It was a common cold that had me making an appointment with my GP. While I was seeing my doctor, I quizzed her on a lump in my breast that I’d noticed early in November 2016.
Following a swift set of blood tests, scans and biopsies, my oncologist and breast surgeon confirmed I had aggressive breast cancer and in a matter of weeks, I was to start chemotherapy. This was followed by surgery and radiation.
Before chemo started, my oncologist suggested I was eligible for a clinical trial and while I decided not to proceed with the full trial, they still conducted a PET scan. Unexpectedly, the scan showed the cancer had spread to my sacrum. The term ‘oligometastatic breast cancer’ was used, meaning it had spread to one single area of my body.
In the space of a month, I went from a cold and flu check-up, to finding out I had cancer in two parts of my body.
In terms of treatment, my plan didn’t have to change dramatically. I still underwent chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy, followed by a single mastectomy. In addition to the radiation planned, I had additional rounds on my lower body near my sacrum to treat the disease that had spread.
In what would be a third blow, I developed inflammatory breast cancer whilst undergoing chemotherapy, which was treated in line with the existing conditions.
I’m a naturally curious, scientifically minded person, so I made sure to ask my doctors, breast care nurses and support team all the questions I had about treatment, side effects and survival rates.
Although these conversations changed once the word ‘metastatic’ was used, I made a point of deciding that cancer would have to fit into my life, not the other way around. I realised that the one relationship I had to protect the most, was the one with myself.
My diagnosis came at a time in my life where I was starting afresh. I had a new house and was proud of the changes and choices I had made in my life. I wanted to ensure that this person was still intact on the other side of this disease. Now being a house owner and having a new job, I feel I’m a better person than before cancer.
Everyone’s experience with cancer is different and people find comfort in varying ways. For me, in addition to the love and support of my immediate family, my colleagues kept me feeling like myself and allowed some normalcy, in an otherwise unfamiliar time.
My colleagues continued to treat me like Debbie and work became a place where I could choose whether or not to talk about cancer. On one occasion, I even shared my scans with some colleagues on a light box, as their interest gave me an avenue to share what I was learning about the disease and what my body was going through.
When it came time to decide whether I would have the single mastectomy, I had a long conversation with myself. I thought about the person I would be without a part of ‘me’ and the person I could continue to be, if I went ahead with the surgery. I made a decision there and then that I wanted to live for me, my sons and family.
I never let myself stay negative for long. If I had questions, I would seek answers and make the most of the clinical care and support teams around me. When I was unhappy with an answer to a question, I sought more detail and when I was tired from treatment, I sought food from a community network within our school.
Cancer can be overwhelming, but for me, breaking down treatment into small milestones and digesting each piece of information bit by bit helped me to get through.
At this point in time, I am cancer free and I hope to be this way forever.