VALERIE'S BREAST CANCER STORY
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we spoke to breast cancer survivor, Valerie, to get her experience of breast cancer from beginning to end.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2011. Before getting checked, I didn’t feel a lump. The only thing I noticed was the side of my breast felt tender to touch. A bit like it’d been knocked or something. I ignored it to begin with, then a couple of weeks later, it was still tender and a bit sore. A couple of my friends encouraged me to speak to the doctor, so I booked an appointment with my GP in the village. My GP couldn’t find anything but referred me to the breast clinic at the local hospital for a thorough check-up. We do have cancer in the family – my mum had ovarian cancer and her sister had breast cancer.
I actually work at the hospital, so I went to my appointment during my working day. A consultant did the examination. They said the fact that it was sore was a good sign. That day, I had a mammogram and an ultrasound. They then injected a long thing needle into the side of my breast to extract some cells.
Within two hours, I was told I had breast cancer. How people can wait for weeks for results, I do not know. I feel lucky that I was told so quickly.
The consultant along with the breast care nurse called me back into the consulting room and told me that I would have to have a full mastectomy of my right breast. As the lump was so deep against my chest wall and was the size of a golf ball, a lumpectomy would have left me with a deformed breast. They did say that I could have a reconstruction afterwards, but I hadn’t opted for that. That’s a long time on the operating table.
I was turning 60 that year and had lots of things planned. I just wanted to get on with it. I remember seeing all of the troops returning from Afghanistan with severe and debilitating injuries and I thought to myself, what’s the removal of my breast in the grand scheme of things?
If that keeps me well, then so be it
At this stage, a group of medical professionals get together and have what’s called a multidisciplinary team meeting (MDT). This determines what treatment you will need.
After diagnosis, I went to look for some soft cup bras which I could wear after surgery. I was lucky as the woman who I spoke in the shop had also been through surgery herself, so she had a good understanding of what I would need.
The road to recovery
The hospital did give me exercises to do. For example, in the shower you have to try to stretch your arm up to the ceiling. It’s weird as the wound feels sensitive but numb at the same time.
I took an oestrogen-inhibiting drug called Letrozol for 5 years after treatment. This did affect me physically as I’d have hot sweats regularly and I did gain some weight. They made me feel tired a lot of the time too and I was often unable to get out of bed before 10am. The type of breast cancer that I had feeds on oestrogen, so these drugs are like a safety blanket to prevent it from coming back.
Now that I’m off the drugs, I still get tired but I’m not sure if that is just my age!
Advice to others
If I had to offer any advice to women who are undergoing breast surgery, I would say that once you get your diagnosis, try to plan ahead and start looking for a bra. I was lucky as my breast care nurse pointed me in the direction of Royce. Obviously, the NHS can’t recommend anything in particular but they can point you in the right direction.
You can’t just be who you were before – you will change your outlook on life. Seeking help from specialists will help you to regain the body confidence that you need. People’s confidence can get knocked, so as well as looking your best, you need a great support network too.
I always think that good corsetry can make all the difference to how you look and feel
Book a bra fitting and take a plain t-shirt with you, so you can see how you will look.
Take the time to find a bra which is comfortable. I absolutely love some of the new fabrics which are being used these days - so pretty and incredibly soft.
Once things are healing and you’ve got a proper prosthesis, that’s when you want a better fitting bra.
11th March 2011 diary entry: “Quite excited as going to get fitted today. My husband sat with the designers whilst I tried on bras in the little fitting room.
“I started out wearing a 38C and ended up being a 38DD. It’s so worth going to get fitted properly.”
Because the bras are non-wired, they can look a bit bigger. Anyway, I bought four of them immediately.
Once I’d had surgery and been fitted properly at Royce I thought: ‘I look pretty good, all things considered’
It’s so important to go and get fitted when you’ve had breast surgery. Not only that, but to get fitted by someone who understands the sensitivity of breast surgery and has been trained properly. I’m not shy when it comes to being fitted and talking about my body and what I’ve been through, but not everyone feels able to do that.
I believe that getting your underwear right is essential, whether you’ve had breast surgery or not. It’s what’s underneath that matters and I think a good silhouette is really important. I haven’t had to change any of the clothes I wear at all.
Being upfront about my treatment is the best way to be as it’s now the norm amongst friends and family. My grandson pointed to me the other day and said “which one’s the real one nanny”? So obviously, a well-fitting bra says it all!
Having had breast surgery doesn’t mean that I can’t wear wired bras, but a non-wired bra is definitely recommended during at least the first six months after surgery. You don’t want anything that’s going to dig in or irritate the healing wound or scar tissue. It’s like any wound – you need to look after your skin when it’s healing. Just be sensible.
My surgery was at the Horton hospital in Banbury which isn’t too far. Straight after a mastectomy, they give you a temporary prosthesis – a bit like cotton wool. It’s called a ‘softie’!
The first two to three days after surgery are really important. You need to know everything’s OK. You need someone at home to keep an eye on you. You just don’t know how you’re going to be.
From the point of diagnosis, I kept a little diary which I called ‘My Betsy Boob Book’! You’ve got to make light of the situation somehow. I have three types of prostheses: ‘Softie’ – the temporary one I had initially; ‘Betsy’ – my everyday prosthesis, then ‘Swimmie’ which is slightly heavier than softie and used for swimming.
My step-daughter, along with my husband, came to visit me in hospital after surgery and both were surprised as I had full face of makeup on!
I stayed in hospital for four days and was totally spoilt. The Macmillan nurse was fantastic.
My chemotherapy didn’t start until April 2011. I had FEC 75 treatment and went for cold cap therapy which helps to prevent hair loss. You have 6 sessions in total – one every three weeks.
Breast surgery has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. Far more people go on to live than before.
To find out which bras are recommended post surgery, read our blog on > Bras for After Surgery