I was breastfeeding, so surely it could not be cancer…?
My mother had passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 48, so you could say the concern of cancer was somewhere in the back of my mind. I knew there was a family history of the BRCA gene, but even so, I thought it was something to consider well into the future, not when I had an 8-month old baby.
After doctors had tried to drain what we all suspected was a heavily blocked milk duct, additional needle biopsies showed I had aggressive, triple negative breast cancer.
The prognosis was not clear, and the doctors were not saying much either way in terms of what my chances of survival looked like. It was a matter of starting treatment and fighting this disease as best I could.
I had been with my husband for eight years before the diagnosis and he was extremely supportive throughout. I will always remember my oncologist looking at Steve in one of the early appointments and asking how he was coping. I was well aware that many couples do not survive cancer, either because of the disease, or the strain it can put on relationships. But we were adamant we did not want to add to those statistics.
From February to July I had fortnightly doses of intense chemotherapy. This was followed by radiation, a single mastectomy and two subsequent reconstructions. It was extremely hard and there were certainly low points.
Taking care of the family, and the family taking care of me
I will always be thankful for the support I received from my local maternal child health nurse, who put me in touch with Windemere, a community support service that provides care to those in need. For me, this meant 12 hours of in-home care for my baby per week, whilst I was undergoing treatment. It might not sound like a lot, but knowing he was taken care of for those two days per week gave me the opportunity I needed to rest and recuperate between doses of chemo.
The wider support of our family was invaluable, including my husband and mother-in-law. I found it was important to be real about how I was feeling and what I needed most, which could change week-to-week. There was no room for miscommunication.
Being 30 and having lost a big part of my identity, I worried about myself and my own personal image. I also worried for my baby, who I stopped breastfeeding in a day. It was during these times I leant on many people for support, including my amazing breast care nurses, as well as friends and even groups like Pink Hope.
This year it will be 12 years since I have been cleared of cancer. Thankfully, shortly after my treatment finished, I fell pregnant with our second son, even though experts suggested waiting two years post-treatment before falling pregnant.
In the process of diagnosis and treatment, I found out I was positive for both BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes. At the seven-year mark when my breast surgeon said he no longer needed to see me; I broke down with overwhelming emotion. I could not believe we had reached this point.
Shortly after this, I decided to have my ovaries removed, knowing my increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. I had watched the pain my mother experienced with this disease and after already going through breast cancer, I was not taking any chances for my family.
Discussing cancer with my family
My boys are now 13 and 8 and I am working full time as a primary school teacher, navigating new challenges like online learning during COVID-19.
My eldest son has witnessed me go through 11 cancer-related surgeries.
This has been a tough experience for him, as well as my husband and youngest child, which has required some very delicate conversations.
Knowing that BRCA genes 1 and 2 flow through our family, I decided very early on to be honest and open with my boys. History has shown that the men in my family have been less susceptible to cancer compared to the women, but it is important for my sons to know about their risk and the options they have to be tested later in life.
For now, our family is making the most of every moment. We have purchased a caravan and take holidays whenever we can. It does not have to be expensive; it is more about the time we spend together and creating memories to last a lifetime.
I also love to exercise and have found that it has become an essential part of my day-to-day routine. I have always felt that being physically strong has helped me to be mentally strong and this is something I hope we have instilled in the boys for years to come.
Message of hope
Times are tough but do not give up hope. If something is bad one day, it does not mean that it is going to be in a week or a month or a year. Things do change, and in the meantime it is important to reach out and get the support you need.