SALLY HOWLETT is an example of the importance of being breast aware. With a history of breast cancer in her family, she went for regular mammograms. But it was checking her breasts at home that found the cancer, which had not existed six months previously.

Ive had a cluster of cysts in my breast for years, said the 54-year-old.

I had a mammogram in December 2008. The results came back and I was given the all-clear. But I felt something in March. I just thought it was the cysts getting bigger. By June it was quite big and a mottled rash appeared on the side, which then spread downwards. I thought, this is not right.

Sally booked an appointment with her doctor the day before she was due to go on holiday. After examining her, he told her she had done the right thing and wrote to the specialist at the breast clinic for an appointment for when she returned from holiday.

I went to see Mr Scott on the Tuesday and you could tell by his face it was not good, said the mother of two. He asked me to go back the following day for a mammogram, a scan and a biopsy. I returned on the Friday and Mr Scott told me it was breast cancer. It was an aggressive grade-three invasive ductal breast cancer. It sounded awful. I was expecting it, but it was still a shock.

Things moved quickly and she started chemotherapy on 8 July after being diagnosed on 3 July.

The large tumour had to be shrunk by chemotherapy before it could be operated on.

She also had to tell Lovell & Partners, where she works in the residential management and lettings department. I came in on the Friday after my diagnosis, she said.

It was quite emotional as I had started work there only two months earlier. But they were brilliant and so supportive. They told me not to worry about anything and to concentrate on getting through the treatment.

Sally received six sessions of chemotherapy at three-weekly intervals, taking one week off after each to recover. Each dose was administered through a drip/line, which she said she did not feel, but she admitted they did make her ill at first and lethargic. She eventually lost her senses of taste and smell.

She started to lose her hair two weeks after the first treatment.

I knew it was going to come out, she said. But I was shocked when it did because there was so much all at once. I had a cry with my daughter. But after my hairdresser shaved it off, I felt so much better it was quite liberating in a way.

I had a brilliant wig supplied through the Bulstrode Oncology Unit. No one really knew the difference one of my directors was amazed that I hadnt lost my hair, until he was put right.

Her hair soon grew back, she went wigless in April and had her first hair cut in August this year.

In November 2009, she had a mastectomy. It does not bother me at all, she said. I was fitted with a prosthesis in December as I did not go for reconstruction and it feels quite normal. I even have one for swimming.

She will continue to see her surgeon and oncologist at three-monthly intervals plus will have a mammogram annually. And although she will be on drugs for the next five years to prevent the cancer returning, Sally said she was feeling well. Her senses of taste and smell are also returning.

Be breast aware, she said. If you find anything unusual, not just a lump, have it checked out.

I was worried I had left it too late as the tumour had got so big so quickly. But it was just aggressive. It happens most commonly in younger women, so that made me feel much better.

Sally said the doctors and staff at the breast clinic and Bulstrode Oncology Unit have been so helpful and supportive that she cannot praise or thank them enough.

It has been a rollercoaster of emotions since being diagnosed but it has helped being a member of the Pink Ladies. She is now on the support committee.
I would encourage any ladies who have had or have breast cancer to become members, she said.

Its a brilliant group of ladies who are friendly and supportive. It makes me smile when I see newly-diagnosed ladies exchanging emails or texts, just as I had done when I joined. I am really lucky to have so many good friends and a wonderful family.

Sally Howlett was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She has since beaten the disease and urges women to do regular checks at home.

Globe Article 13th October 2010

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