Life after breast cancer


Itís the most common cancer in the UK, yet breakthroughs including increased awareness of the disease mean 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will be alive in five yearsí time. Nicci Martel speaks to two local women about their experiences.

‘WHEN they said it was breast cancer, I was just amazed. There was no history of it in my family and I thought I was relatively low-risk.
‘I’d never smoked, never drunk alcohol, I ate healthily, I’m quite an active person and I breastfed both my sons, so I was shocked,’ said 46-year-old Tracey Wallis, who finished her last round of chemotherapy in April.

‘I suppose I was fairly sure it was something bad. I thought that lump was there for some bad reason, but I tried not to think anything beyond that, about what it could be. I couldn’t allow myself to.’
Tracey was diagnosed with the disease in October last year, after discovering a lump under her arm. A mammogram came back negative, then a lump biopsy was inconclusive, but doctors continued to suspect something was not right. It wasn’t until they removed the lump that they were able to confirm a diagnosis.

There was a tumour in her breast that had metastasised and an MRI scan later revealed the tumour was 3cm long.  ‘It’s amazing to think it couldn’t be seen or felt – that I didn’t feel it. I checked myself regularly,’ she said.
Tracey and her husband, Gareth, have two sons, aged 15 and 12. They were on half-term holiday when she was diagnosed.

‘I got back home, I sat them down and told them the truth – they’re both intelligent boys. I said I had cancer and that I would have to have lots of tests and would have to have treatment. They were upset – they knew I was going to be ill.  Also in that conversation I did have to say that our trip to New Zealand, which we’d been planning all year, was cancelled. It might sound strange but that was really hard.’

A biopsy of the tumour showed it was quite advanced and was very active, which meant that she needed chemotherapy. Its position meant she would need a mastectomy and, because the cancer had spread into glands under her arm, she’d need the glands removed, too.

Having a mastectomy never bothered her – it was what had to be done to save her life – but she was disappointed to hear she needed chemotherapy.
A friend who had also been through the treatment told her what to expect.
‘She said it’s not nice but it is bearable and that’s exactly what it was.’
Extreme nausea and tiredness are two of the side effects of the treatment, as well as losing all body hair. Tracey decided against wearing a wig. In a way, it was an act of defiance on her part.
She thought, ‘Why should I?’.
Her boys also thought that decision was quite cool.

Her tumour did shrink after treatment, but because it was of a type that was hormone-receptive, she had to take drugs to stop oestrogen reactivating any cancerous cells that were left.

But the drug of choice was one given only to women who’d been through the menopause, which she hadn’t. So she had her ovaries removed to kick-start the process.

‘From a practical and emotional point of view, my husband was an absolute rock throughout and he still is. He had to take on all my jobs around the house and the boys and do a day job too, as well as look after me. I often thought what it must be like to go through this single – it must be very, very, hard.
‘There were times when you think that there is a possibility you are going to die, but I couldn’t allow myself too much time to think about it. I had two boys, a family and a house to run. You do cope. Occasionally people would call me brave, which I don’t really like. Bravery is when you have a choice. I didn’t have a choice, I was just tolerating it,’ she said.

‘No one’s ever going to tell you that you are cured. People never talk about cures or remission and I was never given the all-clear, as such. You’re just told that things are OK at the moment and these drugs will hopefully keep things OK.’

Tracey joined the Pink Ladies support group at the start of the year. It meets once a month and she said it provides a much-needed opportunity to speak to other women who have been through similar experiences.
‘You never have to explain your thoughts and feelings to them, they just know.’

BREAST cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and one in nine women will be diagnosed with it during her lifetime.

With statistics like these, it’s no surprise that nearly everyone knows someone whose life has been affected by the disease.

But in the UK, 80% of women diagnosed today will be alive in five years’ time – and that’s down to early diagnosis, new treatments and increased awareness of breast cancer symptoms.

Regularly checking your body and knowing what to look out for will increase chances of an early diagnosis, which in turn will help increase the success rate for treatment.

This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and its objective is to give women the information they need to monitor their bodies, to remind them of the importance of regular checks and to offer information and support to those affected.

Photo shows Tracey Wallis and her husband, Gareth, on holiday in Mallorca following her treatment. Not wearing a wig was an act of defiance on her part. ‘I thought: “why should I?”’

GEP Article by Nikki Martel 17th October 2008

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