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Beating cancer

Breast cancer is devastating, but it can be life-affirming, too as these three inspirational women prove..

Stacey Mills has been clear of cancer for six years

Stacey Mills, 35, lives in London and is a commercial insurance underwriter

I moved to London three years ago from my native Canada, as I’d been seconded by my company to work there. It was my big adventure. But nothing prepared me for what happened next – I was diagnosed with breast cancer just three months later.

I found the lump under my armpit when I was back home in Calgary over Christmas. It felt like I had something under my arm but the lump moved around – sometimes I could feel it and other times it wasn’t there. I knew it wasn’t a good sign as my family has a history of breast cancer. My mum was diagnosed when she was 43 and passed away four years ago, so this disease has always been in my life. I flew back to London without telling my dad or brother and went to my GP who referred me to a breast health clinic. Once in London, I phoned my boyfriend in Canada to tell him and also one of my best friends. Realising my distress, she said she’d fly to London just for the weekend and that we were going to shop, eat and drink. As good as her word, she did just that and we hung out together. But there was no escaping the reality. And every time I turned on the television there always seemed to be something about cancer. I felt like it was a bad sign.

I tried to be mentally ready for the worst when I went back to the doctor, but nothing can prepare you for that word ‘cancer’. Everything my doctor said after that is still a blur. I asked the nurse to bring my friend back into the room and just one look at each other set us both off. We cried and cried. I had loads more tests that day and spent most of the time being prodded and poked. It was obviously too much to cope with – as soon as I walked out, I collapsed against the wall. Suddenly, it all just hit me. How was I going to tell my dad? He hadn’t recovered from the illness and death of my mum and now I had to tell him his daughter might die, too. For me, that was the hardest part of the diagnosis.

The choices
My main priority, after the initial shock, was to find out my options. My company provided private health insurance so I got an appointment quickly. The private healthcare was one of the reasons I stayed in the UK to have treatment. The second was that I didn’t want cancer to take away this opportunity to live and work in London and the third reason was an emotional feeling – although it would have been better if I’d gone home, I would have been seen by the same doctors and had the same treatment as my mum. That would have been hard.

I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. I’d taken that decision years ago when my mum was ill because she’d had lumpectomy after lumpectomy. A mastectomy reduces the chances of the cancer coming back and I didn’t ever want to hear those ‘you have cancer’ words again. I was told I could have the operation in the next couple of weeks. I was determined to fight this thing every step of the way and use every weapon I had at my disposal. After the operation, I had eight treatments of chemotherapy, two weeks apart. I adjusted well though – it’s amazing how you can find humour in tragic situations.

Cherish good moments
Meanwhile, my boyfriend had decided to come over and look after me. But that was a horrible mistake – I thought maybe he would become the person I wanted him to be, but after just one week, I told him to pack his bags and go back to Canada. I knew he’d been cheating on me for years, but he insisted on coming over when I was diagnosed. I soon realised he hadn’t changed and never would. That’s when I decided to get him out of my life. That was the lowest point – that and, when I was so sick, I couldn’t wash my own hair. But once the chemo became more bearable I felt better, especially as my three best girlfriends came over to be with me. Two friends I’d made in London were incredibly supportive, too. Being ill made me cherish good moments and not complain about dumb things, as we all do. When your health goes it gives you clarity.

Moving on
I had a reconstruction once the treatment was over and if someone was looking at me now, they wouldn’t know I’d had anything done at all. But I have lost part of my body and I’ve had to grieve for that. I don’t have any sensation in my breasts and they feel a bit hard and unnatural.

My advice to anyone going through what I did, would be to give yourself time – there is no right or wrong way to deal with it. Listen to yourself and what you want as nobody can tell you what’s right for you. You need to be an active participant in your own treatment and you should know that you can choose to have a different treatment to that being offered.

I’ve been given the all-clear but still have check-ups every six months. Getting past the five-year mark without breast cancer returning is a huge milestone. I don’t want to become complacent though.

I had a good work-life balance before but it is even more important now. I like drinking occasionally but I’ve devoted my life to staying healthy. After surgery all I could think about was being able to do a push-up again and it took a while, but I’ve built up enough stamina to go to the gym and do spinning and circuit classes.

I don’t know if I will live to 70 so if I get a chance to do it, whatever it is, I do it. In fact, I’ve just accepted an offer to work in Dubai. It will be a completely different life to the one I have in London and I can’t wait.

Having beaten breast cancer, Stacey is determined not to let opportunities and brand new experiences pass her by. She believes in living life to the full and helps raise awareness for breast cancer by modelling

Juanita Higgs, 68, is from Great Barr near Birmingham and is retired

‘Ever since I was in my 20s I have had lumps in my breasts that I would either have removed or they would be aspirated [drained] and then I would go straight back to work. Then seven years ago, I found one in my right breast and I had a feeling it wasn’t right. My husband Roy offered to come to the GP surgery with me, but I went on my own.

The doctor said he was almost sure it was cancer but he would have to wait for the results before he could say it definitely was. When I heard that word I was totally shocked and I couldn’t hear anything else he was saying. You know you’ve got something alien in your body and like most people, I like to be in control, but I wasn’t in control of this. I quickly decided I would have a mastectomy followed by a reconstruction – I didn’t want to be without a boob. This was back in 2001 and reconstruction surgery has moved on so much since then. When I had mine done, I was told that muscle could be taken from my tummy or my back and then implanted so it looked like a breast. Because

I’d already had a stomach operation it had to be taken from my back and because I didn’t have much muscle there, they had to put an implant in, too. Even after I was diagnosed I never for one minute thought I wouldn’t come out of it. I was really positive from the start.

Roy was my backbone, coming with me to every single appointment and when I was waiting for my operation we went to the Peak District to spend some quality time together. It helped to be taken away from my normal surroundings and be able to walk and breathe in clean air in a place that meant so much to me.

The operation was painful, like any operation is, but considering what I had done it was as good as it could be. Even though I was offered painkillers, I found I could cope without them.

It does feel strange having a foreign body inside you and I am never going to be the same again but at least I have two breasts and that was my main priority. Having breasts is part of being a woman and losing them feels like you are losing a part of your femininity. I was asked if I would like chemotherapy after the operation, but the doctor told me it wasn’t necessary and I didn’t want to put myself through it. I had to take hormonal drugs for five years, which give you menopausal-type symptoms but you cope with it. I just wanted to get on with my life.

And again..
The breast cancer didn’t come back, but two years later I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to have a complete hysterectomy – another cancer attacking a feminine part of my body.

Having cancer changed my life for sure – when I started feeling better I took a manicure course. I was already an aromatherapy therapist and I wanted to put that to good use working with cancer patients at the local hospital. I also contacted Breast Cancer Care and took a volunteer training course so I could talk to and advise people suffering from cancer, over the phone.

Another volunteering post I have is for a charity called Headstrong, where we advise people on how to wear scarves when they’ve lost their hair through cancer. They come in looking down and worried and we find they benefit from having someone to talk to who has been in the same situation. They usually leave with a smile.

With Breast Cancer Care I had some excellent training to be a volunteer, started doing peer support and then went on to do outreach work, which involves raising awareness and giving talks. I’ve made many friends doing voluntary work and have met so many people who have been through the same thing as me, it gives you something in common immediately. It’s been great for me – before I had cancer I was a very shy and quiet person and I’m not at all like that now. I didn’t like heights either and I managed to abseil down the side of the hospital to raise money! Having cancer turns your life around but it makes you more determined to do things you wouldn’t normally do. I try to put myself out there and if I can help one person I have done what I set out to do. I’m so busy now that my husband has to check my diary to see when we can fit in a holiday!

Jayne with partner Alfie and children Eleanor and Alfie

For more information about breast cancer, support groups and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which runs throughout October, phone Breast Cancer Care on 0808 800 6000 or visit the website breastcancercare.org.uk


words: Georgina Maric

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