you are in an all-consuming, kind of cancer bubble, and as your world shrinks, hopefully your tumour is shrinking too, but it’s something that you have to go through to get out the other side, which I did. Following chemo, I had my surgery to remove my breast.
Now there are loads of breast cancer stats that I won’t bore you with as they are all over the web, but breast cancer is very common; 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed and there are 360 reported cases of breast cancer in men, each year in the UK. Cancer is indiscriminate, it doesn’t care what your job is, what plans you have, or how kind and loving you are. We can stack the odds in our favour as 23% of diagnoses are preventable – that’s 12,500 cases each year that can be avoided. Things like weight, alcohol consumption, not breastfeeding and your hormones can all contribute to a cancer diagnosis.
Who knows what caused my cancer; I would say that I have led a reasonably healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, and I exercise regularly. Perhaps my downfall was I used to smoke, and continued to smoke socially but not much. I breast-fed both my children and wasn’t far enough into menopause to go down the HRT route before I was diagnosed. With different choices maybe I could have avoided it altogether, but what I can say, with all honesty, is that my lifestyle choices have 100% helped me cope with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment.
Being vigilant about screening and breast checking gave me the reassurance that I couldn’t have done anything sooner. The fact that it was a fast-growing cancer and the recent clear mammogram meant, that it hadn’t been lying undetected for a long time.
7 months on, and I’m cancer free, and learning how to live my life having suffered the experience we all dread, knowing that there are risks of secondary cancers but that my risk is being managed by the ongoing drugs I will have to take for 10 years and the normal checks which we all do.
My final thoughts are these; you can’t live your life fearing cancer, and in most cases, cancer isn’t a life sentence. The treatment isn’t nice, but I’m grateful every day that my cancer was treatable, so I’ll take the side effects. Cancer is very personal; personal in how it is treated and in how each person deals with it. Being fit and healthy, having a positive attitude, inappropriate (private) humour and a great support network with family, friends and colleagues has helped me combat the side effects, the loneliness and the fear. I’ve learnt to be grateful for everything I have in my life and very hopeful for the future.
I’ve been very open about my cancer and this has helped me get through it and I thank everyone for their love, support, friendship, kind and inspirational words; for their Netflix and book suggestions, the food parcels and the shared exercise regimes to keep my stamina up and the café brunches (where I missed my runny eggs so much!!) for an extra treat.
There is life after cancer, and I intend to enjoy every day to its fullest.
Written by Nicola Hodkinson, Director of Business Services. You can find Nicola on Linked In here.