I asked my friend to write a guest post for me about her breast cancer experience. It really is quite an extraordinary story when you think that it was just 18 months ago that we were talking about whether she should go and see a Doctor about her initial concerns. She dealt with every step of her journey with incredible bravery and humour. Some of her wonderfully frank account of what happened to her is quite shocking in a way, but she merely dealt with each and every phase and moved on. She now has fading scars and a fabulous new, very realistic looking breast (and essentially a tummy tuck at the same time which she was very excited about). I am quite sure that her story will be immensely helpful to anyone else who has been diagnosed with a similar type of breast cancer. Any questions let me know – I’m sure she’d be delighted to answer them:-
I am 42 years old and the mother of four daughters who are 15, 14, 12 and 4. In June 2010 I was probably fitter than I had ever been as I had been training for a marathon. I can remember thinking how well I felt then which is fairly ironic looking back. One evening as I took off my bra I noticed a tiny, dark brown spot in the bra cup, I honestly didn’t think much of it and assumed I may have dropped a little bit of my favourite Green and Black’s chocolate down my front as I am such a clumsy eater! The next day I wore a different bra but noticed it again and then the next day and the next. It became obvious that my nipple had some sort of discharge and so I booked a Doctor’s appointment, at that time it never even crossed my mind that it might be particularly sinister.
The Doctor thought it was probably nothing but I was referred to my local breast clinic at Kingston hospital. My friend Lucy came with me and the first thing I noticed was that the clinic was absolutely full to bursting. I waited for ages to be seen and then when I finally was the Doctor was charming, reassuring and very calm. He sent off a sample of the nipple discharge and said I should return a week later. When I went back the following week he said that there were some abnormal cells in the discharge but he wanted to do a biopsy of the nipple duct and thought that by removing the duct there would be no further problem.
I was seen very quickly and efficiently – almost on a weekly basis. This is what impressed me so much about the NHS care I was given. From discovery of the discharge to the removal of the duct took about three weeks. Despite the huge number of women that were at the clinic every time I went, the speed that my case was dealt with was remarkable.
I returned to the clinic alone for the biopsy results, I told my husband and friends that I would be fine as I was so confident that once the duct had been removed there would be no need for further treatment – how wrong I was! My consultant didn’t really beat about the bush he just said the biopsy showed that there were cancer cells in the duct and that it was called DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ). I remember feeling very calm initially but when the breast cancer care nurse came and took me to another room to call my husband, the enormity of what I had just been told slowly began to sink in.
After a further biopsy of the other ducts in my left breast I went back to see my consultant again. This time I took my husband with me. From the moment I walked in and saw the look in my consultant’s eyes, I knew it wasn’t going to be great news. He told me that the whole breast had extensive DCIS and would therefore have to be removed and how sorry he was, but that the prognosis was good if I had the surgery. As I sat nursing a coffee afterwards I recall holding my husband’s hand as he sobbed, whilst I calmly reassured him everything would be fine. Isn’t it funny how we all deal with things differently?
And so I was put on the waiting list to have my DIEP Flap mastectomy done at the Royal Marsden in Chelsea in September. This was all fine as we were supposed to be driving to the South of France on holiday as a family in mid July. However as the date approached for us to go I began to feel more and more unwell and it became obvious that I had an infection in my breast from the second biopsy. When I went to A & E I was told that my Consultant had accidentally cut off the blood supply to my nipple when he did the last biopsy and so basically my nipple was dying and I was told I shouldn’t go on holiday. My husband and the older children drove down to St Tropez leaving me and my three year old at home. A week later after being shown how to change my own dressings we flew to meet the rest of the family on holiday. It was a strange holiday as I was living under such a black cloud but it was good to be away from all the hospital appointments and although I hadn’t told the children about my planned surgery – my husband was being kind and loving.
However nothing could have prepared me for the moment as I was doing my daily dressing change. The sun was blazing through the window, it was an idyllic morning on the French Riviera, but as I looked down at my dressing I realised with shock, horror and slight amusement that my nipple had actually fallen off. It’s hard to know what to do in such circumstances, such as how do you then dispose of it and would it be appropriate to pop it in the bin in the kitchen or not? Anyway I did get rid of it and I do think it’s quite funny that my nipple dropped off in St Tropez – there must be a song title in there somewhere!
And so I had my mastectomy in mid September. It was a six hour operation done by a fantastic plastic surgeon and his team at the Marsden. They took fat from my stomach in a “tummy tuck” style operation and moved it to my left breast which was reconstructed at the same time. Within 12 hours I was up and about – I remember feeling self-conscious at my lack of make-up and looking so utterly revolting, so even though I had a 21 inch scar around my tummy I decided to paint my toe nails just so I could feel a bit more normal!
Since then I have had two more operations to reconstruct my nipple and I am now waiting for my tattoo to be done which is basically around the areolae area to create a sort of trompe l’oeil type of effect…. should be interesting – never thought I would get a tattoo!
This might sound a bit weird but all in all it has been a very positive experience. I know I was lucky. I was lucky to have had a sign that something was wrong so early that it could be dealt with quickly. I even think how if it had been in the winter months and I was wearing a black bra instead of a cream one – I wouldn’t necessarily have spotted the discharge. I was lucky too that once I had my mastectomy done I didn’t need further treatment. I know so many people who have had radiotherapy, chemotherapy and are on Tamoxifen in addition to the surgery. My surgeon is a complete genius and has created a wonderful new breast that looks incredible. I was in a bikini lying on a beach four months after my surgery – admittedly I did have big pants on as my scar is rather wide but you would never really know otherwise.
And so for all the awful, heart wrenchingly painful stories that you might have read about breast cancer….please remember there are so many positive ones too. Naturally I did have my dark moments – usually when I was putting my little three year old to bed and as I kissed her soft, sweet smelling hair goodnight I would wonder if I would be there for her as she grew up. But there is nothing more life affirming than having children and they have given me more strength than they will ever know.