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Helen's Story

Hello, my name is Helen, I’m 43 years old and currently receiving treatment for breast cancer.

Having previously been diagnosed with cervical cancer resulting in a hysterectomy at the age of 36 I thought it was grossly unfair to receive a second helping of The Big C. It was November 2017 when I discovered a small pea like lump in my left breast. I wasn’t checking my breasts as such, just showering as normal when I felt it. I wasn’t particularly worried, but something told me I should get it checked. I’m not sure why, as I’d had lumps previously, especially whilst breast feeding, and didn’t bother to get those checked out. Getting a doctors’ appointment whilst you’re working is notoriously difficult but due to heavy snow I was working from home one day and was fortunate to be able to speak with the duty doctor. Thankfully I was asked to call into the surgery for someone to examine me. During the examination the lovely female GP explained that nine out of ten breast lumps are not cancerous but that she would refer me for a mammogram anyway. I received an appointment for the following week to attend a one stop breast clinic at The Spire Hospital in Washington.

My husband, Graeme, came with me and I’m so glad he did. First, I had a mammogram, which was fine. Then they did an ultrasound. I tried to look on the screen but didn’t know what I was looking for, however I did catch the doctors’ eye and got the feeling that something was wrong. She explained that she could see something and needed to do a core biopsy. The core biopsy was a bit uncomfortable, but I thought that if it ruled out cancer then it worth a few minutes of discomfort. We then had to wait for what seemed like an eternity to be called in to see a consultant who very matter-of-factly examined me. I’ll never forget the words he used, ‘I’m 90% sure that we are dealing with a suspicious lump’. Naively I asked what he meant. That was when I realised that I might have breast cancer. My immediate thoughts were that I was going to die and our precious daughter, Nona, would grow up without a mammy. Graeme tried to reassure me saying that they were still a chance it may not be cancer and we both tried to cling on to that possibility. After all I didn’t tick any of the breast cancer boxes, no family history, reasonably fit, not overweight, eat relatively healthy, have never smoked, breast fed etc.

Waiting for the results was torturous. It was the last week of term before the school closed for Christmas and I was waiting at the gates for my daughter when my mobile rang. She introduced herself as Louise, the breast care nurse. She asked if I could come to see her first thing the following morning. Immediately I agreed but wanted to know there and then what my results were. Reluctantly she told me that they had found something that would require a little bit of treatment in the new year but that she would explain everything in the morning face to face. I fought back the tears as I didn’t want Nona to see me upset. I don’t know how I managed to hold it together, but I did. It was only after I’d put Nona to bed that I told Graeme.

Graeme and I were at the hospital at 9am the next morning. The nice breast care nurse called my name and we both went into the room where we met with the same consultant that I’d seen at The Spire. He explained very bluntly that I had a small cancerous tumour that would require surgery at the very minimum. I felt numb. Up until this point I hadn’t shed a tear, but the flood gates well and truly opened. I was speechless. How could this be. I looked after myself. I’d already had cancer. It wasn’t fair. The consultant left us with the breast care nurse who explained that I had invasive ductal carcinoma, the tumour was 18mm and grade 3 (fast growing and aggressive). She tried to comfort me and explained that more tests would be needed to determine exactly what treatment would be necessary but as the tumour was small they would operate first. I remember that she gave me a folder with information on Primary Breast Cancer and it wouldn’t fit in my handbag, so I had to carry it out of the hospital. It all seemed a bit surreal. My dad’s a joiner at the hospital and he was waiting for us outside the room. He could tell by our faces that it wasn’t good news and gave me the biggest cuddle ever. We all cried.

One of the hardest parts for me was telling my mam. I think she felt guilty that it was me and not

We tried to make Christmas as special as possible for Nona and didn’t tell anyone else ‘the news’, after all we were still waiting on the results of more tests and didn’t see the point in spoiling anyone else’s Christmas.

I read all the information that I was given and hoped that surgery and possibly radiotherapy would get rid of the cancer. I thought that I could cope with that. However, between Christmas and New Year we got the news that my tumour was HER2 positive which meant that I would need chemotherapy too. I was devastated. I’m ashamed to admit that I was possibly more upset about loosing my hair than being diagnosed with cancer. How vain.

A week later I had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy. I stayed in hospital one night but that was only because my operation was late in the day. Although I was sent home with various pain killers I don’t remember taking many. The most difficult thing was lifting my arm up.

A couple of weeks later I was told that the margins were clear, and the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. That was the best news we could have hoped for.

Knowing that I needed chemotherapy I was aware that we needed to tell Nona a bit more. I needed to prepare her for what would happen to her mammy over the next few months. I knew that there was a pupil at her school that had lost her hair due to chemotherapy for leukaemia and I think this made it easier for me to tell her. We explained in very simple terms that I had breast cancer but that although the operation had removed it I would need chemotherapy to make sure it didn’t come back. I told her that I’d lose my hair but that she could help me choose a wig. She seemed to take it in her stride although I knew that her little mind would have been ticking.

I decided to donate my hair to The Little Princess Trust and set up a Just Giving Page. I was absolutely blown away by people’s generosity and managed to raise a whopping £3,462! A couple of weeks before I started chemotherapy I had my long hair cut into a pixie style.

I had six rounds of chemotherapy, once every three weeks. I could tell you how horrible chemotherapy is, but I won’t because everyone is different. All I will say is that for every nasty side effect there’s medication available and I got first class treatment when I was admitted to A&E with neutropenia. Chemotherapy at the end of the day is a poison that’s used to kill cancer cells. Ringing that bell after my sixth round was a big milestone and a huge relief.

After 3 weeks I started my radiotherapy. I had 15 sessions and then 5 booster sessions to the tumour bed, so 20 in total. The radiotherapy made me incredibly tired and my skin was a bit sore towards the end however I found it a breeze compared to chemotherapy and I don’t mean that disrespectfully to those that have radio and not chemo; being blasted with radioactive beams is not something to be taken lightly.

Due to my cancer being HER2 positive I’m also having Herceptin injections every 3 weeks for a year.  This is a game changing drug that I’m so grateful for. The prognosis for HER2 positive cancers was pretty grim prior to Herceptin.  My cancer was also oestrogen positive, so I’ll be taking Tamoxifen for the next 10 years. AlthoughI’ve had a hysterectomy my ovaries were left so I have Zoladex injections every month to suppress them. This has meant a sudden, chemically induced menopause which I’m still trying to come to terms with.

Breast cancer has changed me forever and although I must live with the fear that it may return I can honestly say that I’m happier than I’ve ever been.