Why Being ‘Aware’ Isn’t About Wearing A T Shirt: Five Things You Need To Know About Breast Cancer

As I’m sure you are well aware, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Today, the smallest thong ever seen arrived in the post for my daughter who had bought it from a lingerie brand who are giving all proceeds from the Barbie sized underwear to a breast cancer charity but who, most critically, included within the delivery package instructions for checking yourself. Yesterday, I bought a boob shaped neon light (always one for an interior purchase) from Bag & Bones who have collaborated with Zoella to not only raise a whopping £4,500 for the breast cancer charity Coppafeel!, but also to raise awareness of this worthy platform who focus on early diagnosis by providing text message reminders and whose site is a wealth of information on awareness of body changes. As someone who has previously been infuriated by the lack of ‘real’ awareness messages coming from brands, these two smaller brand campaign initiatives make me really, truly happy.

I first wrote this blog two years ago, discussing my irritation when it came to both brand and social media breast cancer awareness campaigns. A prime recipient of my wroth were Facebook friends who sent me direct messages asking me to post a spurious status stating where I like to hang my handbag when I walk through the front door. The point of these statuses was allegedly 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. Unfortunately, the only awareness it raised amongst my Facebook friends was that I was very good at swearing. And despite giving a percentage of campaign sales to cancer charities, large brands appeared (and often, indeed, still appear) to be just as unfocused when it came to putting out constructive, hardcore messages about checking your body for abnormal changes. I can tell you for a fact that t shirts sporting words such as ‘Hope’ and ‘Love’ certainly don’t make me want to whip off my bra and do a full boob check. In fact, they just make me want to take to my feed to rant about the complete inadequacy of such campaigns, campaigns that not only don’t thrust the message home hard enough but also, in many cases, use models who have never been diagnosed and who have two nice perky breasts beneath their ‘Love’ t shirts, unhindered by any sort of surgery or personal experience of cancer whatsoever. Okay, rant over.

Leo's third birthday, a week after I was diagnosed. Can't beat an M&S Caterpillar cake.

Leo's third birthday, a week after I was diagnosed. Can't beat an M&S Caterpillar cake.

A week before I started chemotherapy with my newly short hair. I must have been traumatised because there is NO WAY IN HELL I would have agreed to go camping otherwise.

A week before I started chemotherapy with my newly short hair. I must have been traumatised because there is NO WAY IN HELL I would have agreed to go camping otherwise.

There’s a reason for my irate state when it comes to discussion about this subject. Seven 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.

Ten days after chemotherapy. If I was going to wear a scarf it had to be a bloody good one.

Ten days after chemotherapy. If I was going to wear a scarf it had to be a bloody good one.

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.

A woman of many wigs. This was my Stephanie from LazyTown look.

A woman of many wigs. This was my Stephanie from LazyTown look.

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.  I'd take the iPad and play Scrabble by myself every three weeks so that I was distracted from the unexciting interior decor. The staff, however, were amazing - there is more care and love that comes from the wonderful people who work on a chemo ward than anywhere else that I’ve ever been.

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 I wrote this blog two years ago, I was spurred on to do so by watching Kate Garraway on GMB asking breast cancer diagnosed Victoria Derbyshire if she had ever thought it would happen to her. 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 or wearing a random ‘Hope’ emblazoned t shirt.

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.

A week before my last chemo. You can't beat a £30 wig from Amazon.

A week before my last chemo. You can't beat a £30 wig from Amazon.

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.

Having chemo didn't stop me drinking prosecco. Obvs.

Having chemo didn't stop me drinking prosecco. Obvs.

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.

Seven months of hair. My natural colour is confirmation that for me not to not have highlights is a crime against humanity.

Seven months of hair. My natural colour is confirmation that for me not to not have highlights is a crime against humanity.

Randomly, my cancer experience has had a hugely positive impact on my life. I know that 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 in the years since.

But I still get anxious. I worry about every twinge, every ache, every swelling, every cough, every dodgy mole, every armpit pain that could signify that my cancer might have flown the breast nest and gone out to find new parts of my body. But hey, I also get uncommonly anxious when I am the person on the train who has to put their arm out of the window to open the door, so I can live with that.

Being breast cancer aware isn't a ‘Love’ emblazoned t shirt, 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. And I, for one, look forward to the day that big brands start working on breast cancer awareness campaigns that push these key messages clearly, eloquently and concisely, rather than diluting the focus by promoting a load of pointless pink fluffy marketing content.

JUST CHECK YOUR BOOBS. And do it regularly. And that is all :)

A version of this blog was first published in October 2017.

If you want to know more information, then check these out:

CoppaFeel! (you can view the Bag & Bones X Zoella neon which has pledged to raised £4,500 for the charity here)

Breast Cancer Care

Cancer Research UK