A positive attitude, good sense of humour and a chance encounter with a painting by Rembrandt helped Susie through her breast cancer treatment
I found a lump in my right breast just after I’d stopped breastfeeding my second son in 1990. I went to the doctor and found it was fine, fortunately it was just a cyst and nothing had to be done. But I remember how awful I felt being in that room waiting for the result.
I had started my business, which is organic feminine hygiene products, in 1989 and in 1993 I found out about research at Middlesex Hospital. I thought there was something we could do to help raise funds, and I went along and I met the founders of Against Breast Cancer, they were fantastic people.
As it worked out, we weren’t really big enough at that point to do anything to help. But I had quite a lot of connections with them and when I went up to visit, I remember as I was coming out of the laboratory there was this painting – Bathsheba at Her Bath – on the wall and I thought how unusual to have this Rembrandt painting on your wall.
“Why have you got that painting on the wall?” I asked, and Anthony Leathem said “because I use this for my teaching.” If you look at Rembrandt’s partner (Hendrickje Stoffels, who was used as the model for the biblical figure Bathsheba), Rembrandt always painted what he saw, and he showed me these ripples on the breast. And he said “I could tell from that this is early signs of breast cancer.”
Rembrandt always painted what he saw, and he showed me these ripples on the breast. And he said “I could tell from that this is early signs of breast cancer.”
I always remembered that painting and that conversation. I’ve brought it up in lots of different conversations, some not even related to breast cancer.
Fast forward to 2019 and I was in the garden. I was using the clippers and I couldn’t get enough force on. So I put one of the long arms of the clippers under my arms. I thought oh, that didn’t feel very good and it was a bit sore. I ignored it because I thought that was a bit of a stupid thing to do.
My husband and I then went on holiday to Ibiza. We stayed in the middle of the island on this lovely organic farm. I was swimming a lot because there was a lovely fresh water pool there. As I was putting my bikini top on, I thought oh, that looks strange. I didn’t notice that before. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older or something.
But it preyed on my mind because I was thinking about the Rembrandt painting. So in the end I phoned my doctor, saw the practice nurse and two weeks later got an appointment at the breast cancer unit. When I walked in I remembered how I’d felt when I went the first time.
I went on my own. I didn’t go with my husband. I don’t even think I told my husband I was going. I didn’t want to concern him because he would have been majorly concerned. I didn’t even tell my kids. I didn’t want anybody stressing about it.
They did a scan and then a mammogram. Then they called me back in and said “we need to do another because what we could see on the ultrasound, we couldn’t see on the mammogram.” And I thought, “Wow”. I went in and had another mammogram but I’m thinking, “What can you see on the ultrasound?”
I went in and the consultants said “we can see a couple of lumps, but they’re right at the back of your chest. So that’s why you couldn’t feel anything.”
I had a biopsy a month later and it was literally two days before I flew to Japan for a presentation. I do not recommend taking on a long haul flight after having a biopsy because it’s very painful at altitude.
My husband went with me for the biopsies. I came back and when I was called back into the hospital they said “we think it’s either a grade one or grade two.” I think it was two centimetres and I thought that’s quite large. How could I not feel something that’s two centimetres large?
I went in on Christmas Eve to remove the lump for what they said would be a quick operation. When I saw the consultant, he said it’s only an hour and a half and you’ll be a day patient, you’ll be fine.
I said “I react badly to anaesthetic. I end up in the recovery room a long time. The last time I had any surgery was as an over overnight patient.” And the doctor said “that’s because they give you the cheap stuff when you’re overnight because they know they’re going to keep you in a night. We give you the good stuff and that’s all OK.
I went in for the surgery Christmas Eve. I think it was 1:30. And sure enough, I woke up to the brass band playing on Christmas morning, and I was the only one on the ward. I did react really badly to the anaesthetic – I had sickness and I couldn’t get oxygen.
The surgeon came in afterwards, who was my original consultant and said that they got all of the tissue out and of course they took a lymph node out. I had an infection in the lymph gland. I went back in order for them to remove the liquid and it was fine, the wound started to heal really well.
I called the radiotherapy machine the ‘death ray’, which is probably inappropriate. It was just comedy for me. My whole family have always treated things with humour. My mum used to be a nurse. So we tended to treat everything with humour because that’s the most positive way of dealing with things.
Preparing for radiotherapy in March 2020, I had no idea about how it would impact me at all. In recent years, I had started to become a little bit claustrophobic. No idea why. I used to travel on the underground all the time. So I’m worrying now, an MRI scan is quite stressful for me, but it was OK. The machine was different. The staff were fantastic.
I’m not a fan of tattoos. My dad had a tattoo on his arm and for some reason I just didn’t like it. And of course the first thing you get when you go and have radiotherapy are tattoos. So I have three tattoos, one on both sides and one in the middle because that’s how they line up the ‘death ray’. They use a laser beam type thing to make sure that you’re aligned so that they’re actually targeted. It was targeted radiotherapy, which is brilliant. They’re not zapping your whole body.
Because of COVID, the nurses were so stressed they couldn’t get out to get to get shopping, by the time they got off their shifts, there was no food left on the shelves. So I got my husband to pop over to Waitrose to get a huge bag of food so that my oncology nurse had something to cook when she got home. I think the relationship that you build with your oncologist is quite important in making you feel safe and secure.
All through COVID, I zapped my garden. That was my recovery, I probably did too much because when I say zap, I really mean like heavy duty. Lots of ripping and digging and planting and it’s quite a big garden. But that was really important for my mental wellbeing.
I’ve had friends who in their early 30s had breast cancer, and they’re still with us, thank goodness. And I’ve known people who have not survived breast cancer. The other thing that stays in your memory is not all cancers are the same and not all cancers are a death sentence.
I had to carry that positive side with me and I really had total confidence and trust in the systems that were around me – the Macmillan nurses, the Breast cancer clinic at Southmead Oncology in Bristol, each of those individual nurses I saw. They did everything to make me feel as if I had control in all these processes and that I thought was really essential in knowing that you’re in good hands.
Going forward, I’m still taking oestrogen blockers. I was worried about losing more of my hair but that didn’t happen. I didn’t have night sweats. My joints are quite arthritic, but I’m still in the garden a lot and just keep going. I walked a lot for my recovery from my surgery. I live in the countryside and it’s quite hilly, but it was really important in my recovery. So I walked for almost two hours every day.
It was so important because the breast cancer was on my left side. That meant that I had to do special breathing exercises to protect my lungs and my heart from the radiotherapy. When I was walking I had a few palpitations but that’s not unusual for me. There was breathlessness and tiredness but I walked through it.
I was mindful to be as aware as possible of any changes that might have happened after the radiotherapy, but the breathlessness and the twinges cleared up, although I still get twinges in my wound.
I think the whole process was one of almost happy incidents that I’d had this fabulous first meeting with Dr Leathem, and that always stayed with me through this image, through this painting and it was just weird, that what she had, I had.
I’m recovered. I got through that. But always at the back of your mind there is this that beautiful painting that inspired me to act. You really still have to continue to be vigilant and be aware that it could come back and it could come back in a different place.
But I’m living life as if it’s not coming back. I had such a positive outcome that I have to just put my trust that if the worse happens that you know the systems exist, the science and the research is going forward.
30 years on from her introduction to the charity, Susie’s company Natracare, which provides organic feminine hygiene products, is supporting Against Breast Cancer this Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 2022 with a fundraising pack that will raise £10,000 for our research into secondary spread breast cancer. The original ‘Bathseba at Her Bath’ is kept at the Louvre in Paris.