Once home I had to think about who to tell, how and what to tell as I had breast cancer but no idea about what kind or what was going to happen next. All I knew is that I was on the NHS conveyor belt and the next stop would be the histology report in about ten days.
Telling people is an interesting one to ponder. I had mentioned to some girlfriends that I had been recalled and like me, they thought it was nothing to worry about. I decided that I would tell my parents in person, phone or skype the kids as they weren’t in Plymouth and send texts to friends. A particular girlfriend had had cancer several years before and phoned immediately so we could have a good cry together.
My stance was that the more people who knew about this the more could help both Nick and me, I didn’t know what sort of help we’d need but any would be welcome. I emailed my head teacher, and she phoned me back within minutes, it was the last day of our school summer holidays and she was spending quality time with her children, yet she was so supportive and kind. You find out quickly who is rooting for you! Kindness becomes a recurring theme.
Tip: There is no right or wrong way to tell or not tell people – you have to do what is right for you. Tell your workplace as soon as you can as you will need time for appointments.
The shock of the “C” word hits and suddenly a rational, fairly sensible person becomes a gibbering heap. On hearing those words “cancer” and “mastectomy” my mind went into overdrive. “No, no, no, some sort of mistake surely” .. at that point I told the room I would need to swear and did (F*ckitty F*ck became a favourite) and tears appeared and ran down my face. This was not the outcome I had thought I would have. Silly things popped into my head.. surely I was too tall for breast cancer – I’m 5ft 9ins, no one in my family had it, I had breastfed three babies so it must be a mistake, how would I tell our grown up children and my parents. At this point one of the lovely breast care nurses came in, I sat up got dressed and started firing questions at her: could it be one out (mastectomy) one in (implant), what next, when, what sort of time line… didn’t they know that I was back at school the next day and this was all really, really, REALLY inconvenient – I had meetings to go to, new classes to teach, my team of coaches to manage and lead, new A Level and GCSE modules to plan. Breast Cancer doesn’t care about any of that and within the space of an hour the Impatient Patient had been born. A cup of coffee, lots of tissues and a handout later and Nick and I walked back to the car. The sun was still shining, Derriford was still busy, the buses were running, people were going about their business but I felt physically sick and scared.
Tip: If you are called back to have a follow up mammogram make sure you wear a top which is easy to get on and off. Don’t be embarrassed as the medical professionals have seen everything before. Don’t take their matter of fact attitude as unkindness – this is their role, they are the experts and they go above and beyond to help. It is okay to cry, they have lots of tissues.
On our return from the paddle boarding trip there was a letter for me from the Primrose Clinic which invited me to come to the clinic on 29th August for a follow up mammogram. I wasn’t worried, if anything I was blasé… 57 women had their breasts imaged on the day I went and I genuinely thought it would be a smudge or a problem with the imaging. The 29th August arrived and Nick and I made our way to Derriford Hospital and found the Primrose CIinic on level 7, very quickly I was invited to have another mammogram. This time there were 2 images of my left breast pinned to the wall… the most recent one had a red circle on it. Being nosey, instead of walking to the screening machine I looked at the images and asked the young radiographer if it was a) me and b) what was that in my left boob. She said yes it was me and they weren’t sure so more images were required to find out. Suddenly my confidence started to evaporate.
Tip: Leave plenty of time to get to Derriford Hospital as the road works are a nightmare and it takes time to find a parking space. Take a husband, partner, friend with you.
I returned to the waiting area to tell my husband that there was an image with a red circle highlighting a potential problem and within minutes, or so it seemed, I was being guided into the ultrasound room. Black humour is my default position when facing something difficult and as I walked into the ultrasound room I was chuckling and saying “I hope it isn’t twins, as I’m a bit old for that malarkey”. It was in fact triplets but not babies. The consultant radiologist was charming and chatted all the while as I lay on the bed with one arm behind my head to give good access to my armpit as well as the breast. We talked about schools, A levels, why medicine, why armpit as well as the breast. We talked about schools, A levels, why medicine, why radiography…anything except breasts. Nick sat at the end of the bed and could see everything she could and he saw three dark masses which piqued the consultant’s interest. She told me that a “punch biopsy” would be required to see what the masses were. I asked if they were cysts and full of Sauvignon Blanc (a desperate attempt at my humour) to which she said no… my confidence was on it’s way out of the building having evaporated, cooled, condensed, formed a cloud and blown away. A “sharp scratch” numbed up the two sites on my left breast and a long needle was inserted and there then followed a noise like a staple gun.. no pain, just a bit of pressure to remove some suspect cells in a punch biopsy. Dressings were applied and it was then I asked “given this is your daily job, what is your opinion about what this is?” “A cancer” was the response “can it be zapped “ I asked, “no it will require a mastectomy”.
“It is a cancer and will require a mastectomy” were words I never anticipated hearing and, despite being in the Primrose Breast Care clinic at Derriford Hospital was not the outcome I had imagined. These words started my expedition into the world of becoming a breast cancer patient.
I am a wife, mum, geography teacher and part of the leadership team at an inner city comprehensive in the “Ocean City” of Plymouth in Devon. At the end of the summer holidays, after a glorious ten days in Sardinia, on a beautiful, hot morning my husband, Nick, and I went to Mount Batten water sports centre to have a paddle boarding lesson. Once we mastered how to get the wet suits on we joined a mixed bunch of other novices, carried the paddleboards down to River Plym and had two hours of learning a new skill, falling in the water and having fun with a bunch of strangers. Little did we know that on our return home there would be a letter which would have a life changing impact.
Earlier in August 2017 I had been for a routine mammogram. My GP surgery had signed up to an early screening programme so I had had a mammogram at the ages of 47, 50 and almost aged 53. The morning of the mammogram, which was carried out in the Guildhall in Plymouth City Centre, was sunny, it was the school summer holidays and I had plenty of time. The radiographers were busy and the young woman who pushed and squeezed my breasts into the machine told me there were 57 women who would have a similar experience that day. It was routine, matter of fact, brusque even… top off, breasts in, deep breath, arm up, arm around, other side. I met a friend for coffee afterwards, I wasn’t worried, there were no lumps, bumps, lemon skin or puckering on my breasts in fact I fancied they were in pretty good nick.
Tip: Always attend your mammogram appointment – never put it off always go.
This blog has taken almost a year to write and is a collection of my reflections after an unwelcome and unexpected diagnosis. In August 2017 I was informed that I had breast cancer and I so I became the Impatient Patient.
“Impatient” as I was far too busy living and enjoying life – being a wife to Nick, mum to three grown up children, daughter, friend, coach and an Assistant Vice Principal who taught Geography at an inner city school in Plymouth, Devon.
“Patient” as once diagnosed one becomes part of the hospital system. Breast cancer was not on my agenda as I was healthy, ate well, drank in moderation and exercised – I’d breastfed my babies. Surely this was some sort of mistake and it was one I certainly did not have time for – unfortunately not and so I became the Impatient Patient (and I haven’t managed to shake her off yet). So this is my story from diagnosis, through treatment to the new me.