Five Things You Need To Know About Breast Cancer (And Why #breastcancerawareness Is Not A Facebook Game)
Last week, Dee Campling and I were sharing a twin room in a Hotel in Macclesfield. We were running our final Styling Your Home workshop of the year and had picked, as a treat, what was described on Booking.com as a luxury converted ex monastery. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a stately facade behind which was what could only be described as Travelodge circa 1995. Upon arrival, my eyes started running profusely which Dee concluded was due to me being allergic to the shocking interior decor.
Whilst putting on our (significant amounts of) make up the next morning, we switched on the four channel 20 year old Alba TV to find Victoria Derbyshire being interviewed about her breast cancer experience on Good Morning Britain. One of the presenters opening questions to Victoria was 'how did you feel when you were diagnosed, did you ever think it would happen to you?'.
This question, combined with one of my poor unsuspecting followers messaging me to suggest I be brave and cut my hair off after seeing my vlogging story whinging about how my hair hurt after wearing it in a bun (hold back the BAFTA nomination), immediately sent me into a spiral of irritation.
My irritated state tends to be a regular occurance during October, AKA Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It usually starts with a random Facebook friend sending me a direct message asking me to post a spurious status stating where I like to hang my handbag when I walk in the front door. The point of these statuses is apparently to raise awareness of breast cancer. If anyone can tell me how a status implying that you have sex hanging off the bannister does anything of the sort then please feel free to message me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfortunately, the only awareness it raises amongst my Facebook friends is their knowledge that I am very good at swearing as I immediately take to my feed to rant.
Five years ago on 9 May 2012 when I was 41, I noticed that my left boob was harder than the right. During and after my three pregnancies, I had morphed between presenting as an averagely sized woman and a member of the Roly Poly's and my chest had suffered the consequences. As a result, my boobs were literally like paper bags and my chances of ever reaching the heady heights of Page 3 were shattered. They were truly shocking. The hardness got worse when my period came and was really painful. I found a tiny circular lump the size of a pea. It was smooth and circular and felt like a cyst so I was pretty unconcerned but Joe convinced me to go to the doctor to have it checked out.
She agreed it was probably nothing to be concerned about but because I had history on both sides of my family through an Aunt and a Grandmother, she decided to send me for a mammogram to be on the safe side. Within a week I was sitting in a hospital office being told by a consultant that I had breast cancer.
To say I was furious is an understatement. As I explained hysterically to the poor man sitting in front of me, I had three children, the youngest of whom was only three. I couldn't die, I was only 41. I wanted to see them grow up, I wanted to see them get married, I wanted to see them have their own children. It was simply unacceptable.
I was escorted out of the office by a lovely nurse who took me into the corridor where I shouted FUCK FUCK FUCK for about ten minutes whilst the waiting room looked on bemused. It's funny that when a truly stressful event occurs, the only relevant thing to do is swear loudly. There were no other words that would put across how I felt. Joe and I went home where I discarded my mother in law's offer of a cup of tea in favour of several bottles of Vina Sol.
The next month was a blur of activity. When we found out that the cancer was in my sentinel lymph node (which meant that it could well have gone elsewhere), we took the children out of school and whisked them off to Egypt for a holiday, although we wouldn't know to what extent my lymph was affected until after I'd had the operation.
In July I had a skin saving mastectomy, a revelation in that it had the bonus effect of making my boob look significantly better than it had previously. Winning. I was at the Olympic Opening Ceremony precisely a week after my operation, even though I spent the morning having my boob drained at the hospital and had to be ferried around the village in a golf cart. Nothing was going to stop me taking full advantage of BMW corporate hospitality and a five star goodie bag. Ella, who was then 11, stoically ran Race For Life without me (we'd booked on before I was diagnosed to do it together) and I think that's one of the few times I cried throughout the entire sorry episode.
I decided to have my long hair cut short in anticipation of it's eventual demise. I didn't have the patience for the cold cap - I used to get pissed off when my hair fell out after childbirth so the idea of having patchy hair growth wasn't an option. I gave the task to my poor hairdresser, Josh, who admitted afterwards he had been terrified. I hadn't had short hair since I was 13 so it was a bit of a shock. It started falling out ten days after my first chemotherapy and I had Joe and the children shave it off a la Sinead O'Connor so that I was in control of it. I couldn't bear the idea of it controlling me.
Anyone who has ever had chemotherapy will back me up when I say that it is an absolute bastard. Having your head cut off with a rusty saw would be preferential to having shed loads of poison pumped into your body, but there wasn't much choice in the matter. The NHS chemo ward was a barren landscape of green plastic chairs arranged against the wall and to be honest, it could have done with a bit of faffing. I'd take the iPad and play Scrabble by myself every three weeks so I was distracted from the shocking interior decor.
There were some positives. I didn't have to shave my legs (or anything else, for that matter) for six months. I convinced Joe that if I was going to be bald, I needed an 'investment' scarf so he bought me Alexander McQueen cashmere. Plus, I got to change my hair colour every day with an abundance of £30 Amazon bought wigs in every feasible colour. And best of all, I got through it and survived. Oh, and another bonus - with reconstruction and uplifts I went from a 32a to a 32c. Bring on Page 3.
When Kate Garraway asked Victoria Derbyshire if she had ever thought it would happen to her, I was unreasonably irritated. The implication that someone would naively believe that they were immune from cancer in any form is the whole reason why Breast Cancer Awareness Month should be about making solid facts and figures available to all. And not about having sex on the kitchen table Facebook stylie.
So what do you need to know?
1. It's Way More Common Than You Think
In the UK, one in eight women will have breast cancer in their lifetime. In 2014, there were 55,222 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed here in the UK. It's by far the most common cancer for women, accounting for 31% of new cancer cases. Only 27% of cases are linked to lifestyle and other risk factors. Here's a coincidence for you - at school I was in a friend group of six. When we recently met, three of us had been diagnosed with breast cancer within the space of two years. We had all made different lifestyle choices and there was no overriding factor as to why this should be. Cancer isn't fussy.
2. It Doesn't Care How Old You Are Or Even What Gender You Are
Urban myth: It only happens to people over the age of 45. Kris Hellenga was diagnosed with metatastic breast cancer at the age of 23 after being fobbed off by previous doctors. Two months later she founded CoppaFeel!, the first breast cancer charity in the UK to educate young people on the importance of getting to know their boobs. Her charity travels the country visiting Universities and schools to spread the word. It's true that the majority of cases - 48% - are in the over 65's but there's still around 5,000 women under the age of 45 diagnosed every year. Male breast cancer is less common but there are 300 cases diagnosed annually in the UK.
3. You Don't Have To Have A Family History
The majority of people who are diagnosed don't have a clear cut family link. Only about 13% of women diagnosed have a direct female relative who has had breast cancer (mum, sister or daughter). My father had lung cancer, his sister had breast cancer and my grandmother on my mum's side had breast cancer too, but this was irrelevant to my case. I'm not BRCA positive and there is no known genetic connection.
4. It Doesn't Have To Be A Lump
Again, another urban myth. Both my doctor and myself were sure that my pea sized lump was a cyst as it was smooth and round. Nope, totally fooled. It's a common misconception that lumps are irregular. In the words of Blackadder, my suspicions were first aroused by the fact my boob was solid and painful. Inverted nipples, painful armpits, dimpling of the skin, a rash on the breast and discharge are also common signs that something is wrong.
5. The Sooner You Find It, The Sooner You Can Fix It
Although early diagnosis doesn't always mean that you are out of the woods, it bloody well helps. If you find something even vaguely suspicious, you need to get yourself down to the surgery immediately. If you're not happy with the views of your GP and you're still concerned, ask for a second opinion. Any change in your boobs whatsoever needs to be immediately checked out. Make sure you do regular checks - click here for full directions from CoppaFeel! as to how to do this constructively. If you find anything at all, don't wait. Do it NOW.
So I apologise profusely to the poor follower who suggested I cut off my hair to whom I was irrationally curt. I feel that I fought for this afghan styled, heavily highlighted, Crystal Tipps look and I'm forever grateful that it came back at all, to be perfectly honest. So no, I won't be cutting it off any time soon.
Randomly, my cancer experience has had a hugely positive impact on my life. I know that I've been one of the lucky ones. Not everyone gets to keep going. But I do, and I am happy every single day that I am still here and I make every single bloody moment of it count. I'm a far more selfish person because of it but it's also made me realise I have no boundaries and the freedom that comes with that has helped me achieve far more than I ever hoped this past year.
Being breast cancer aware isn't a trite comment that no one comprehends on your status, it isn't a Facebook game. It's being aware of what the risks are, what the facts are and how you can do your very best to make sure that if it affects you, that you give yourself the best possible opportunity to beat it.
CHECK YOUR BOOBS. And do it regularly. And that is all :)
This blog was originally published in October 2017.