A Guest Blog Post from Sarah Brooklyn
I love Christmas and I love the preparations for it. The school play, choosing the presents, the annual argument about whether the Christmas tree is too big, even wrapping the presents I love it all. But last Christmas something odd happened a couple of weeks before the big day – I found a breast lump. Well to be accurate my husband found it, I found out later that’s its quite common for partners to be the one who feels the lump.
So panic stations! in a short time I found myself at a breast clinic for tests. At 47 I had never had a mammogram before, but despite what I’d heard it wasn’t uncomfortable at all, and the radiographer was lovely. Then into see the surgeon who first of all reviewed the mammogram and declares it “normal”, then a thorough examination and he sees the lump and feels it. Ultrasound reveals it to be a cyst – phew! In fact, I have quite a few cysts in that breast and he proceeds to drain them all with a needle and syringe (a bit uncomfortable but not too awful). Then, as he is a thorough chap, he examines the other breast carefully, he spots something small which isn’t a cyst and takes a biopsy “probably benign” he says, but we all know he can’t be sure until the lab has examined it.
Still we felt optimistic, it’s almost as if we didn’t really believe it could be cancer, was that arrogance or naivety? On 29th December the phone call came with the bad news that it was indeed cancer, our 7 year old was in the bath and happily oblivious, Husband and I just held each other.
And so it began. Sleepless nights, difficult phone calls to my two grown up sons who have left home. I began to realise it was almost impossible to say the word cancer to anyone without crying. The anxiety of waiting for an MRI scan and what it might reveal. Putting on a brave face and trying to pretend to our little boy that everything was perfectly normal (we had decided not to tell him anything until there was a firm plan). The next few weeks were a blur of appointments and before I knew it I was in a hospital bed preparing to go to the operating theatre for a mastectomy.
I remember the first time I saw how I looked afterwards, it was a few hours after the operation and my husband was helping me out of the hospital gown and into my PJs, we both looked at the dressing where my right breast used to be, and we both agreed it didn’t look too bad at all!
I was home two days later and my husband was amazing, keeping it all running smoothly for our little one, taking him to school, cooking, cleaning and giving me all the physical and emotional support I needed. I couldn’t do much for myself at first, I was shocked at how weak I felt and my right arm was tight, stiff, and painful. The thing about a mastectomy is that the scar runs to underneath your arm pit, also they had to test my lymph nodes during the operation and removed one of the nodes, it all takes its toll on the muscles and nerves in that area. I was frustrated and anxious to be back to normal, looking back I was very impatient and put far too much pressure on myself.
Luckily my lymph nodes tested clear and so the cancer had been totally removed. I benefitted from an extra test called Oncotype Dx which is a type of gene analysis done on a sample of the tumour, the NHS funds the test but its carried out in America. The result of that was that Chemotherapy was not required – phew! Just a hormone treatment called Tamoxifen for the next 5-10 years.
The psychological recovery can be as tough or tougher than the physical recovery, it’s still a work in progress for me. I found the support of family and friends to be invaluable. Invites to coffee and lunch got me out of the house and distracted me from the endless thinking about cancer. Even just texts from people to let me know they were thinking about me were a real boost. Another great source of support was Maggie’s Centre, this is a lovely place close to Cheltenham General Hospital that provides practical, emotional, and social support to those with cancer, and their family and friends. They run all sorts of interesting courses too – I’m signing up for Nordic walking! It’s also worth mentioning the Macmillan helpline https://www.macmillan.org.uk/ they are there to listen and are a great source of information.
The facts show that breast cancer will happen to one in eight women. We might not be able to change that fact, but we can look out for the symptoms and there’s no doubt that the earlier the diagnosis the better the outcome. So self-examination is important, I know it’s another thing to schedule into our busy lives, and us mums aren’t always great at making time for ourselves, but this is something that has to be a priority. I found this website to give a really good explanation of how to do a self breast examination http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-self-exam.
Although I would never have chosen to have gone through this experience there is a part of me that considers myself lucky in a strange way. I’m lucky that my cancer was not more advanced, I’m lucky to have a strong support network around me, and I’m lucky to benefit from the NHS and its expert cancer care. Huge thanks to all those at Cheltenham General Hospital, Thirlstaine Breast Centre, and Cobalt Imaging Unit – we are lucky indeed to have these facilities and the hard working staff in them.
Sarah is a married mum of three boys, two in their twenties and a seven year old (born when she was 41), loving her latest stab at motherhood! Living in Cheltenham and loving it here, especially all the activities on offer in our town.Sarah enjoys yoga and Pilates and is interested in how reducing stress can help keep us healthy.