Early detection saves lives, this is something Colista, a local mother-of-two who understands only too well after being diagnosed twice with breast cancer. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she talks about her experiences and why she’s passionate about all women attending breast screening appointments.
I remember when I was expecting my first child and lots of people would say, “they don’t come with an instruction manual you know!” Well, it’s exactly the same with cancer.
Having been diagnosed three times with cancer, I look back and wish there had been some kind of instruction manual to help me. Sure, there were Macmillan booklets and online support groups, but I had to learn a lot the hard way.
Before my diagnosis, I thought I knew the symptoms of cancer. We’ve all read about them, they’re on the TV every day, in magazines, books and leaflets every time you visit the GP: weight loss; nausea; appetite changes; fatigue; a lump; unexplained pain and itching. Cancer doesn’t say “hey, these are the things to look out for!”
My first diagnosis was classic – a mole changed size and colour, and it was itching, but even when I got it checked out I did not think for one minute it was cancer. I’d had moles removed before, as I have a history of melanoma in my family, but they’d always been benign. I’d just given birth, had a beautiful baby girl, was feeling great, and yet despite this happy event, it was confirmed as the dreaded C. Blame was put on hormonal changes.
Fortunately, it was caught early, but no matter how small or trivial, if you think something isn’t right then you should get it checked out; early intervention is key. We know our own bodies!
Fast forward, and its Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My next two diagnoses were for breast cancer, and as a survivor I get frustrated with all the pink – as chemo, radiotherapy, surgery and breast cancer are anything but pink!
The first breast cancer diagnosis was typical: a lump, no bigger than a small pea, but within six weeks it had grown to the size of a golf ball. I could have buried my head in the sand, but instead I went to the GP and was referred to the breast clinic to be seen within two weeks. I attended the breast clinic and had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, and a week later I was diagnosed with stage three grade three aggressive triple negative breast cancer.
I was ignorant; I only ever thought there was one type of breast cancer, but I now know there are approximately ten. I also didn’t realise there are different treatment plans, and that you don’t automatically have your breasts removed. I had neo-adjuvant chemotherapy first as my tumour was large and the medical team wanted to see if chemo reduced it, so they could save as much of my breast as possible.
This affects both your physical and mental wellbeing, as knowing the cancer is still inside you whilst having treatment raises all kinds of thoughts. What if the treatment isn’t working? What if it’s spreading? This is why you must question everything with your medical team, and seek counselling or psychological support. Your medical team will discuss you as part of a multi-disciplinary team meeting, so it is important to raise your concerns.
I’ve carried out lots of research independently, queried and questioned everything there was to know about my breast cancer, and I chose what happened - sometimes much to the annoyance of my oncologist and surgeon!
The side effects that we see on TV are mainly hair loss, and yes, I was bald, but what they don’t tell you is that you are at risk of sepsis – which I was also unfortunate to get. I had blood clots and phlebitis where chemo destroyed my veins. I had to inject myself for six months with two lots of injections into my stomach. I was bruised from those injections, as well as the weekly blood tests to see if I was well enough to receive treatment. I had mouth ulcers and my whole body dried up so I had nose bleeds, my eyes cried all the time because I had no eyelashes to stop them (who knew eyelashes were so important!), and my nails on my hands and feet fell off so I couldn’t wear most of my shoes and boots. I had rashes and lumps appear from one day to the next, and let’s not forget the constant D&V, and not being able to taste food because chemo strips all of your taste buds. I also had to restrict where I went during my ‘risk periods’, meaning I couldn’t go to restaurants or places with lots of people, and the most heart wrenching: not to cuddle my children due to the risk of infection.
Fortunately, the treatment worked and I was declared NED (no evidence of disease) at the end of 2016. I enjoyed a cancer-free year, but during that year it never really left me, as breast cancer was replaced by the fear of reoccurrence. It is so important to seek support during this time, as it can easily lead to anxiety and clinical depression.
In 2018, I attended my regular routine mammogram. I had no symptoms, and in fact felt the best I had ever felt. I was exercising again, eating healthily, had reduced my alcohol intake, and taking regular supplements as advised by my medical team. So when I was recalled from the mammogram I was told it was precautionary, and the changes were possibly benign breast changes. Sadly, it wasn’t to be and I was re-diagnosed in the opposite breast and with a totally new and different breast cancer, triple positive. This is quite rare, but I had to go through the whole process again, this time with new drugs, surgery first and surgery after.
I have a young family. My children were two and five when I was diagnosed the second time, and as a result of cancer they have had to grow up very quickly. I have never hidden anything from them. They have seen the injections, been to hospital when I was admitted, and attended chemotherapy, so that they understand and are not frightened by cancer. They are now six and nine, and are confident, independent and happy children. Some would disagree with my choice of being so open with them about my diagnosis and treatment, but I wanted them to understand that early detection saves lives. We have to understand our own bodies, we have to vocalise what we want and challenge medics when appropriate.
Breast cancer affects men and women, and my children understand this. They also check themselves - once a month is all it takes. They understand that if you don’t feel well, you need to see the doctor, and due to my history they’ll also be checked when they are both 30. I have had genes tested, and thankfully they have all been negative.
As mentioned at the beginning of my blog, there is support out there. There are lots of online support groups and local groups that you can join, as sometimes it’s better to talk face-to-face than virtually. There are organisations that can help with childcare, cleaning and general support.
So you see, breast cancer is not pink, but awareness and early detection is key. Check yourself once a month, attend your routine screenings and talk openly about it so the fear is reduced.
If you find a lump, or show any of the signs and symptoms of cancer, you should visit your GP as soon as possible.
More information and access to support groups can be found below: