I’d always had painfully lumpy breasts but had been told that it was nothing to worry about. Every few years I’d see my GP and a couple of times I was referred for mammograms. In August 2009, I had a core biopsy on one breast. 10 days later I was told I had cancer and would have to have a mastectomy. I had to decide whether to have the other breast removed as well, and whether I wanted reconstruction at the same time. I chose to have my other breast removed to prevent any possibility of developing cancer there in future. Also, if I was going to have reconstruction, I wanted to have two breasts that were similar in shape and size.
In September I had biopsies to see whether the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. It had. It was decided that some lymph nodes would be removed. I had a lot of pain after the biopsies, and a seroma (a build-up of fluid) that needed draining. The incisions were bigger than I’d expected and I couldn’t lie on my side in bed. I was tired and started to get very anxious about the mastectomy and reconstruction. I was very worried about my work. I’m self-employed and if I don’t work I don’t have an income and don’t get sick pay.
I desperately didn’t want to lose my breasts, and what made it worse was the thought of losing my nipples as well. I took photos of my breasts because I was so sad that I would be losing them.
A few days before my operation we noticed the Big C Centre as we were leaving the hospital. I told them I was just about to have a mastectomy. Like all the staff and volunteers at Big C, they were calm and kind – sympathetic without being gushy. They said there was a space in the relaxation class the day before my operation, so I went along to that and it helped me relax a bit. Refreshments and company are always available but sometimes I’ve just quietly made myself comfy in an armchair for a while, rather than being miserable at home.
Since my operation, I’ve often been to the Big C Centre and it’s helped me enormously. Sometimes I’ve just sat and read a book or leaflet from the library, sometimes I’ve been a bit tearful; I’ve chatted with other people, sharing experiences and feeling less isolated. One of the things that made me feel so welcome right from the start, and really impressed my partner and my family, was the way the Big C staff always call me by my name. I walk in the door and someone says ‘Hello Fran!’ As I wasn’t working, it was wonderful to be able to have a massage without having to pay. And both the complementary therapists were so kind. They didn’t bat an eyelid if I was bandaged up or unable to lie on my front – they’d seen it all before – and I always felt my massage was tailored to my needs.
I was in hospital for eight days after my operation. I couldn’t sleep because it was noisy and I was sore and uncomfortable; I didn’t like the food because I wanted fresh fruit and vegetables. After a few days I could walk around but I couldn’t go home because I had drains attached to remove fluid from the sites of the incisions. I later took advantage of the free counselling at the Centre and found it very useful to talk to someone.
After the operation, the pathology report was worse than anyone had expected. It turned out that I’d had cancer for more than 10 years. So in December I started an 18-week course of chemotherapy. This felt like a real endurance test and during each of the six three-week cycles there were times when I felt unable to continue. The chemo brought on an early menopause, so I had hot flushes most days and nights. My hair fell out after three weeks and my head was pretty chilly during the winter! I wore a hat most of the time. I got a free wig at the Centre although I didn’t wear it very often because I was more comfortable with just a soft hat. When spring brought warmer weather, I stopped covering my head and when the chemo finished, my hair started growing back. Unexpectedly it is almost all white, and slightly wavy – it was dark and straight before the chemo. White hair at 50 wasn’t what I’d ever imagined but it’s different!
Two months after the chemo finished, I started hormone therapy. This is a pill every day for five years. I also had some relatively minor surgery as a day patient – nipple reconstruction. I’d been anxious about what they would look like but I’m glad I did it. I can’t say they’re perfect but they do make my breasts look ‘finished’. A friend described it as my final bit of refurbishment! After about three months the scars will have healed and I can have the skin tattooed to achieve a darker colour.
Me having cancer affected my partner and my whole family - which is something BIg C understands very well. But I don't have cancer any more and I have enough energy to carry on gardening - so that's good!
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