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'But... you're so young!' One 36-year-old woman recounts her journey through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment
2 October 2023, 11:37 | Updated: 2 October 2023, 17:17
“But... you’re so young!”: If only I had £1 for every time someone had said that to me over the last year. I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I WOULD have some great Christmas spending money.
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The truth is – Breast Cancer can hit you at any age. Yes, we’re often told it’s more common in women of a certain age (80% of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50), but it can be found and develop at any time, in women AND men. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with 1 woman diagnosed every 10 minutes.
For me it happened last August – at the age of 36.
I had found the lump at the side of my left breast just over a month before. The lump I never wanted to find but am so grateful I did. Initially I thought it was a “fatty lump”. I’d had one of those when I was 21, so in my mind... it must be that again.
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
I don’t really know what I thought when my lovely consultant said those words: “I’m sorry... It’s breast cancer.”
I didn’t feel like my world came crashing down... and I didn’t immediately think I was going to die (that came later). But I WAS frightened.
It’s been 365 days of hell. I could sugar-coat things but I don’t think that’s fair, either on myself or the many women going through/having gone through this. And I’m not trying to be negative here. I’m a very positive person. But I am a realist.
I know my diagnosis could have been worse and I am eternally grateful that I had the treatment options available to me that I did. But I think it’s ok to know something could have been worse and yet still feel like what HAS happened – has been horrible. Those two facts can co-exist.
Over the last 12 months, there’s been two surgeries, cording, numerous appointments, scans and blood tests, 34 self-administered injections, a&e, a PICC line, a drain, drips, suspected blood clots, radioactive injections, hundreds of pills, four months of chemotherapy, hours and hours of cold capping, pins and needles, numb hands, feet and arms, excruciatingly painful bones and joints, hair falling out everywhere, who knows how many new bras, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, physio and fifteen rounds of radiotherapy.
Some things haven’t changed. Others have forever. It’s all been one hell of a lesson though.
And one of the very first lessons I learnt, is that everyone’s experience of breast cancer is different. Not only are there so many different types of breast cancer, but our reactions to our treatments are unique. So what I say here now, may be true for some and completely untrue for others - but I hope talking openly about my journey will start conversations and give others the confidence to speak about their journey too.
The worst part during treatment for me was chemotherapy. I was told I needed two types - both would have serious side effects and both would cause total hair loss.
I think we all know chemotherapy isn’t good but actually going through it, was the worst time in my life. I have never felt so unwell, so vulnerable and so unlike me. It’s a total mind game taking yourself into a building and willingly giving over your arm to be injected with a liquid that is going to stop you from dying – but in the meantime, makes you feel like the living dead. My hospital trust was still following Covid rules, so I had to go into my chemotherapy sessions alone.
I will never forget that first one. I was physically shaking in the waiting room. Trying to breathe. The sessions DID get better in the sense that I knew what was coming after that first one and my chemo nurses were amazing. Kind, considerate, calming and reassuring.
They held my hand that first day and continued to do so metaphorically as the months went by. I actually cried after my final chemo session saying goodbye to them. They help us through one of the scariest times of our lives and I will never forget them.
Cancer is a bulldozer that simply smashes through life. Having it makes you question your mortality, which was something that at the age of 36, I’d thankfully never had to do before. It was after my first operation when this really hit. I was told my cancer had spread into my lymph nodes and that therefore, it could be anywhere in my body.
They didn’t know if this was the case yet and I would need a PET CT scan. That week was hell. If it had spread further, it would then be classed as secondary (metastatic) breast cancer. I don’t think many people understand what secondary breast cancer is and what it means.
Many people around me didn’t so for those reading this and still wondering, it’s a cancer that started in the breast and has spread to another part of the body. It can be treated, but not cured. Treatment aims to control it, relieve symptoms and maintain quality of life.
But you’ll stay a cancer patient.
During this journey I have met many women with secondary breast cancer and I am in awe of them. Each one has an unparalleled zest for life and their spirit to keep going despite the fight ahead is incredible.
Living while knowing there is a deadly disease inside you, possibly spreading and attaching itself elsewhere to grow and develop, is excruciating. Their stories will stay with me forever and mean day to day problems I now come across, seem miniscule in comparison.
My PET CT scan results eventually came back showing no signs of the cancer being in other areas of the body but I would need a second operation to remove all lymph nodes. I’m acutely aware that around 11,500 women and 85 men die from breast cancer in the UK every year and not everyone gets the positive news I did following my PET CT scan. This breaks my heart.
And so now, a year and a bit on from diagnosis and a few months since the end of active treatment (I will still have to have hormonal treatments for the next ten years of my life) I am just realising that the ‘after cancer treatment’ part, can often be as hard as the treatment itself.
The hospital visits reduce and (I’m told) your strength returns slowly. But breast cancer doesn’t only impact you physically. The toll it takes on your mental health is immense and often overlooked... even by those of us who’ve been through it ourselves.
I am so grateful to be here. To have got this far. But in some ways you’ve been spinning around in a washing machine, going from appointment to appointment, getting this treatment and that treatment, surgery, chemo, radio... all for months on end. So when you’re spat out on the other side of it all, you’re left thinking – “Now what?”
Hair, fertility, confidence, time... all these things the cancer thief steals. Ripping them away without question, without negotiation and without warning.
You’re not who you were. But you’re also not someone new. During chemo all I wanted was for ‘Old Charlotte’ to come back and save the day but that version of me doesn’t exist anymore.
When you’ve seen the darkness of cancer, you can’t just unsee it. There’s no switch to flick and turn the ‘Normal’ back on. Your outlook on life has changed so much and sometimes it can feel like you just can’t meet expectations – both of others and those we have of ourselves. (They can be the worst.)
This is where the wonderful Breast Cancer community comes in. We’re all in a club that we didn’t want to be in but I’m meeting the most wonderful, brave, incredible women every day.
You can find your tribe in many different places but I’d like to give a shout out to the charity Future Dreams House who’ve supported me during my diagnosis, treatment and even now, for this next stage.
It’s the only dedicated breast cancer support centre in the UK and their online and in person services have helped me through my cancer storm numerous times.
So if anyone reading this feels as lost as I sometimes did during the last year – please take that step and ask for help. It’s there and waiting to give you a hug.
The days at the moment are incomparable to before cancer. I’m exhausted with intense fatigue caused by cancer treatment, which you cannot just sleep off. I am also now in a chemical menopause which comes with a whole host of side effects and additional things to deal with.
I’ve got endometriosis too so I was prepared for some of these but it hits differently when you’ve got cancer to contend with too. And then there’s “chemo brain” (Yes that’s a thing!) which means I can now struggle to grasp words, get my thoughts in order, control anxiety and process the simplest things. I’m not complaining. But it’s a lot to come to terms with all at once.
I cold capped during chemo which means luckily I managed to keep around 40% of my hair. If you saw me in the street today, you wouldn’t know I’d recently undergone months of cancer treatment.
But as I struggle on the inside to regain my balance and work out what the hell is going on, the fact that on the outside I look much like I did before cancer, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s tiring reminding people that I might look fine on the outside but inside I’m a shattered vase, frantically trying to find the pieces to put myself back together.
But although Cancer takes so much, it does give us something too. I’ve found I have a new perspective on certain things. I am now fiercely protective over my peace and my time. I realise just how precious these are and how they can be snapped away in the blink of an eye. I find myself judging more easily now, what I spend my time on. What deserves it and what I have no space for. A sort of built-in sieve and I don’t feel guilty to say “no”.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable enough to say I beat cancer. My consultant once said to me “We treat Breast Cancer with the utmost respect”. I didn’t understand him then but I do now. I haven’t beaten anything, but I DO hope we have called some sort of truce. I fought as hard as I could and I’m cautiously stepping away from the war for now, with my head held high and scars to last a lifetime.
New lessons learnt... still being learnt in fact.
On we go.
Oh, and PS. Check your boobs!!!!
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