I was diagnosed in December 2017, just before Christmas and just before we got snowed in for a week! I found a small, hard lump in my left breast. I was active, healthy and only 37. There is no recent history of breast cancer in my family (although my great grandmother sadly died as a result of breast cancer), so there was no way the small, hard lump could be cancer. I have a pretty horrific recent track record with doctors and hospitals, so I was in no hurry to head to see my GP. I was scared to see my doctor and I put off getting this lump checked for 4-5 weeks. This, I DO NOT recommend!!
On the morning of 7th December, I had some pain in my armpit and felt a small swelling; I knew that I had to do something at this point. I phoned Ally and he knew from my voice that something was wrong. He immediately booked me an appointment with a private breast surgeon for the following day and took leave from work. I don’t think that either of us got any sleep that night. The following day, my mother-in-law came over to look after Filly, and Ally and I made our way to the Nuffield in Cheltenham. I had a mammogram, which was a little uncomfortable but nothing awful, followed by a meeting with a very kind surgeon who did an ultrasound examination. I knew it wasn’t good news when my surgeon stopped the ultrasound and told me that he wanted to do a biopsy. I asked him if it was precautionary or if it was cancer. He told me that he was certain that it was cancer. It sounds like a cliché, but the world seemed to stop; my only thought was for Filly, my longed for and dearly loved baby and best friend; she needs me and I need her, I don’t want her to grow up without a mummy. My next thought was how the heck I going to tell my family, we are so close this will break their hearts. However, how you think you will react is not necessarily the case, I didn’t cry, I didn’t throw up, I just asked to carry on with the biopsy.
The surgeon was very straight talking but also kind to Ally and myself and we continued with the biopsy (don’t look at the needle, its bloody massive). The biopsy wasn’t too painful and was over quickly. The surgeon told Ally and I that he couldn’t tell what stage it was at, but that it had spread to my lymph nodes. He advised that a PET scan would be the only way to understand the extent of the cancer. We left the Nuffield with a referral made for a PET scan for the following week. We got home and I told Ally’s mum, and sat down in my study to telephone my parents. It was the worst conversation I’ve ever had. I asked them not to come over immediately but to stay at home and travel the following day, once they were calmer. They phoned back a couple of times that evening, each time with more tears and questions. Ally and I didn’t mention it again until Filly had gone to bed. That evening we sat together on the sofa and cried for all of the plans we had been making, all of the future we thought we had was now hanging in the balance.
Wednesday was the PET-CT scan. The scan itself was fine, obviously scary but not at all claustrophobic or noisy and it only took a half hour or so. The wait for the PET scan results was the longest wait of my life (and Filly was almost 3 weeks late to be born!) We eventually got the call to say that my results were ready. We made our way to see the consultant, I don’t think Ally and I spoke a word to each other on the journey or in the waiting room. I saw the consultant coming towards us and he was smiling. I knew I had cancer, he was certain of that, but surely the smile meant that it hadn’t spread? He came and put his arm around me and whispered in my ear ‘it hasn’t spread’. I almost fell to the floor, Ally and the consultant had to hold me up to get me into the consulting room, it was such good news. The surgeon went on the tell us that my cancer was stage 2 and that it had been seen in some axillary (underarm) lymph nodes and that I would now be referred back to the NHS to start chemo and then surgery.
I felt I had been given a chance and now was the time to think positive and to do exactly what I could to help the doctors give this cancer the boot. That was the day that my cancer was given its eviction notice; no fighting, no battle, it’s just time to leave now, quietly and without fuss.
I was told about scalp cooling by one of the nurses at Cheltenham Oncology Centre when I went for my first blood test prior to my first chemo. Unfortunately, my consultant didn’t mention it - I have asked him to tell his patients about it in the future! The system seemed to be fairly new into Cheltenham, but the nurses were very clear on how the cap should fit and how I should care for my hair; they seemed to be very well informed. The process to ensure that the cap fitted correctly was fairly lengthy and I tried a few caps on, but also I tried several ‘insides’ (the actual cooling part of the cap) on too, this was all to ensure that the cap had a tight fit. Before the cap was fitted for treatment the nurses wet my hair and applied my organic conditioner, it then took 2 nurses to fit the cap correctly. Once I had my cannula in the team switched on the cooling machine and I could instantly feel the coolant in the cap starting to freeze as the cap became tighter on my head. For around 15 minutes my head felt cold and I felt slightly uncomfortable - I had a slight headache, similar to when I’ve eaten ice cream too quickly. That feeling soon passed and other than being able to feel the chin strap, which was fairly tight to keep the cap close to my head I forgot that I had the cap on.
The scalp cooling became easier with each treatment, the process to ensure that the cap fitted correctly didn’t get any quicker, and for that I am grateful. I took 2 paracetamols about 20 minutes before each treatment, although I can’t say that I felt any pain during any session, I found that having a scarf around my neck helped when I felt cold, although I certainly didn’t feel too cold at any point.
For the first 3 chemo treatments, FEC, I noticed very little hair loss at all; during the final 3, Taxol, treatments I did see some hair loss. The hair loss was mainly when I washed my hair, there was never enough for it to be noticed, but there was enough to make me feel nervous. I have been told that it’s almost impossible to tell that I’ve lost any hair at all, I was lucky that my hair was thick to begin with. I would say that my hair has thinned by about 20%, but thankfully the thinning was all over, so I had no patches at all - it just goes to show how important the cap fit is. I bought a wig, just in case, but it has remained in its box!
I washed my hair in organic shampoo with a small amount of conditioner on the ends twice a week, I used cool water, which wasn’t pleasant in the depths of winter, but was worthwhile. In between washes, I only gently combed my hair once a day and I used dry shampoo to add a bit of volume when it needed a wash. I tried not to use my hairdryer, but when necessary I used it only on a cool setting. I continued to be very gentle with my hair for 5 weeks following my last chemo, I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t finding hairs on my clothes. Since then I have had a haircut, which was wonderful, and although I continue to use organic hair products I have started using my hairdryer and hair straighteners again.
I was completely happy with my scalp cooling experience and I would definitely recommend it to others. Keeping my hair saved a little of my sanity and ensured that my 2-year-old daughter didn’t have to understand that her mummy was poorly - for that I will be eternally grateful. Not having to wear my diagnosis, was and continues to be a blessing.