My cancer journey...
First of all let me say that cancer is not a death sentence... I am a living testament to that: a survivor an optimist and a believer in my future.
Let me take you on my journey.
I am a 59 year old professional woman with a wonderful family of four children and a husband of 22 years.
I am the eldest of a family of four children, brought up in the toughest area of Glasgow in Scotland, this I believe equipped me with the tenacity and grit to take life as it comes and deal with it as best as a young girl could. My parents divorced when I was sixteen years old. It was extremely traumatic to me at the time but as my mother deserted us I became a novice pseudo parent to my two younger siblings and a support to a father who was grieving the loss of his wife.
Years later after my mother returned to us she discovered that she had a lump in her breast. She was thirty eight years old ...she had cancer. I guess that it did not take her or us too much by surprise as we are a family of fourth generation breast cancer on the maternal side.
My mother had radical surgery to remove her breast as the cancer was quite aggressive. Back then, medical advances were limited and I can only say that when she showed me the results of her surgery I was shocked, it was abhorrent. I was scared as it seemed to me that breast cancer would come and find me...as indeed it did.
My mother died on 13 January 1986, a beautiful woman who taught me valid lessons in life. She was fifty one years of age.
When I was fifty, I decided to go on holiday with my young family to the Greek Islands in October.
Lying around the pool I felt my right breast and was a little alarmed to discover that I felt a hard lump...thinking this was just hormonal I dismissed it and just enjoyed the rest of the holiday...each day feeling that lump that would not go away. I became worried but did not want to spoil the holiday by referring to it.
As soon as I got home I saw my GP who immediately said to me ‘Ms Brown.....I know cancer when I feel it’...complete insensitivity on her part but a reality wake up call for me!
Within ten days I was referred to a consultant at Kings College Hospital in South London, was admitted and had surgery to remove a 2cm cancerous, stage two grade 3 tumour.
This was followed by six months of hell...chemotherapy and three weeks of daily radiotherapy. I was a guinea pig for hair loss treatment which meant at each chemo session I had a cap infused with ice to supposedly reduce hair loss...didn’t work...lost my hair after first treatment.
This was a very very dark period in my life.
I was known to have thick, luxurious blonde hair ...I remember being with my son in our bathroom when clumps of my hair just fell out and I was distraught..he said to me that I should not worry ..I was beautiful and that it would grow back later..He was too young to understand my distress.
Eventually my husband shaved all my hair off with a number one shaving tool....I cried and cried.
Throughout all of this I held down a teaching post as Head of Special needs in a South London School. After eight months of treatment I went back to work, completely bald but disguised with a custom made wig covered by a bandana. The kids didn’t understand my new look..but they got used to it. They accepted me for whom I was.
A little voice in my head said to me ...perhaps I should find out if there is a genetic link in my family to this cancer. I was referred by my GP to Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital in London for the blood test to determine whether or not I was a carrier of the gene. Low and behold it took less than ten days to determine that indeed I was a BRCA1 carrier....the reality of this was that I had an 85% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime and a 65% chance of developing ovarian cancer....it was a no brainer and I wasn’t shocked because I guess that my family history of the disease was too strong to ignore.
This had major implications for my own daughters and son. One daughter proved free of the genetic curse and my eldest unfortunately was a carrier and has since gone onto have preventative surgery. You cannot imagine the distress and guilt that I felt and still feel for passing this on.
My consultant at Kings College Hospital reassured me that if I was to consider preventative surgery....Which meant a double mastectomy and removal of my uterus and ovaries then my chances of living another ten years would be favourable. Wow ....putting a time limit on your life is mind blowing, but what could I do. ..I took my chances. I never discussed this with my family even to this day that my life expectation had an age limit...
One thing I will say is that when I was going through the treatment the pain was horrendous...I wanted support and understanding from those around me, friends, colleagues, neighbours....not talking about my family who were my strength, my hope and my world, but acknowledgement from those who found it difficult to be near me or speak to me ...I guess they were enduring and confronting their own fears of this happening to them. I urge anyone who knows of someone going through this to be there, comfort and offer support to them..it means so so much.
At the time of my undergoing treatment. my self image and esteem was so low and practically nonexistent, I was at an all time low during my treatment, I hated looking in the mirror..I was worried about what my husband felt about me, was I the woman he married, was I attractive to him,
Would he look at other women who had real breasts? So many questions. I should not have been worried as he constantly reassured me that he loved me for who I was/am and assured me that my breasts did not totally define me as a woman. The drastic measures I underwent to save my life have paid off and I will reach out to any woman contemplating the same to seriously consider your options.
So now ten years on...I have had radical breast surgery, a double mastectomy with amazing reconstruction a hysterectomy to prevent ovarian cancer (this is intrinsically linked with BRAC1 carriers) and I am as happy as Larry!!
I can now go on holiday and show off my amazing breasts without the confines of a bra to hold them up! Wear little boob tubes without bra straps ...feel energised and alive that I have my life back without fear of my cancer rearing its ugly head again and safe in the knowledge that I have done everything in my power to stave off this beast...I AM A SURVIVOR, have self belief and love myself now. I travel the world; take each day as a blessing and I now know that I will be here for my family for many many years to come.
One feisty cancer survivor XXXXXX