I first found out when I was 45.

A nurse had asked me to register for the free national breast screening programme and I hadn’t heard anything for about six months, when I received a call at work. The woman on the the other end said although they were usually pretty busy, they had a vacancy that coming Friday.

I didn’t know if I really needed to go, but thought I would because I had staff to cover me. They took a mammogram and asked me to come back the next day for my result.

I arrived on the Saturday morning and the woman there asked if I’d brought a support person with me. When I said no, I’d come alone, she asked me again, and again I answered in the negative. I didn’t know what to expect at that time, so I’d just gone in to get the result.

That’s when they told me I had a lump in my left breast.

I saw an oncologist who did a biopsy to check whether the lump was cancerous. They ended up doing a lumpectomy to remove it and then I began five weeks of daily radiation.

In the beginning, it was like they were doing an x-ray, they just made some marks and passed the radiation through me. It didn’t affect me for the first couple of weeks, but after that the radiation made me very tired.

It felt like I’d been burnt on the area, like when you get sunburnt, so I had to apply a lot of gel to cool it down and lessen the pain.

It didn’t affect me emotionally in the beginning. The fact that I had cancer and they had removed the lump, it didn’t really sink into my mind for a long time.

After the radiation, however, I thought what if it comes back again? I was afraid because they’d said even though I had had radiation, there was a chance of getting it again.

Recurrence

After that I had to get regular mammograms. I was expecting it would come back after five years because my grandmother’s breast cancer recurred after five years. When it didn’t, I thought maybe I wouldn’t get it again.

But then after ten years it came back, it was there.

For some people it might not recur. Some people are at risk of having it very soon after or later on. It just depends on your family and individual history of breast cancer.

It was after my 2017 mammogram that I found out I had another lump on the same side.

This time I took my daughter as a support person. Most people get their results immediately if they don’t have any problems. I think it’s only if you have something that they’ll give you a time to come back and talk to the doctor, so the second time, I knew.

Thanks to my previous experience, I had a bit of an idea of what it was, what they would do and how they would do it. However, instead of a lumpectomy, this time I had a mastectomy as well as a TRAM flap reconstruction.

It was a big decision. I had to do some research about the reconstruction, as I wasn’t sure what I would do about that, but I decided I didn’t want to go for a lumpectomy because I’d already had it once, so I made the decision of a mastectomy pretty quickly. I thought it was better to have it all removed rather than worry about it later on.

Response

People were shocked to hear I’d gotten it again and that I had it on the same side. They were very supportive and they knew it was a big surgery so they all offered their help. That was good for me, mentally.

I chose to have a reconstruction because I didn’t want my appearance to change, my body to change. I thought if I didn’t have a breast there I might not be able to cope with seeing it.

I was also conscious because I thought everybody would start looking at me and at my breasts. I was feeling very uneasy about it.

The first time, when I’d had the lumpectomy, people used to look at you, at your breast, they used to look down. I know they didn’t do it on purpose or mean anything, it’s only human and it happens, but it made me very nervous.

I remember those looks and I didn’t want that to happen again.

A few people I knew had also had a lumpectomy and because I had it for the second time, they were curious to know what was happening, how I was going to react, what I was going to do and why.

They also wanted to know how I found out about it because they were concerned about their own recurrence. I tried to be supportive of them and told them not to worry, because some of the people I know never got it again.

Private vs public

My first surgery was in a private hospital and my second was in a public one.

I quite liked being in the public hospital because I was surrounded by lots of people. The doctors, the junior doctors and the trainee doctors all came for their rounds and there were a lot more nurses who were there checking in on you every now and then. It made me feel homely.

The private one was very quiet and peaceful, but at that time after the surgeries I felt very lonely there. Although the facilities were there, they gave you nice food, they came and asked you what you wanted, there were very few nurses to attend to you. Other than my family coming in in the evenings, I didn’t have anybody in the daytime.

The reason to go to a private hospital is waiting time. The first time I had cancer there was a long waiting list to get the surgery, but because I was more at risk the second time I got a surgery date pretty quickly.

Reflection

Taking a support person who is very close to you, that helps. It’s good to have somebody who knows what procedure you’re having, to listen to the doctor along with you, and to have somebody to talk to. In that state of mind sometimes you might miss hearing something and then the other person who was there can remind you what the doctor said.

I realised all the doctors are experienced, they know what they’re doing and they give you all the details, so I didn’t really have to worry about that.

It helped me to try to stay positive and to follow the doctors’ and physios’ advice. I spent six weeks recovering after my second surgery, but after the six weeks and my next appointment with the doctor, I felt I had done the right thing.

It’s been ten months since the mastectomy and if I could speak to my pre-surgery self I’d say you’ll feel much more confident about yourself. You’ll feel happy that you’ve gone through this and you’ve finished it and you’re better now.

Once you have gone through the hardship, it’s really an eye opener for you, it gives you much more strength and confidence to enjoy life, whatever you have.

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