Breast cancer impacts tens of thousands of lives each year, and several of us have our own experiences of it affecting friends and family. It is not something to shy away from talking about. Here, Flint Director Sarah Gannaway tells her story.
It was a Wednesday night in January. As I was getting ready for bed I felt a lump in my right breast. I hadn’t been looking for it but it was very obviously something new that hadn’t been there before and probably wasn’t meant to be there at all. It had the size and texture of a walnut. It didn’t hurt but it didn’t belong. And it’s fair to say I was absolutely terrified. I don’t think I used the word cancer out loud but it was the immediate and persistent suspicion, even while I rationalized all the benign things it might equally well be. That period of not knowing was possibly the scariest part of the whole year. I’m not wired in a way that manages that level of uncertainty well! So I immediately made arrangements to have a full check at a ‘one-stop breast clinic’.
I was examined, then had a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound, and then they decided to also take a biopsy. As hard as those few hours were, there was something to be said for getting all the diagnostics out of the way in one go, though I left pretty clear in my mind what the results were going to say.
Within a week it was confirmed I had stage 3, grade 3, Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), that had spread to my lymph nodes (but thankfully no further). TNBC accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers, and is known to be particularly aggressive, fast growing, and more prone to recurrence. It can also be more likely to be hereditary. Despite no known family history I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. On the basis that information is power (and notwithstanding the possibility I was a ‘spontaneous genetic mutant’) this meant my immediate family were also tested, including my father and brother. The increased risk of both breast and other cancers applies to men too – and of course there is a 50% chance of passing on the gene.
I actually much preferred it – it left far less time to think about things and get too inside my own head or worse, resort to the internet (my advice: DON’T!). But also speed was my friend. I’d found it early and we were starting treatment ASAP. They were the big positives I took away from that time – it wasn’t just putting a gloss on things, that speed of action really felt critical.
That was rammed home for me at my first appointment with my oncologist, when she said she would not be happy to delay starting chemo by even 2 weeks to allow me to freeze my eggs. Now, that was part of a wider conversation about my personal circumstances and age and that conversation might rightly be very different for other people. But I remember thinking – that’s how fast this thing is acting, we have to keep pace. If I was in any doubt I’d seen how quickly the original lump appeared, followed by those under my arm. My cancer was not hanging around – there was no way I was going to help it into an easy or unassailable lead.
Believe it or not, this story has only reached February! After examining me my oncologist announced ‘I can fix this’. Her confidence was contagious and I could (almost) relax: the adults were in charge, I wasn’t in this alone. And so began 5 months of chemotherapy, followed in August by 3 weeks of daily radiotherapy. In September I underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction. All took a significant physical, mental and emotional toll but I especially remember after my first chemo the overwhelming sense of relief and even empowerment. We’d started fighting back.
Rather than dwell on those, frankly pretty grim, months, the good news is that my results post-surgery showed a complete response to treatment. I can’t describe how it felt to hear those words – it was like letting out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding since my first diagnosis. I am still having ongoing immunotherapy and because I’m BRCA positive will also have my ovaries removed. But that’s all on the preventative side and nowhere near the scale of what I’ve already been through. Having put my life on pause for a year, I can finally think about getting back to normal.
I have had the crash course this year! Understandably it’s massively important to me on a personal level. Around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. 1 in 7 UK women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years due to improvements in detection and treatment but more can always be done – I may have been super sensitive to it but there has been tons of news this year about new and breakthrough treatments and research that continue to shift the odds.
I think awareness begins with being able to talk openly about things that might be uncomfortable, embarrassing or intimate. My message would be, know your body and be alive to changes. And if in doubt, check with a medical professional at the earliest opportunity. It worked for me.
I am exceptionally grateful to Flint, not only for promoting Breast Cancer Awareness month but also for the incredible help and support they have given me throughout this year.