Five years ago, a letter arrived from my local health authority inviting me to go for a mammogram. It explained that the age range of women in my area invited to have a free mammogram was being expanded to the under-50s and over-70s. I thought to myself, ‘All right, I’ve got nothing to lose!’
Name: Lisa Browne
Mastectomy - surgery to remove a breast, plus reconstruction. A second operation to reconstruct her breast was needed because the first was not a total success.
Recovery: Lisa had a team of family and friends who helped her throughout her recovery. They visited her regularly, brought her meals and made sure she knew she had a team behind her. She also had counselling, aromatherapy and reflexology. She went back to work after about five months.
After that I was invited back for another scan, but I didn’t think much of it. Then I was called in to the hospital to see the breast-cancer consultant. She explained that I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive breast cancer.
As they’d found two tumours, I would need a mastectomy. She was brilliant as she took me through everything very slowly.
I had lots of procedures –biopsies and an injection of blue dye to check my lymph nodes. I didn’t have chemotherapy or radiotherapy; I was just put on hormone tablets for five years.
The treatment and going in and out of hospital was quite stressful. I’ve had enough counselling to set me up as a counsellor in my own right. I went to a Dimbleby Cancer Care Centre in London and to the Primrose Centre near Orpington in Kent. There was a lot on offer to help with stress, and people were just so kind.
I had to have another operation about a year later, as the reconstructive surgery hadn’t worked properly. As a result of this, I’d been walking with my body twisted. The second operation involved creating another new boob for me. Before the operation they took some fat out of my thighs. I did ask if they could take out all the fat from my thighs! The surgeon said that she couldn’t because it was a medical procedure, but it made us laugh.
You have to look at the positives – you can’t lie there and think ‘poor me’. You have to get on with things and go back to work, or looking after your family, or travelling – whatever you did before.
It was about eight months before I felt a bit more like myself again. A nurse I talked to at a check-up said that other people had told her that it takes a couple of years to really feel normal, to feel stronger and to be able to look forward. She was right. Breast cancer dominates your life for so long that I now see events as being ‘before cancer’ and ‘after cancer’ – it’s almost like a fissure in your life. But it doesn’t bother me now; it’s done.
Once I felt better, I started thinking about what I could do next. I read about a Breast Cancer Care course ‘Moving forward after breast cancer treatment’, run with local hospitals. There was lots about stepping out of the cancer environment and going back to the real world. It was brilliant.
I also signed up to Breast Cancer UK’s newsletter, which said, ‘We’re thinking of launching an Ambassador Programme; let us know if you’re interested.’ I went to Birmingham for a training day and now I’m an ambassador.
There are 43 of us now and we talk to people about their lives, and what kind of risks they run of developing breast cancer. I tend not to discuss my own experience; I’m there to talk about risk reduction.
DCIS: the diagnosis
According to the NHS, if not treated, up to half of women with a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ will go on to develop invasive breast cancer. As yet there is no way of predicting whether DCIS will turn into invasive cancer or stay confined to the ducts.
Dr Emma Pennery, clinical director at Breast Cancer Care, confirms: ‘A diagnosis of DCIS is currently classified as breast cancer, however it’s an early form of the disease and healthcare teams aren’t yet able to tell individual women whether it will cause harm if left untreated.
‘This is confusing for many women trying to understand what DCIS means for them. They often grapple with difficult choices, deciding whether or not to have surgery.
‘It is important that women receive the information and support they need to make informed decisions about what’s right for them. Anyone with questions can call our nurses free or visit our website.’
Need to know
'For the majority of women, breast cancer doesn’t stop when hospital treatment ends. In fact, this is often the hardest part of all,’ explains Carolyn Rogers, senior clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care.
‘Every day on our helpline we hear from women who are struggling with what can be a daunting transition. Debilitating long-term side effects, such as pain, menopausal symptoms, anxiety and low self-esteem are just a few of the physical and emotional issues that they can face.
‘It is vital that everyone who’s had a breast cancer diagnosis has access to support whenever they need it. Whether through our face-to-face services, handy information packs, or our end-of-treatment BECCA app, Breast Cancer Care is here with care, information and support.’
For more information, call Breast Cancer Care on 0808 800 6000 or go to breastcancercare.org.uk. Other useful websites include: breastcancernow.org and breastcanceruk.org.uk and cancerresearchuk.org
Cording: a little-known side effect of breast cancer surgery
Never heard of Cording (Axillary Web Syndrome)? Neither had musician Dr Chani Smith, until she developed it following a lymph node removal two and a half years ago. ‘Three weeks after the operation I noticed pain every time I lifted my arm above shoulder level. Then I noticed that a couple of small rope-like threads, or cords that hadn’t been there before.’
‘I spoke to my GP, and he said ‘Yes, it’s Cording. You need to be referred to physiotherapy.’ My physio said that I had to be really strict about stretching and not to give in to the pain. So I would stand in front of a mirror and ‘walk’ my fingers up the wall.
I had a mastectomy in May 2018, and felt the cording start again after just three days. I saw a specialist physiotherapist eight times, and kept doing the exercises. It’s a long battle, but you mustn’t give up if you want the pain to go away.