While I was watching television one evening, I felt a nagging ache in my left breast. I had a prod, it was sore and I discovered a lump, the size of an acorn.
When I went to see the GP he dismissed it as a cyst, because I was only 29, and said it would go in a few weeks. But it didn’t.
I went back a few times as I was worried and was eventually referred to my local breast clinic. I was young, fit and healthy and the last thing I expected was a breast cancer diagnosis. But I realised it was something ominous when I had the scan and read the faces of the people in the room. I tried to convince myself it would turn out to be nothing and so initially I was going to go in for the results by myself. But my now husband David insisted he came with me.
When the consultant told me it was cancer, I couldn’t fathom it. These things happen to other people, not to me. The consultant carried on talking but I wasn’t taking anything in. Luckily, David was.
When we got home he proposed, saying when it was all over we would get married. It was his way of giving us something to look forward to. Two years later, we did just that.
JUST GET THROUGH IT
I needed some good news and it came after I had the lumpectomy. Some lymph nodes were removed and there was no evidence the cancer had spread. We had caught it early so the prognosis was good.
Chemotherapy would give me the best chance and I had six sessions, once every three weeks. The clinics were mostly full of older women and I was aware the issues affecting me were so different to theirs. I didn’t know if I could have children after this. Was it a responsible thing to do if there was a possibility I couldn’t be there for them?
I lost my hair, my weight ballooned and I felt unattractive. Other people’s lives were carrying on, and I was in this bubble that I couldn’t get out of. It was isolating, people were sympathetic but they didn’t really understand.
After treatment, I had radiotherapy every day for a month, which was difficult in a different way. The radiation builds up so it gets harder as it goes on and the least bit of activity makes you feel exhausted.
I couldn’t work, so I took long term sick leave from my job in a book shop and never went back.
I didn’t ever get that definitive ‘you are now in remission’ as with cancer it is ‘never say never’.
But after that first bout of treatment, as far as I was aware, the worst was behind me. I was keen to move forward and be positive, but the fear never left. Every ache, every lump, I was back to the doctor, but it always turned out to be nothing.
You head towards that golden five years: it sets the clock back statistically to having as much chance of it coming back as the rest of the population.
In the meantime, we got married and had our daughter. We didn’t know if I’d be fertile after the chemotherapy, we were just hoping for the best and then along came Esmé, a honeymoon baby, and everything was brilliant for a long time. Our son, Ben, was born four years later. Radiotherapy stopped my left breast producing milk, but I breastfed both of them, using the right breast only. I was determined and managed about six months for both children.
Four and a half years passed – and then I felt that ache again. Exactly the same feeling in exactly the same place and I knew straight away it had come back. When they’d done the lumpectomy they hadn’t taken a wide enough excision and left some cells in there. All that time I thought it was gone but the cells were still there, making another tumour. I was frightened and felt cheated having gone through four years thinking it hadn’t been in my body. But it had been all along.
WHOSE BODY IS THIS?
This time I didn’t have any treatment – they took the breast away. My first thought was that I would have a reconstruction straight afterwards. I would have the other breast operated on so they would be equal and all would be fine. What I didn’t realise was that after radiotherapy, the skin toughens and becomes less elastic. An implant wouldn’t work, because my skin wouldn’t accommodate it.
A breast care nurse, who knew me quite well by that time, came to show me photos of people who’d had a reconstruction using muscle taken from the back. This is what I would have to have instead.
Under clothing, it does look like a breast but without, they didn’t look as real as I would have liked. I was also worried about the complications of more surgery : two Caesareans, a lumpectomy and a mastectomy had taken their toll on my body.
I lasted for a while with just one boob but I hated it. It felt so wrong being asymmetrical. When I finished breastfeeding Ben, I decided I wanted the other breast gone. The cancer coming back wasn’t the driving force, although of course that was at the back of my mind.
My consultant didn’t want to do the operation as there was no evidence the cancer would return but I was really struggling psychologically, I hated the way I looked. Breasts are so linked to sexuality it was awful for me just having one. My mum said surely one boob is better than no boobs, but I disagree. You can’t do anything with just one boob, clothes look wrong. I just felt wrong. Eventually my consultant agreed. And now I’m flat.
JUST LOOK AT ME NOW
Five years ago, when Ben was starting nursery, David started dropping hints about me going back to work. I had changed my diet and lifestyle and was going to the gym a lot. To combine my passion for fitness with a new career, I trained to be a fitness instructor and I love it.
I have a great following in Cardiff as I raise money for Breast Cancer Care (www.breastcancercare.org.uk). So far, I’ve managed to raise nearly £20,000 through various fitness and other events. People know me as the instructor who had a mastectomy as I’m very open about it.
Having the confidence to stand up in front of people as a fitness instructor is something I would never have done before I had cancer. My body image issues are not over though, far from it.
GET TO THE DOCTOR
When we go on holiday and I see women in their bikinis, I do get boob envy. I nearly always come home saying I will have the reconstruction, but that fades after a couple of months. If I had reconstruction, you don’t get a breast back, you get a breast form back. I have friends who have had theirs done and are really happy, but it’s just not for me.
And teaching my fitness classes, standing up there with just my flat bra top on, I feel proud I’ve been through this. I don’t have boobs because I survived cancer.
My advice to someone who may have found a lump or is worried about their breasts is to get to the doctor quickly. Timing could make all the difference between having that small lump taken away, having chemotherapy to having your breasts taken away.
Or worse, having it spread with nothing left to be done for you. It could be the difference between telling your story when you are 80, or someone else telling that story as you’ve gone early. It’s that important.
• To contact the Breast Cancer Care Support Line to speak to a nurse for free care, support and information, ring 0808 800 6000.
Every year, nearly 58,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK