January 19th 2010 was the day I heard the words “you’ve got breast cancer” for the first time. I have to say that up until that point, that was not a possibility I had ever considered. The reason was simple; I was in my 20’s, I was otherwise healthy and I wasn’t aware of any breast cancer history in my family. In all the possibilities I’d ever considered, having breast cancer at 27 wasn’t one of them. Imagine my shock at the unexpected diagnosis.
A bit of a history, I had felt a lump in my left breast in 2006 and I had a biopsy whose results were inconclusive. As a 23-year-old at the time, the doctors were pretty convinced it couldn’t be breast cancer. I didn’t give much thought it after that……at least for a while.
Fast-forward to February 2009, I started feeling the lump again except this time; it was a lot harder and larger. I tried to ignore it for a few months mainly because of my previous experience. I remember lying on my chest one night in December and realizing the lump was starting to get a bit painful. I still didn’t think much of it but it made me mention it to my sister who was a doctor. She wasn’t impressed that I had kept the news to myself for a few months. I got fast-tracked and had a biopsy the following week. That was followed by a lumpectomy a couple of days later and this takes us to 16th January when I heard those words.
I remember feeling very calm initially, probably because I had no idea what breast cancer was or what the treatment entailed. After the news was broken to me, the only question I asked was regarding the duration 0f treatment. You see, I thought that breast cancer was like any other illness where you take some meds and you feel better in no time and get on with your life. Imagine my surprise when the surgeon told me between 6-9 months. I could not fathom what sort of treatment would take that long. By the time I got home, the realization of what a cancer diagnosis meant had set in. I bawled my eyes out and went through the “I’m not even going to bother fighting this” phase. With minimal knowledge on breast cancer, I consulted ‘Dr Google’ and the prognosis looked grim. I think I refused to eat for a couple of days and just wanted to die. I was angry about the mismanagement in 2006, I was angry at how my life just changed before my eyes, I was angry that just 9 days after my 27th birthday I heard the news that most people will never hear in their lifetime. That led me to the “why me” phase. Did I do something wrong? Was this my fault? Was God punishing me for something? So many questions with no answers kept going through my mind. I eventually got to the “what do we do about this” phase mainly because I figured death wasn’t an option and because of the support of my family who were not going to just watch me give up on life.
It was decided that the next course of action would be to start chemo. I had the first round of chemo and I have to say, it was a shock to my system. I remember feeling very sick afterwards and having a fever but freezing at the same time. I knew losing my hair was likely to happen and as soon as I felt a bit better, I made that decision to cut my hair. Guess that was my way of trying to have some control over my life that seemed to be so out of control.
I was referred to the Yorkshire clinic in the North of England for better care. I had my first appointment on 15th March 2010 with a great surgeon that made a big difference in my treatment. He did a breast examination at the appointment and felt two additional lumps. I could see he was hoping for my sake that they were benign. He referred me for a biopsy and he explained that if the lumps were benign then I could have a breast preservation surgery. However, if the lumps were malignant, I’d need to have a mastectomy. I remember crying my eyes out and hoping they were benign. Needless to say, the result of the biopsy showed the lumps were malignant and the decision to have a left mastectomy was made.
The surgery was non-eventful which I guess is good and I was told by Dr Linforth that he got clear margins which was great. The biopsy on the breast and lymph nodes showed that all lymph nodes were infected and that there were 5 other malignant lumps in the breast. In retrospect, I’m glad the decision was made to have a mastectomy.
2 weeks after the surgery, I went in for my second (first in the UK) round of chemo. Without going into too much detail, the next few months were the toughest in my life. 7 rounds of chemo later, we were at the end of August and chemo was finally over.
I got an offer to the University of Warwick for a 2009 start but I deferred for a year without any idea I was going to be diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the first decisions I made after my diagnosis was that cancer wasn’t going to hold me back. I was going to be that person that did everything she wanted to do IN SPITE OF having breast cancer. That meant I wasn’t going to defer my admission for another year because of breast cancer.
I moved to Coventry from Bradford in September 2010 to start my MSc Engineering Business Management at the University of Warwick. Just so you know, my treatment plan included 8 rounds of chemo, 15 courses of radiotherapy and 5 years on Tamoxifen as the cancer was both oestrogen and progesterone positive. Starting my masters program in September meant I had to juggle the first few weeks of my program with having radiotherapy treatments. Honestly, October and November were the worst months treatment wise for a number of reasons:
- No one at the Uni knew what I was going through (my choice) so I had to work round going for my treatments and attending my classes with minimal disruptions to either
- The hospital was 45 mins each way from the Uni and as I wasn’t driving and the cab fares were ridiculous, I had to get the bus to and from the clinic which I admit wasn’t great.
- After 10 treatments, my chest was like a burn site with loads of blisters and sores. Sleeping, wearing clothes or taking them off was a huge challenge. By the end of radiotherapy, the pain was almost unbearable.
I got to the end of the radiotherapy treatment and started Tamoxifen in November 2010. I was finally able to focus on my program and recover from the treatments of the months gone by. I made new friends and in retrospect, I think doing my masters degree when I did was the best therapy ever! I kept my diagnosis a secret and I was able to hang out with people and just talk about mundane things like the weather and TV – I lived for those moments.
By July, the taught part of my course was over and it was time to focus my energy on my dissertation. But that wasn’t the best part of 2011. The best part of 2011 was reconnecting with an old friend who would go on to become my boyfriend. As soon as we started speaking again, I felt such incredible peace that I hadn’t felt forever and I knew from the beginning that God brought him into my life again to make me the happiest woman I could ever be.
Our relationship became official in September and this was also the month I knew I was going to graduate with a distinction. September 2011 was a pretty good month for me and I could finally see an incredibly bright light at the end of the tunnel. A couple of weeks after I concluded my masters program, I was offered a job in Leeds UK. This was especially nice as it was the first job interview I attended. I accepted the offer and started work on October 17th 2011.
Moving on to 2012, January marked 2 years since my breast cancer diagnosis and I was in a good place in my life. It got even better half way through the year when I was whisked to Venice on a surprise proposal trip! By the end of July, my boyfriend had become my fiancé and I was the happiest I had been in a long time. We decided to get married in spring of 2013 and the rest of 2012 went into planning our beautiful wedding.
I got married to the only man for me in April 2013 and I don’t think it was humanly possible to be any happier than I was. I was getting married to the one person that I knew would love and support me no matter what came our way. How could I be so sure? Because he had proved this to me every single day since we started dating – and I mean EVERY single day. He was perfect for me and because of him I wanted to be a much better person. Our honeymoon was in Las Vegas and Hawaii and they were the best times of my life. We had an awesome time and I couldn’t think of a better start to our lives as one!
I was in a good place treatment and health wise and felt it was time to start considering reconstructive options for my left breast. I had moved counties, which meant I was referred to a new surgeon. His bedside manners left a lot to be desired but he strongly advised I underwent genetic testing due to my age at diagnosis and prior to undergoing the reconstructive surgery. I thought it was a great idea and asked for the referral to be set in motion.
I had the blood work done and a few months later I got an appointment letter. I had been informed that no matter what the result was, I was likely to have a face-to-face appointment. So when the letter came for a face-to-face appointment, I didn’t think much of it. Maybe I should have, as I would find out at the appointment that I was positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, which increased the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in carriers. Honestly, I was very upset at the news mainly because I was in such a good place in my life and I just wasn’t ready to deal with all the fears associated with having breast cancer history and potential surgery.
My husband was as supportive as ever and after a lot of deliberations, we decided to have a prophylactic right mastectomy in order to reduce the risk of having a recurrence significantly. We figured that in the long run, being alive and healthy was the only option we wanted and we will do anything to make that happen. The plan was to have a prophylactic surgery to the right breast, a Latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction to the left and tissue expanders in both with a future surgery to swap the tissue expanders for implants.
Within a few weeks, we got a date of October 7th for the surgery. My husband being the incredible man he is thought I deserved a nice holiday before the surgery. Mainly to take my mind off what was to come and for us to just have a nice time together before I had the extensive surgery. We decided to go back to Portugal because we loved it the first time we went. We had a great time away and for most days, surgery was the last thing on my mind – mission accomplished I would say!
We got back a couple of days before the surgery and I was a bit apprehensive of what was to come. The plan for the surgery was to remove the right breast and perform what’s called a Latissimus dorsi flap surgery. This would involve passing the Latissimus dorsi muscle from my back to my left chest with some skin in order to create a pocket on the left side for the tissue expander since the skin wasn’t preserved when I had the left mastectomy. The right skin would be preserved and a tissue expander would also be inserted. I was going to undergo a major surgery that could take between 4 – 5 hours needless to say on one hand I wasn’t looking forward to it but on the other hand, I couldn’t wait to get it over with.
It was finally the morning of October 7th and my husband and I set out for the hospital at 6:30am. I didn’t go in for the surgery till about 1pm and I wasn’t back in recovery till about 7pm. I remember coming round and being in such intense pain all over. I signalled to the nurses that I was in pain and they gave me more pain relief via my IV. After about 30 minutes in the recovery room I was wheeled back to my room where my husband was waiting for me. Seeing him and seeing how much it hurt him to see me like that broke my heart. That coupled with the intense pain I was feeling meant I was in tears for a while.
The next couple of days were the hardest of my breast cancer journey physical pain wise. I couldn’t seat up or get up and even lying down was excruciating because I had undergone surgeries to both my back and chest. I started feeling a little better about a week after the surgery and was discharged on October 11th. Recovery time was expected to take at least 6 weeks so I was on sick leave for that length of time.
My husband did an incredible job of nursing me back to health and I had family around as well (my sister and Mum were both around for a few weeks) for when he had to go back to work. I spent the next few months going back to the clinic to have the tissue expanders filled with saline solution in preparation for the tissue expander swap.
I had stopped Tamoxifen in September 2013 with the hope of trying for babies in November. I was supposed to be on Tamoxifen for 5 years but with the news about being BRCA2 positive, we figured it was better to get on with starting a family as there’s a chance I’d need to have an Oophorectomy at some point as the BRCA2 gene also carried an increased risk of ovarian cancer – let’s not think about that for now. So come November we tried for the first time without thinking much of it mainly because my periods had been massively irregular since I had chemo. November was supposed to be the practice month where I kept a record of when I ovulated etc. to help with the conception process.
However, that one time was all we needed because guess what? I took a pregnancy test a few weeks later and it came back positive!!! I have to let you know how much that positive news meant to me. I’m one of those people who thought as a child that the one thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a Mum! I spent a huge part of my childhood daydreaming about my beautiful kids and the loving home my husband and I would provide for them. Those thoughts got me through many traumatic times growing up. Those thoughts were my constant go to memories during difficult times and they always made me happy. The second reason for my happiness at the positive result was my husband. You see I grew up knowing I didn’t want to marry someone just because I was in love (which is a perfectly good reason) but I wanted to marry someone that I also knew would be a great father to our kid(s). My husband was that person! I felt the best way to thank him for how awesome he had been would be to give him that opportunity to be the great father I knew he could be.
The biggest thing for me after getting the breast cancer diagnosis was the potential adverse effect chemotherapy could have on my fertility. I was offered the option to harvest my eggs prior to the start of treatment but that would mean having hormones injected into me, which could potentially do more harm than good given that the cancer I had was hormone receptive. I made the difficult decision to go ahead with treatment and hope for the best when it was time to start a family.
Back to the good news, I remember taking a pregnancy test very early in the morning and running down the stairs to share the good news with my husband before he left for work – it was one of our best moments.
The good news soon gave way to so many concerns in my mind. Would I be able to carry the baby to term? Would my history/treatments have any impact on the baby? At that point, I realised how much a smooth pregnancy and a healthy baby would mean to me and that was our prayer every single day of my pregnancy. We asked God for a healthy and happy baby and judging by how smoothly the pregnancy went we were pretty convinced our baby would be perfect. That didn’t mean I was never worried but I had to put my faith in God and hope for the best.
We had plans of relocating to Canada and we started the process in May 2013. The process dragged on for a number of reasons and our application process wasn’t completed till June 2014. With me being in the third trimester we decided to move as soon as possible. We said goodbye to our friends and family and life as we had come to know it and left for Canada in mid July 2014.
The first thing that struck me about Calgary as soon as we got out of the airport was how blue the sky was! I would come to realize that most days in Calgary, even the incredibly cold ones were sunny and accompanied by a blue sky.
Our ease at settling in to Canada was remarkable and by the end of July, we had everything set up for the baby and we felt at home in Calgary. My due date was August 9th but our beautiful daughter had her own plans and didn’t make her debut till August 18th at 1:09pm! That moment I saw her for the first time will be one of my most cherished moments forever. She was perfect – every single bit of her; her Dad and I couldn’t keep the tears of joy from falling. I had some post partum complications and we weren’t discharged till August 22nd. Being able to come home with our beautiful daughter and being able to give my husband the best gift in the world made me the happiest woman alive.
We settled easily into life as a family of three and our daughter is the best baby ever. We always prayed for a healthy and happy baby and we have no doubt God listened to us and blessed us with the most perfect daughter ever. She started smiling socially at just three weeks and she’s probably smiled a million times since then! Her smile is the most beautiful thing and I could never get enough. I look at her often with such overwhelming love and I thank God every day for blessing us with such perfect gift – we always pray to him to help us take care of her and keep her safe.
It’s been 5 years since that night in January 2010 when I heard the words ‘you have breast cancer’ for the first time but I look back and I have so much to be thankful for. I’m not sure I would have chosen this path 5 years ago but now that I have walked it, I know God had a plan and purpose for me from the beginning. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am married to the most incredible husband, we have the most beautiful daughter and we are in a great country that we think will be home for a very long time.
Once you get a cancer diagnosis, life never remains the same and unfortunately, routine tests and scans will become a constant in your life. I’ve got surgery in February and some scans booked in for later in the year. I’m back on Tamoxifen and I will probably have another prophylactic surgery in the future. But right now, I am filled with such sense of gratitude to God for how he has sustained me for the last five years. I’m grateful for the amazing people that have supported me throughout this journey. I am grateful for the kindness of strangers. The doctors and nurses who have taken care of me. I am grateful for the best husband in the world who I am convinced is nothing short of an angel. I am grateful for our beautiful daughter whose happiness and laughter melts my heart time and time again. I’m grateful for the decision to move to Canada and make Calgary home. I’m grateful for all the people we have come to call friends. I am grateful for my husband’s job and colleagues. I am grateful for the ease of finding a new job in Calgary.
I know the journey is not over but for today, I choose to focus on the positives. Five years in the life of a breast cancer survivor is huge. I am fortunate to be here and I don’t take any of the blessings in my life for granted. Cheers to 60 more years in good health and unending happiness!!!