First up, an apology to anyone who’s not been through the breast cancer “journey” ( I hate that word but consistently fail to come up with an alternative) and struggles with any of the technical terms. I don’t mean to be obscure but I’ve lived with this for so long—first as a patient, then as an advocate and charity trustee and now again as a patient—that I seem to have developed my own breast cancer shorthand. If you’re interested or confused then contact me and I can explain; you could risk Google, or alternatively wait until I’ve got a bit better at embedding hyperlinks in a blog.
It’s Epiphany again as I type this, thirteen years on.
This particular story starts on January 6th 1999 when I go to see my GP with a pea-sized lump I’ve found in my right breast. It didn’t particularly concern me, as both my brother and myself have myriad lipomas all over our bodies. But I do remember thinking it inconvenient and that I ought to get it checked out. Referred to my local teaching hospital I went through the classic triple assessment, mammogram, ultrasound, FNA (fine needle aspiration) and core biopsy, and then sat down to put in a funding application to the National Lottery. Obviously not concerned. Fat and forty (ish), with a familial history of heart disease, cancer was the last thing on my mind.
So I went back alone to the hospital to pick up my results and was more than a little surprised (understatement?) to discover that I had breast cancer, that they wanted to operate almost immediately and that, yes, I had to cancel our planned holiday to South Africa for my husband’s 40th birthday celebrations.
So it started with shock, continued with fear and horror and remains in my mind as one long blur of hospitals and treatments.
The technical bits include:-
Wide local excision, which translates as the removal of a large lump of my right breast and most of my right armpit (clearing the lymph nodes to check for disease progression). Tumour was ER+ (oestrogen positive) but HER2 testing wasn’t standard back then so we don’t know its status on that front. 4 out of 12 lymph nodes were found positive for cancer so chemotherapy was next on the agenda.
We’d been trying to start a family (I know – mid-to-late thirties was leaving it a bit late) and a kindly consultant managed to get me onto a trial which included removing some of my eggs, fertilising them by ICSI (a targetted form of IVF) and then freezing them. An added exciting sidetrip on the cancer journey. Embryos duly frozen, I embarked on high-dose cycles of epirubicin until not only my veins packed up but I had to have my Hickman line removed due to a clot. The remainder of the planned chemotherapy therefore didn’t transpire and we swapped onto endocrine (hormonal) therapies combined with five weeks of daily radiotherapy to the remainder of my right breast.
For two years I was put into a chemically induced menopause with a monthly depot injection called Zoladex. Daily Tamoxifen mopped up any other circulating oestrogen. As we wanted to try using our frozen embryos (before 40 approached) I stopped treatment but sadly didn’t fall pregnant.