Henrietta’s story; how a bruise left by a rucksack led to an early diagnosis and a good prognosis.
In October 2017, my husband and I went on a walking holiday in the Lake District. The large rucksack I was carrying bruised my left side. Two weeks later, the soreness still hadn’t subsided, so I decided to get it checked out.
My GP confirmed that it was just a bruise on the left-hand side, although did find something suspicious in the right breast. It was now November and my routine mammogram was due in January 2018, so my GP brought my appointment forward. Two more doctors then couldn’t find the previously detected lump, instead each finding different areas of suspicion. I was sent for the mammogram anyway which showed a small lump that none of the clinicians had managed to manually locate.
Straight after the mammogram came an ultrasound and then a biopsy. Then suddenly, at the age of 53, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer.
The swift escalation after the initial shock made for an unsettling experience, especially as I had no support with me. My husband had offered to accompany me, but I had told him to go on his work trip as planned, thinking I would be fine. In fact, I was so sure that all would be fine that I had planned to go out for lunch with a friend and to The Horse of the Year show with my family in the evening.
I had to cancel the lunch date with my friend, and I was unsure whether I felt up to going to the Horse of the Year show in the evening. The nurse advised me to go saying ‘go and just be normal’ and it was one of the best things I did. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone just yet and if I had cancelled, my children would have known something was wrong. So, I went along to the event with my mother and both of my sisters. Holding it all together that evening was difficult.
The next decision was whether to choose NHS or private treatment. We benefit from Bupa through my husband’s work and after some deliberation I decided to take the private treatment. I still wasn’t ready to tell my children, wanting them to enjoy Christmas and the New Year so I was relieved when I found out that I wouldn’t start treatment until January.
I remember asking my consultant ‘will I see my children finish school?’ He looked at me for a moment and then the words ‘Of course you will’ eased my concern.
The treatment plan was to start with three doses of FEC chemotherapy, but the first dose had a negative effect on my liver function. I had a half-dose the second time but could not receive the third dose as my ALT levels were too high, indicating that my liver had been too damaged by the treatment to continue safely.
I also had a severe allergic reaction to Ondansetron, the anti-emetic I was first prescribed, and I was admitted to hospital and put on a drip for 24 hours. I’m quite sensitive to drugs anyway as I have a few allergies, but the clinicians were really reassuring as the idea that I wasn’t going to be getting the full dose of chemotherapy did worry me. They were able to explain to me that as my body was metabolising the drug slowly it was staying in my body longer and so the effect of the drug was not significantly reduced.
I then had 3 doses of FEC-T chemotherapy. It made me feel very spaced out and my head was a bit ‘woolly’ but the worst side-effect was the aching joints. The only way I could cope with the pain was to keep moving and go to the gym. Although the first three days after chemotherapy were agony and I would sometimes find myself in a Pilates class spending most of the session laid on the floor.
Surgery went ahead in April and included the removal of all sixteen lymph nodes on my right-hand side although only one was found to be affected. I still feel a little bit weak in my right arm, but I don’t suffer from lymphoedema.
I was advised not to do any exercise for six weeks post-surgery. I expressed my concerns that this would be difficult for me both physically and mentally and we came up with an ideal compromise. I could walk as much as I wanted, and I could use the static bike at the gym too.
Exercise was indeed a coping mechanism for me. If I walked five or ten miles, then I could convince myself that I was not ill. I also made sure I did things for other people, small acts of service that allowed me to feel I was still contributing to family life and upholding our normal routine.
I then had radiotherapy in August. Bupa sent me a car for every session, and I took up this service as I was unsure how I would feel after treatment. In fact, I felt fine and I even managed to convince the driver to drop me off at the gym after some of my sessions!
I also benefited from three complimentary treatments through Bupa and I chose acupuncture, reflexology and nutritional advice. The acupuncture was focused on the areas I felt the achy pain the most and it really helped ease this. The nutritional advice was a good reminder for me that I was eating healthily as my immediate reaction was ‘what have I done wrong, was it my lifestyle?’
I had great support from my family and friends, so I didn’t feel I needed support groups. I received encouragement from the mothers in my daughter’s netball and dance groups. It was amazing how many of them were able to say ‘been there done that five years ago’ and that’s all I needed to hear. It reaffirmed that, luckily for me, there was going to be life afterwards.
The support I received from work was phenomenal too. I was able to walk out after my diagnosis and say ‘I’ll be back when my treatment has finished’ as I was given the whole year off work. Although I didn’t take it all, it eased the pressure knowing that I didn’t have to rush back. I didn’t want my staff to see me looking pale and unwell.
Having a long-time off work also helped me to re-prioritise. I have worked full time since I was eighteen, so I used it as more of a sabbatical than just a year of treatment. I kept myself busy with the gym and caught up with loads of friends that I hadn’t seen for a while. I even fitted in a few trips to the opera!
I did loads of walking on my own which gave me time to reflect on things. I did lots of gardening too. I was determined not to succumb to daytime TV, although I did watch all but one game in the football world cup!
Now I’m back at work, I start at 9am instead of 7:30am, I leave at a normal time and once I get home I stop working. I find it easier to delegate now too, whereas before my ‘can do’ attitude meant that my workload was larger than it needed to be.
I will take tamoxifen for the next 5 years and I will have a mammogram every six months as well as a six-monthly infusion of Zometa (Zolendronic acid) to reduce the risk of bone fractures and secondary breast cancer.
My perception of breast cancer has changed now that I have experienced it myself. I know that with early diagnosis the prognosis can be good. Mammograms aren’t the most comfortable things, but they don’t take long and they can detect tumours that can’t be felt by clinicians.
Let’s face it, you get your boobs squashed for a couple of minutes but it’s not that invasive when compared to other diagnostic procedures for other cancers and they really are lifesaving.
I had heard of Against Breast Cancer through my gym in Wallingford, The Body Training Studio, who actively fundraise for the charity. I wanted to do one big charity fundraiser and so my husband and I signed up for The Isle of White ultra-marathon. He ran it and I walked.
I set off at 6:30am and reached the finish line after 10 hours and 15 minutes. Being an ‘unsociable walker’ I listened to podcasts and books along the way. In fact, one of my friends kept texting me as she thought I would be bored but I had to ask her to stop at one point as I was in such a good part of my book!
I treated it as a race and was pleased to be placed 6th woman out of 2000. I also raised just under £3,000 for Against Breast Cancer which will go to research into earlier detection, better treatments and increased survival after diagnosis.