My Breast Cancer Diagnosis - The Full Story
The following is a story all about my breast cancer diagnosis and why I started Puremess. It’s not a sob story, but instead I hope it shows that through strength and persistence you can make anything happen through adversity.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2013, a week after my 44th birthday. It was a funny thing, cos I really wasn’t surprised. My doctor and I were convinced it was just a cyst in my left breast but a mammogram was planned anyway. In the mean time I had a dream, yes, I know, but bear with me! In this dream I was shampooing dogs who were all lined up in a row on a conveyor belt – I was with someone else (I’ve no idea who it was) who said they would shampoo my hair. So I dropped my head forward and they began to shampoo me. They then told me I had a lump behind my right ear, and I argued (very unlike me) that it was behind my left, but they were adamant it was behind my right. That’s it and then I woke up. I didn’t think about it again for a couple of weeks.
So two weeks later when I went for a mammogram I knew something wasn’t right when I was called in for a magnified view. The doctor then told me that they were 90% sure I had breast cancer in my right breast and some smaller calcium nodes in my left.
They did some biopsies then and there and booked me an appointment with the consultant for two weeks’ time. The doctor and nurses were absolutely amazing, incredibly kind but honestly I felt ok. Looking back I’m not sure if that was a self-preservation response or not but maybe my dream had allowed me to process it in some way. My friend Lou, who had come with me, called my husband with the news and I was sent home with a book on how to tell my children their mum had cancer…….
My husband, James, and I sat our two younger sons on the sofa and basically just said mum has breast cancer, we don’t know much else at the minute but the doctors are going to do everything they can to make it go away. My youngest, who was only eight then, climbed onto James’ lap and cried. My middle one, who is autistic, said, “Don’t worry mum, I’m going to Google your chances of dying”. What would we do without Google hey!!
My eldest, who was twenty, came home later that night whilst I was upstairs getting ready for bed. James told him and I came into the kitchen to find them both crying. I gave him a hug and promised him that I would do everything I could to stay alive, whatever it took. And that was it! It was much more heart-breaking to even vaguely consider leaving my kids without a mum than to think about what I was going to have to go through.
I didn’t have another appointment for a week and during that time James and I have never held hands more!! We did talk about it but tried not to let it be the only subject. I cried at night when everyone was sleeping, scared, vulnerable, but absolutely determined that this was not going to define me. I told a couple of friends and was treated to sooooo many apricots (apparently they’re really good for you!) and flowers. Flowers are a funny thing. I loved that people were thinking about me and wanted me to know they were thinking about me, but in the end I felt like I was living in a funeral parlour. At times I stood there, clutching another bunch of lilies thinking this is what my house is going to look like if I die! I don’t think gifts of wine would have made me feel like that.
My work colleagues, big shout out to all the gorgeous girls at Lee Taman, were amazing, very supportive and we found some time to laugh. I had just grown my hair long after years of wearing it short, and we laughed that I was now going to have to shave it off!
Oh, and I baked an awful lot of cakes….
So with family and friends told, it was basically time to get on with it. I was booked in for an operation only two weeks after being diagnosed, which was great because it didn’t give me too much time to think about it. I asked, right from the outset, if I could have a double mastectomy but my surgeon said it wasn’t necessary. Looking back I really wish I had been able to as it would have saved the NHS money and me some worry. On the other hand I can completely understand why that decision was made, a lumpectomy is far less radical and obviously no one has any idea if it’s going to come back.
So I went in for a lumpectomy. So I rock up at some ungodly hour, starving, thirsty, and the first thing they give me is a very gorgeous pair of green socks that are so tight I think my legs will fall off. I did feel ever so slightly glamorous, NOT. The four of us that were in for the same op that day all followed behind a nurse, like little ducklings, into a corridor. None of us had a clue why we were there. Well, it transpires that the surgeon obviously needs to know where the cancer is so they insert metal rods into your breast to pinpoint the exact position. These rods are then replaced by metal markers during surgery. That was going to make interesting explanation when I set the metal detectors off at the airport. I showed James and said ‘Look I’m becoming a cyberman’.
A couple of hours later I was in surgery. I woke up in recovery with my surgeon standing over me as she explained I’d had complications and had to have another surgery straight away. What, no glass of wine before I go in again? Ok, I’ll settle for water. Nope.
Anyway, two surgeries down and all was well, or so I thought………..
So there I was sitting in my surgeon’s office two weeks after my operation. I’m not sure what I was expecting her to say but it definitely wasn’t ‘so we didn’t get all the cancer and we’ve booked you in for another operation in two weeks’ time.’ Oh, ok, sure. WHAT?? And that was it, I was once again preparing for another operation so they could get all of the cancer out. I absolutely knew what to expect this time!
Once again, I was going into hospital at stupid o’clock in the morning – which is actually not that early but definitely for me!. Luckily this time I knew what was coming and I breezed through the whole process. My boob did look like half a walnut because I’m obviously not that great at healing and my nipple seemed to be peering out to the right but hey, it could be worse! I remember going to a friend’s 50th Birthday party and laughing so hard with my husband that I could put cameras on my nipples and keep an eye on everyone from all directions! I have loved that James and I could laugh at things like that, he has never, not once, made me feel self-conscious, but instead has been able to laugh with me.
A few weeks later I was booked in for 5 weeks of radiotherapy as well as taking part in a study called The Big 500 where 500 women, all with similar cancers, were given different amounts of radiotherapy to analyse the recurrence rate. I had three tattoos done, which I was really excited about, but they were basically just pin pricks that show the borders for the radiotherapy. I asked if they could make them into something a bit more spectacular but apparently that’s against the rules! No fun.
So there I was, every day, for five weeks. I was back at work by then so I dived in and out of the hospital, getting more stressed about the parking (which was horrendous) than anything else.
The radiotherapy team were amazing, so kind and considerate, which I really appreciated. It’s not that easy having to get undressed and lie there with your boobs out for 15 minutes, especially when one of them could easily be mistaken for a wizened piece of fruit. You do learn to just get on with it though – to be lying there when there are male radiotherapists was a bit strange at first, but you are quickly made to feel at ease.
So life then returned to pretty much normal. Having said that, I found myself thinking everyday about having had cancer, was I going to get it again? Would it spread, would it kill me? I had good days, bad days, days when I would call my step-dad and just say, ‘Ok, I’m having a bad day, talk me out of it’, and most of the time we would end up laughing about things. He told me to write things down, but at that time I found it too scary, and too permanent, and so I wrote nothing. My mum was convinced that we should all be doing karaoke as singing is a great healer. My husband retreated incredibly quickly and I just stood there going uummm, not sure mum. We all have terrible voices! So thankfully that never happened.
Then I had my first mammogram after the operations. Boy I love that squishy machine that makes you stand on your tippy toes unable to breathe! And because my scar tissue was basically rock hard, it was, shall we say, somewhat uncomfortable! A week later the letter came through the post. It was thin, which is a very good sign. And sure enough the results were good. HOORAY for me!!
I’d done it, I’d gotten through my first year. I was onto a winner, wasn’t I?....………..
So with my first mammogram over and done with and a good result, I kinda just got on with life. I did think about the word ‘cancer’ every day, and obviously I was looking at my now weird-ass boob but that was ok. I felt lucky to have a husband who cared about me, and was just worried I was ok, rather than being bothered about how I looked. I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to laugh with James every day.
I was back at work, where the girls and all the customers were really supportive and caring. It was really the best place for me to be as it gave me something else to think about. I had several hospital appointments during the following year which all went really well. Everyone seemed to be really positive and so I was too. We went on holiday to the States and had a wonderful, relaxed time with family but my second year mammogram appointment was only a few days after we got back and I just knew in the back of my mind that something was wrong.
A week after the mammogram a fat letter came through the post, and I immediately knew it was bad news. Sure enough, I had been called in for a biopsy on the same breast. Everything happened extremely quickly, I had the biopsy a few days later and they told me then and there it didn’t look like it was great news. I remember walking back out to the hospital café and seeing James’ face and just crumbling. All I could do was shake my head. Do you know how hard it is to cry together in the middle of Costa??? At least there was a plentiful supply of napkins, which aren’t terribly soft by the way!
Once again we were back at home telling the kids that my cancer had come back. I knew at that point that I would have to have a mastectomy so we told them that too. Our autistic son just looked at me and James and said, “Well that’s not going to be much fun for dad”. It was the best thing he could have said because we both roared with laughter and said, “we hadn’t thought of that!”.
So once again, back to the hospital for another operation. I was getting good at this! When I got there a lovely lady asked me if she could follow my journey for the day as she was training to be a theatre technician. Having her there with me throughout made such a big difference to me, she was very comforting, she took my mind off of the procedure to come. She also held my hand once I had let go of James’! You know what, looking back I really feel for the person waiting because all the focus is on the patient. James just had hours to wait and wonder, and drink bucket loads of coffee (hopefully spiked with whiskey). Anyway, I went into theatre and before you know it I was back on the ward. My lady was there telling me how well the procedure had gone and how fascinating it was, she was just so super lovely! A few hours later however I started to swell and was told I had to have emergency surgery as I had a haematoma. I will never forget James’ face, I could just see him thinking WHAT? So at midnight I was taken back into theatre. It was actually a bit spooky because it was so quiet! To be honest I don’t remember a great deal other than waking up in the ward early the next morning to two surgeons asking me if I had taken a look at the scar yet! Well for one, I was trussed up like a Christmas turkey and two, I really wasn’t ready yet. I wanted it to be a shared moment between me and James. I do remember desperately needing a pee and having trouble extracting myself and my drains (oh yeah, you wake up with drains in your side) from the bed. You’ll be happy to know I managed it. James came later that day and took me home. My kids just took one look at the drains and were like ‘uuggghhh, that’s gross’. Kids are hysterical aren’t they!
I am pretty fiercely independent so I think I was probably a bit annoying about bathing and washing my hair as I didn’t want any help. My step-mum had come over from Colorado to look after me, she made sure I was eating well and not doing too much. I Can’t say I loved the drains bit but there’s not a lot you can do about it as they are attached to you! A week later I was back at hospital with my step-mum, having Pinot and Grigio taken out (it’s compulsory to name your drains 😉). It felt good to be drainless and now I could enjoy Pinot Grigio in a glass rather than a drain!
So I was flat on one side and wasn’t comfortable with wearing a prosthetic boob, so more often than not would just go braless. It was ok for a while but I really noticed it when we went on holiday and I was wearing a bathing suit. James said I walked with my arm across my chest. Obviously I was trying to hide that I was uneven.
So in 2017 it was decided that I could have the left breast removed as well. I am so happy that the decision was made because during the breast tissue analysis they found little bit of cancer again, so I was hugely relieved to have it gone. This time I felt like a pro, I knew what to expect and everything went smoothly and I only needed one drain – hooray – but what to name this one?? Chardonnay of course!
Well, 3 years down the line, a double mastectomy later and I am hugely happy with my lot in life and wanted to share with you how living with the physical and mental changes has influenced my decisions and made me into what I hope is a loving, caring and kind human being, with a bit of ambition thrown in for good measure!
I decided to have another photo shoot done because I feel like my attitude to life is different now and I wanted images that would reflect that. My first photoshoot was amazing, I was nervous but it was something that I really wanted to do. I felt proud of my scars and wanted to bare all! But now, a few years down the line I am used to my scars. I feel they are there to remind me of a blip in my life’s path and one that has shaped my new road.
My scars can still be sore and cause me some discomfort and a little frustration when I find a yoga move difficult and occasionally I feel like I have a phantom boob that needs a scratch which is a bit weird! However, I embrace the fact that I can run without a sports bra and lie flat on my tummy without them getting in the way – see, always a silver lining!
Cancer made me acutely aware of my overall health but I think what can sometimes happen is we focus solely on what we are putting into our bodies, which is clearly hugely important, but what we are putting onto it gets a bit lost. Our skin is our biggest organ and will definitely benefit from being treated kindly.
I feel incredibly lucky that I used my diagnosis to steer me in a different direction and that I could start my own natural skincare company with a purpose – to make everyone happy in their own skin. Whatever we’re going through, whether it’s a cold, cancer, an operation or something emotionally draining, I believe by nourishing your skin you can also nourish your heart a little too.
There is nothing now that gives me more pleasure than when someone places an order for a gift to send to someone else with a little note saying – I am thinking of you, or get well soon, or I love you. What would bring me the most joy is for someone to send it to themselves as well – hey, you’re an amazing friend, or great job this week at parenting! You get my drift.
We, and I think women in particular, are not very good at putting ourselves first, at truly looking out for ourselves, and as a result we can often be left feeling frazzled and tired and worn out. Having cancer has taught me to appreciate myself more. The prospect of leaving my children without a mum terrified me so now I am getting to be ok with doing things for me, spending some time on me and doing things I want to do. A slow but steady process!
Puremess has allowed me to nurture people by making products that I know are good for them and will make them look and feel good. That is so important to me, to make people happy with who they are, to soothe eczema, to reset a complexion, to heal dry skin. The whole family mucks in with the business as well which brings a huge smile to my face!
So having cancer hasn’t been all bad. It has brought me a different happiness, has forced me to really get to know what I want out of life and strive to get there. I am already looking forward to my next update a few years from now!
I just want to say a huge thank you to Caan from Stepping Stones Branding for kindly agreeing to take the photos for me. She made me feel instantly comfortable. This time it wasn’t just about me getting my kit off, it was about reflecting how I look in everyday clothes and how I am most comfortable. I hope you agree we managed it together!
One of my favourite photos is of my feet in stripy fluffy socks – that is exactly who I am! I am a fluffy sock sort of girl – which I think is a sign that I love Autumn – the cosiness, the roaring fires, twinkly lights and beautifully scented candles.
After my second mastectomy life was good, although we were doing up a house and I was surrounded by workmen – not the best thing in the world! I began to feel much better about myself being completely flat. I felt like I looked better. I decided then and there not to bother to wear any protheses, this was who I was now, and I was grateful to still be on the planet. I have had to think about the clothes I wear – nothing low cut, nothing that’s too loose at the sides. Swimming suits have been interesting! So much so that I’ve seriously considered designing my own range.
For some reason the vast majority of mastectomy swimming suits are for prothesis, which I guess I can understand, but I know I’m not the only one who is happy to be flat! The real issue hit me when we wanted to go on holiday and I had to look at bikinis and tankinis for teens! Suddenly I felt like I wasn’t being allowed to be a woman, it really bothered me, especially as I didn’t feel like that in my everyday clothes.
But for goodness sake Gemma, there’s more to life than a sexy bikini right!!
Every day is a new day, a fresh start, but some days can be more difficult than others. I like to think of myself as a very positive person, staring cancer down and doing my best to just get on with it. However, I’d be lying if I told you I have never faced any dark moments.
I remember when I went to see my breast cancer nurses after they told me they had discovered a little bit of cancer in my left breast. At that moment I felt like this bloody horrible disease was going to get me, no matter how hard I fought it. I burst into tears in front of 3 people and couldn’t stop saying I didn’t want to leave my kids without a mum. I couldn’t bear the thought of them being upset, or having to do things that I should be doing for them. The nurses were amazing, let me cry, and gently explained that the mastectomy was a belt and braces approach and I would be ok.
So now I am more than mostly ok. I do have my moments, mostly when I have pains somewhere, which can lead me to think of the worst case scenario. I have had a few issues – one being lumps on my thyroid that were found when I had an ultrasound for some lumps I’d found in my neck. It was a bit of a blow, and I had to wait a while to see a specialist to determine whether or not the lumps were cancerous. The waiting is the worst bit! Anyway, a few weeks, a specialist and a scan later, all was well with the world once again.
I’ve done several mastectomy photoshoots in order to help other women see that you can be just as beautiful without breasts. I was lucky enough to do one for the Mail on Sunday You Magazine supplement. I met the most amazing bunch of women, all of whom were models, ranging in size from 8 – 24. We spent the day in underwear and swimming suits. Everyone was absolutely lovely to me, amazingly friendly and they made me feel so comfortable. I was pampered beyond belief and made to feel like one of the gang.
I was no different to everyone else.
Cancer may have taken my breasts but it will never take the essence of who I am.
Wishing you much love and laughter in your life – and if you ever want to talk you know where I am.