As Breast Cancer Awareness Month began, I wanted to make sure that I not only had interesting content for you all to read, but real and wholesome content, to really push how imperative it is to be educated on breast cancer, no matter what age you are. I was absolutely overjoyed when my very brave friend, Niki, agreed to share her story through an interview for the Brastop Blog. Niki was only 35 when she discovered she had breast cancer and her story, although sad, is extremely heart warming through her remarkably positive attitude and fantastic Liverpool humour!
Lucy: What prompted you to go to the doctor?
Niki: I was checking myself in the shower and I found a small pea size lump on the side of my right breast.
Lucy: Did you check your breasts regularly?
Niki: I had started checking my breasts regularly a few years earlier due to the wife of a close friend getting Breast Cancer. She was a similar age to me so it was a bit of a wake up call to myself and my friends that younger women can get Breast Cancer too.
Lucy: Were you seen under the 14 day rule?
Niki: I called the GP surgery, that I was registered with at the time, to book an appointment and was informed that I had to wait two weeks to see a GP. When I explained the situation to the receptionist and asked if I could be seen any sooner she told me that she wouldn't class it as an emergency and said no. Normally I would have just accepted this but instead I called a new medical centre, near where I lived, to see if they were taking on new patients. Again, I explained the situation to the receptionist who asked me to come in first thing the following morning so they could get me in to see a GP as an emergency appointment.
I was a bit embarrassed as it was a male GP and he was quite rough with his examination, but I was glad he was as he also noted that I had a small patch of tough tissue on another area of my breast that I had not felt. He referred me to the Breast Unit at Aintree hospital and told me that I should hear from them within the week. They actually called me later that day, which was a Friday, with an appointment with the consultant for the following Wednesday.
On that Wednesday, I saw the Consultant Surgeon and had an ultrasound scan on which they discovered that the initial lump I had felt was a blocked hair follicle. They also took a needle biopsy from the area of tough tissue that the GP had identified and a biopsy from my lymph nodes. An appointment was then made for the following Wednesday to see the Consultant for my results.
Niki (right) and her mum (left)
Lucy: How did you feel when the consultant told you the news?
Niki: I had always thought that if I was told that I had Cancer I would have a melt down on the spot. But when the Consultant told me the needle biopsy had come back positive for Cancer it was initially like I had been punched in the stomach, however I think that I went into survival mode as I just said 'OK, I understand,' to the doctor quite calmly.
They made me repeat what they had told me as I don’t think they thought I had taken it in but in my head I was thinking 'you're getting through this don’t get upset!' I was also acutely aware of my boyfriend sitting next to me and how it was probably such a big shock to him, I could feel him gripping my lower arm. The Breast Care nurse was amazing and took us off to a room where she answered all our questions and just made me feel like I was going to be taken care of.
Lucy: What kind of treatment did you receive and what effect did this have on your body?
Niki: Because of my age the surgeon recommended a full right side mastectomy. I was also going to be having Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy. As the biopsy hadn't been done yet they didn't know what other treatment I would be having. He explained that while I was having the mastectomy they would also remove my 1st two lymph nodes to check if the cancer had spread. Your breast tissue is then sent away for analysis along with your lymph nodes.
When I woke up from the mastectomy the surgeon explained that he had gone in behind my chest muscle and placed a bag with a small amount of saline fluid in that would gradually be inflated over the coming months which would then create a pocket for an implant when it was time for my reconstruction. As part of this process they also used a new technique called a strattis, which is where they sew a piece of pig skin (with all the piggy bits taken off) onto the front of the chest muscle, this helps with the final reconstruction, assisting the final implant to drop into a more natural shape.
Before I had chemotherapy I also had to go through egg preservation as I had no children and it can leave some women infertile. This also comes with risks, I had a bad reaction to the process and ended up in the Liverpool Women's Hospital for eight days with Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS)
I had six chemo sessions at three-weekly intervals at the Marina Daglish unit at Aintree Hospital. Chemo was really tough but after your first few sessions you get yourself into the swing of things and find little hints and tips to help you through. A lot of these helpful tips come from ladies you meet at the unit that are a bit further on in their treatment. To try and keep in a positive frame of mind, I always tried to plan something nice for the weekend before my next Chemo so I would be looking forward to that and not counting down to what was going to happen a couple of days after. It is also quite a hard time mentally as you are very aware of your looks, from losing your hair, eyelashes and eyebrows to gaining weight from taking steroids. This is also on top of losing your breast and worrying whether the chemo is going to cause you to go into early menopause. You do find a way to get through it though there is a lot of help and advice out there if you need it.
After Chemo I then went on to have fifteen sessions of radiotherapy. Due to the type of breast cancer I had, I am now having Herceptin injections every three weeks with my last one hopefully the week before Christmas.
Lucy: At what stage was the cancer found?
Niki: After they biopsied my mastectomy and my two lymph nodes, I was told that my tumour was 7.5 cm and that it had spread into my lymph nodes. I had to then go back in for further surgery to remove my remaining lymph nodes. The remaining nodes were then biopsied and it had spread to the first seven. I was extremely lucky to have been diagnosed when I was. I was also told that my Cancer was non-hormonal and that I would be having a targeted therapy called Herceptin.
Lucy: How did you feel about having the mastectomy?
Niki: When I was first told I had cancer my initial reaction was that I wanted both of my breasts removed as soon as possible. I think it was just the shock of being told you have cancer, you feel your body had turned against you so I just wanted rid of my breasts.
I don’t think it’s until you wake up from your operation that it really occurs to you completely what has just happened to your body. The Marina Daglish Therapy Centre at Aintree hospital was a big help at the point. The morning after your operation a group of ladies, who are all beauty therapists, come and get you out of bed with one of the breast nurses and walk you over to the Centre. Here they wash and blow your hair for you. You can have reflexology, reiki, a facial or your nails done, but the most comforting thing is that all the therapist themselves have had breast cancer and have been through breast reconstruction so they whip their tops off to show you the final results of their reconstruction. They all looked amazing. It may sound like a small thing but when you wake up in the ward the morning after your surgery you feel a little bit less of a woman. After you have been to this unit and been freshened up and seen how you are going to look at the end of the reconstruction process it makes you feel so much more positive about things. You can visit this centre every Tuesday while you are having treatment. All the ladies who work there are volunteers and it is funded by the Marina Daglish Charity. They do a wonderful job.
Lucy: What effect did this have on your family and friends?
Niki: I think my diagnosis was a big shock to everyone. One of the hardest things was having to tell the people who care about you such bad news and see them get upset, watching my Mum and Dad worry was especially hard. My close friends and family were amazing and kept me going throughout. My Partner Joe has been so strong and positive all the way through I couldn't have coped without him.
Niki (right) and her friend Paul (left)
Lucy: Did you meet other women of a similar age to you that were going through the same thing?
Niki: I was really surprised when I went in for my operation, I thought I was young at 35 to have breast cancer but there were girls in with me who were in their early twenties. They had initially been sent away by their GP's a number of times with antibiotics for their breast lumps as there still is a misconception that younger women don’t get breast cancer.
Lucy: How did your family and friends help with getting through treatment?
Niki: Family and friends helped me so much through my treatment. Visiting me in hospital, driving me to appointments and sitting with me through chemo sessions and putting up with me while I was vomiting like the exorcist after a chemo session.
After my first Chemo session a group of my friends came to my house to help me shave my head. We had my favourite music on, some drinks and food and then everyone took turns cutting my hair into funny hairstyles before my friend Paul shaved my hair off. It made something that could have been quite traumatic into something that was fun. It also gave me control over how I lost my hair and it was great to be surrounded by the people I love.
Lucy: Has suffering from breast cancer changed you in any way?
Niki: I’d say it may have made me a bit more selfish but in a positive way. Before, I was always trying to please people and would worry a lot about what people thought of me. Now I’m a lot more laid back. It has also made me a lot braver; while I was having chemo I took part in a naked calendar shoot to raise money for McMillan and The Marina Daglish Charity. I also modelled post operative bras at a fashion show in John Lewis. I would never have dreamed about trotting around John Lewis in my underwear before.
Lucy: What is next?
Niki: I have my remaining Herceptin injections. I am also being sent to speak to the geneticist regarding genetic testing. I’m also having discussions with my surgeon about having my other breast removed. I have not made a decision on that yet as it is a big decision to take. Once that is decided, I will be going ahead with my reconstruction so hopefully in the next six months I will have a lovely set of boobs again!
It is truly harrowing that any woman should have to go through this experience and speaking to Niki and learning more about Kris Hallenga from CoppaFeel! is drilling into my head how important it is to get to know your boobs. I always thought that breast cancer was an 'older woman's disease,' which couldn't be more misconstrued. No matter what age or gender for that matter, it is vital that we get to know 'what normal feels like' and follow up on any concerns that we come across.
As the ladies at CoppaFeel! say: 'knowing your boobs could save your life!'