In September 2012 a few weeks after my 50th birthday I received my first routine screening invitation to have a mammogram taken.
I went happily, for years I have had smear tests without problematic results. I was confident that this too would be fine. I was fit, healthy, happy, and active; you know ‘50 is the new 30’. My main worry was whether the screening would take place just before my periods when my breasts always were tense and painful. Luckily that was not the case, so apart from a short discomfort I found the whole mammogram experience not as bad as I thought it may be.
A few weeks later I received a letter from the screening centre inviting me to go to the hospital for another mammogram as there were some things ‘not clear’ on the original one. I still was not worried as I had read in the information leaflet that sometimes things cannot be read clearly on a mammogram. So at the hospital they took another mammogram from my left breast and I was called in to speak to the radiographer to discuss the new one. I was explained there were a lot of calcifications that are basically normal in ageing breast, but in some cases could be a sign of breast cancer. In order to know whether these calcifications were innocent or something sinister, they explained I would need more tests: ultra sound, and 2 different biopsies. They asked me to come back in a few days’ time, but since we were going on holidays the next day, they asked me to wait and arranged for it to be done that day. They made an appointment for me to come back for the results. So I went on my holidays with a breast as a pin cushion. For 2 weeks I hardly thought of it. I was still not worried, most calcifications turn out not to indicate anything other than age. Besides, I thought that even if there was something wrong, it would be so early, the worse that could happen would be a ‘wait and see’ approach.
Come the day my husband and I went to the hospital for the results. In the room was the breast surgeon accompanied by a breast care nurse. Then I heard the surgeon saying the words you really do not want to hear in the same sentence: ‘invasive’ and ‘carcinoma’. From there I could not take in anything anymore, so it was good my husband was there. I just had this sinking feeling, comparable to the realisation you left your purse on the train.
Because of the type of breast cancer I needed a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, Herceptin (form of targeted treatment) and I am still on Tamoxifen for a total of 10 years (I am now am half way). Everybody who has heard the words: “I am sorry, but it is breast cancer” knows that you are thrown onto this roller-coaster track of which you hope to reach the end one day, not too battered and damaged. I also suddenly had to become a bit of an expert in breast oncology because I was asked to make several decisions within the space of a few weeks about treatment, reconstruction yes or no, and in case of yes what kind of reconstruction. I even had no idea there were different types of reconstruction! Although everybody kept telling me “oh, you will want a reconstruction”, I thought: “Do I? Can I think about this? Can I get my head around the fact that I have breast cancer first?” In my case the only option was an implant reconstruction, but I decided that for me and my lifestyle reconstruction was the best option. I wanted to be able to wear the same clothes as before the surgery, not needing to think when going to my keep fit classes etc.
It was very difficult though to get a realistic idea about how I would look after the surgery. I asked my plastic surgeon, but he did not have photos. Photos on the internet nearly all showed bilateral implant reconstructions. That was no good to me, because I knew that my reconstructed breast would be firmer than my 50 year old, happily traveling southwards, breast. Who knew that I would be so attached to my steadily drooping breasts? I realised that balance would be the most tricky
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