The NHS runs a regular program to look for signs of breast cancer and two years prior to my discovering a lump in my right breast I had already had one ‘scare’ arising from that programme. I went to our GP without delay and she packed me off to the Nuffield hospital for a mammogram. The result came back quite quickly, in the following week as I recall, confirming my fears. I felt numb at first and then very frightened. I was aged 52 at the time.
Once diagnosed, I rang my husband at work and told him. He came home to be with me. We gathered our three daughters together and broke the news to them. It was a tearful occasion. Sarah, our eldest, took charge of letting our friends and family know the news and organised a ‘round robin’ newsletter which she continued throughout the treatment period. The girls were all for having me flown out to America for treatment which I know worried Lister, my husband, greatly as this. over-simplified the situation and created more problems than it solved. Several people, including our son-in-law Paul’s sister, a doctor, suggested the Royal Marsden Hospital and our GP confirmed that this institution was regarded as the nation’s centre of excellence for cancer treatment. She referred me there as a private patient.
On viewing my test results, my Royal Marsden Oncologist took a relaxed view of the timetabling for treatment and suggested that we should take a holiday ahead of the ordeal to come. I wanted none of it however. I felt that I had been invaded. My wish was to get the cancer treated at the earliest opportunity. The pre-operative tests were therefore conducted within about a fortnight. Their outcome was something of an embarrassment to the hospital as the calcification in my breast had been shielding the full extent of the cancer’s spread and the disease was more advanced than had been thought. The infection had spread to my lymph glands with quite a high count. I was admitted for the operation very quickly.
We still had one daughter at school and one of my biggest fears was of dying and missing her growing up. It is a frightening time. One fears both dying and the treatment which at that time was highly invasive. My cancer occurred at a time when there was heightened concern about the high incidence of breast cancer and the poor outcomes for the victims. In the eighteen intervening years, the treatments have become much more sophisticated and the outcomes much improved and in line with international standards
One of the decisions I had to take was whether to have my breast removed and for a reconstruction to be done at one and the same time, or to separate the two procedures, with the option of no reconstructive work at all. The full treatment involved taking a muscle from my back and reshaping it into the shape of a breast at the front. It necessitated a much longer operation. There is really no way of knowing whether you are making the right choice and no way of knowing whether you did so looking back either. I decided to have the reconstruction for lots of reasons that are highly personal.
My surgeon was a tiny man called Mr. Gui. As he prepared me for surgery he marked my body with the lines the knife would take with a marker pen. I now have a jaundiced view of marker pens. You have no other option but to trust your surgeon and despite the gruesome nature of his doodling he had the gift of making one feel confident in the outcome. All our subsequent dealings with Mr Gui have confirmed our feelings of trust.
Awakening from the operation was not a pleasant experience. I was weak, sore and heavily bandaged, having spent ten hours in intensive care. My room however was a pleasant one with lots of light. I could play music from a Sony Walkman and just drift. Gradually I gained in strength. Lister was staying in B&B accommodation close by and travelled to work from Chelsea and then returned to visit me daily until he could take me home. I was still confined to bed for much of the day but I could spend time in the garden and sitting by the pond. These small things gave me such intense pleasure that I can still savour their preciousness. My husband, daughters and friends were all supportive throughout and helped me get through the dark moments. I had to take a strong pill during this period. It made me feel quite hyper and subject to mood swings.
After about four weeks the chemo-therapy commenced. I needed to be accompanied up to the Marsden, at first by Lister but later in the programme by one or other of my friends. The expectation was that the chemo would result in comprehensive hair loss and I had bought a couple of wigs for this eventuality. However, the nurses had voluntarily fashioned ‘cold turbans’ from ice-packs which were kept in the freezer to chill them sufficiently and wearing them was said to limit hair loss. They were numbingly cold when you put them on your head whilst the poisonous chemicals drip fed into your veins but I kept my hair. We got talking to and befriended another patient who was going through the identical ordeal to myself. Jackie Taylor remains a good friend to this day and we regularly meet up in London to celebrate our continuing survival. In fact, despite the grim battles being fought with the chemo and cold headgear, there was much laughter in the treatment room – a sort of ‘Blitz spirit’ and the nurses were absolutely dedicated and marvellous with us all.
I think chemo lasted for about three months. The effects were cumulative. It became more and more difficult to find a viable piece of vein into which to inject the poisonous concoction and the sessions left me feeling nauseous and utterly exhausted. At first I recovered in good time for the next infusion but towards the end of the treatment I was becoming frailer and more drained with each trip to London. Then after a brief pause the radiotherapy started and lasted for six weeks. This was more bearable.
Once all the treatment was concluded I still felt very drained. My immune system probably took several years before it fully recovered but the worst thing was the feeling that I had stopped fighting the cancer. I didn’t want more treatment and yet I worried that there was nothing more I could do but wait and wait. At first I was checked on the six-monthly anniversary but this became an annual appraisal which was expected to occur for five years. We kept it up for twelve years, visiting Mr Gui in his small suite of rooms until he very sweetly suggested that we had spent enough and could be sure that the cancer was not coming back. Lister was certainly relieved not to have to continue. For weeks before the annual visit I would start to get tense and irritable and I was always fearful of what would be discovered on the day itself, needlessly in my case.
Family and friends were quite wonderful at the time and I was lucky in having a caring husband and the money to afford the best treatment. Today the quality of care afforded to me is more widely available and in most cases less invasive. Risk assessment and treatment targeting techniques have all been refined and the patient need not expect quite the ‘kill or cure’ experience of 20 years ago. Obviously, the recollection of those days has now faded in most people’s minds but it has left me feeling warier and perhaps more pessimistic than before. I would advise any other woman, (or indeed any man,) to be diligent and check yourself regularly. Do not dismiss any possible symptom and don’t delay that vital GP visit for any reason. The treatment was rough but the good years that have followed more than outweigh the anguish. It may sound trite but life really is precious.