Since starting this blog 2 years ago I have made many new friends and had the pleasure of getting to know some of my readers really well through their comments.
One of them is Lorraine. She has been an active participant of this site and even wrote a personal article on how to beat depression.
It therefore came as a shock when she told me in May that she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I have since been amazed how well she coped with the diagnosis and the subsequent treatment and she agreed to keep a diary of the whole process. Even photographing her outfits during treatment, which helped her to feel good about herself and stay positive.
Wearing the right clothing became increasingly more important.
This is her powerful story.
Today is part one, with the second part following tomorrow. I’m sure it will inspire you and hopefully remind you to do your regular personal checks and mammograms.
Please note that outfits are shown in the order that she wore them, but not necessarily on the exact same date.
Monday May 13
I decide to wear a sports bra as I have been feeling uncomfortable. As I reach in the drawer for one I catch sight of myself in the mirror and see a dent in my left breast.
When I reach up I can feel a lump next to it. I freak out. Within an hour and a half I am sitting in front of my doctor.
She asks me when my last mammogram was – May 14 last year. She is non-committal but says she wants to refer me to a specialist. By then I have already Googled breast cancer symptoms and know that dents are nearly always a sign of cancer.
Monday May 20
After a week, during which I am planning my funeral and wishing I didn’t have so much ‘stuff’ to leave behind, my appointment is finally here.
The consultant tells me my breasts are quite ‘cysty’ and does an ‘unofficial’ ultrasound, as there is no operator available. She tells me the lump is under 2cm – considered ‘small’.
She then does a biopsy, which is like having a nail gun fired at your chest. Despite anaesthetic, it hurts. I stand up and nearly pass out.
Back in the consultant’s office I tell her that I am shallow and vain and don’t want to lose my hair. Despite telling me I am getting ahead of myself she describes the operation she will do.
I will probably lose my nipple as the lump is so close to it. She wants me to go for an ultrasound and mammogram at another hospital – and will see me again at the end of the week with all the results.
Tuesday May 21
I receive a letter reiterating what was said yesterday – it’s either a ‘cystic lesion’ or ‘cancer’. Somehow seeing it in black and white brings it home to me.
Wednesday May 22
My husband and I have tickets for Chelsea Flower Show but are driving in the opposite direction to London.
At the second hospital a nurse does a mammogram and I am shown into another room for the ultrasound. The radiographer confirms the size of the lump – 1.67cm. “Is it cancer?” I ask, knowing the answer. “Yes,” she says, “you did well to find it.”
She adds that the lymph nodes in my armpit look clear. By then I have Googled enough to know this is very good news. At Chelsea Flower Show I stop to have my photo taken with a giant gnome for my friend in America. I walk round in a daze. At the Cancer Research show garden I feel like screaming.
Friday May 23
My consultant tells me the biopsy shows the lump is invasive cancer, but small and early. It is also very oestrogen receptive which means that tablets to reduce or stop the oestrogen levels will be very effective. I will have to have surgery, followed by chemotherapy (if required) followed by radiotherapy and the tablets.
She describes the different options for surgery and runs her hands over her own breasts as she speaks. It seems I am lucky.
I have ‘sufficient tissue’ for her to remove a ‘golf ball’ sized piece of flesh – the tumour and a margin – with little difference to my shape. I laugh. She now talks about trying to keep the nipple but I can tell she is sceptical. She describes the surgical procedure she would like to do – a mix of lumpectomy and plastic surgery known as oncoplasty – where flesh will be swung round from below the breast to fill in the hole. She tries to find a picture on her phone (!) but decides that they are not suitable to show me. She does, however, find a post-surgery picture on the internet of the procedure and I agree that the result – a long curving scar and circle of smooth skin forming a nipple – looks quite good. The choice of operation is my decision……
I will be able to have a fake nipple, a tattoo of a nipple or a skin flap at a later date.
I half-jokingly ask her if she can do a nip and tuck and a lift at the same time and she says she can do whatever I want but it will all head south again eventually! I can have the other breast reduced to match if I want. She gives me a date for the surgery. I have a lot to think about.
Saturday 1/Sunday 2 June
I spend the weekend in a frenzy of activity, cleaning and cooking in case I am unable to do anything after the op.
I have stopped taking my HRT tablets. I spend hours Googling medical papers about the development of the operation the surgeon is proposing. I consider if I want to keep the nipple and risk further surgery. I decide not to have surgery to the other breast. I don’t really know what to do. I have a meltdown.
Monday June 3
Back at the hospital I have pre-op tests.
Tuesday June 4
At a third hospital I have Sentinel Node Mapping. The tumour is injected with a substance and I have to lie very still as the operators watch a screen to track the route it takes.
There is much scratching of heads as it goes in an unexpected direction but eventually they decided it is OK. In the actual operation a dye is injected and the two marry up to highlight the first lymph node the tumour drains to (the sentinel node). This is in my armpit and will be surgically removed and examined during the operation.
Wednesday June 5
The day of the operation. I don’t sleep well and feel I haven’t had enough time to think this through. I have to keep visiting the loo. It’s an early start as I am scheduled in at 8.30am.
At 6am the phone rings and I am told there has been a “systems failure” and I should not go in but wait for a further call. The call comes at 7.30am. “How quickly can you get in?” When we arrive the police are there and I later find out from my anaesthetist that thieves have stolen the nitrous oxide (laughing gas) cylinder. It seems it’s the drug of choice for pop up raves. He reassures me he doesn’t use it in his ‘mix’.
I am processed by a stream of health professionals. The consultant arrives and we have a quick conversation about the surgical options. We decide that the oncoplasty offers an aesthetic result and losing the nipple gives her the best chance of removing the cancer. She makes deft marks on my breast with a felt tip pen.
Then, for a few minutes I am on my own and can’t resist peeking at my notes. I read the tumour biopsy results. It states ‘Grade 3’ followed by a question mark. There are only four grades and four is the worst.
I walk round to the theatre and joke with the surgical team that I am there for a facelift. The next thing I know I am being offered morphine and then I hear the consultant’s voice telling me they found cancer in the sentinel node. She didn’t do a ‘clearance’ (where they remove all the nodes) but just removed the adjacent node. She doesn’t tell me more as I am too woozy from the op.
Back in my room I drift in and out of sleep but when I come to the implications that the cancer has spread sink in and I am devastated. I am convinced the consultant is coming back but she doesn’t and I am discharged from the hospital. As I get dressed I put on a sports bra and am shocked – my breast looks square.
Read further: part 2, how to cope with and treat breast cancer.