For The Creators has spoken to a new mum who was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer just after she stopped breastfeeding. Here she anonymously shares her emotional story, from discovery, to diagnosis and how she dealt with the news in hopes to help others recognise the signs.
When my son was 7 months old, I discovered I had stage 2 breast cancer. You hear that breast cancer is so common but you never think it will happen to you.
My breasts had always swollen around my periods and I had found it difficult to pick a time when they were free of nodules so had never really felt comfortable or familiar with what I was looking for. Looking back on it now, if I had known that pregnancy can bring on or accelerate breast cancer, I probably would have been more alive to the signs. As it was, I can’t even remember whether I raised any of these issues with the midwives/health visitors who did home visits. I believe I mentioned that one breast was producing less milk than the other, but no one said to get this checked.
Breastfeeding was never easy for me but particularly on the right breast (the breast with cancer) – it hadn’t produced that much milk from the outset. Then when my son was around 3 months old I stopped feeding from that breast completely, substituting (as I had from the start), with formula.
I continued feeding on the left breast and the right breast started to take on a strange shape. It started to dip in at the nipple (now I know this is called ‘tethering’) and started to take on a kind of heart shape. I thought at the time that this was due to the milk ducts. I thought it would take a while for them to settle down so went about my life ignorant that there was something more sinister afoot.
I stopped breastfeeding altogether when my son was 5.5 months old – almost making the 6 months I was aiming for! Then at 7 months it occurred to me that it was strange that my right breast was still an odd shape. Still convinced it was the milk ducts, I thought I had better have a feel just in case. I could feel a very small nodule under the nipple and I thought… I better go to see the GP to check this.
When I went to the GP, she immediately referred me for an urgent hospital appointment and scans.
It wasn’t the small nodule under the nipple that was of concern but a big mass across almost my whole breast which she thought was cancer. In my naivety, I thought that this was muscle holding my breast up so firmly because I hadn’t breastfed as much as I had on the other breast!
It turns out that I had a 6cm tumour across almost my whole breast and the cancer had gone into my lymph nodes under my arm pit too.
What followed was 13 months of treatment – chemotherapy, operations to remove the lymph nodes and breast tumour and radiotherapy. I had over 5 months of chemo, 3 weeks of radiotherapy and in total 4 operations, the final one being a mastectomy and implant. (In hindsight I may have opted with a mastectomy from the start but I was told removing the tumour alone was a possibility as the chemo had been successful and shrunk the tumour significantly. It was thought I could have a lumpectomy but each time they operated they failed to get a clear cancer free margin, which led to a high number of operations. I was one of the unlucky ones apparently.)
I had an amazing surgeon and managed to save the nipple and still have some sensation – which is very unusual.
I often think how I was pleased that I didn’t find out about the cancer during the first 7 months of spending time with my son as it would have tarnished the early days of motherhood.
However, as a good friend pointed out, I (hope) to have a complete cure, but with others, if they have discovered the cancer at a later stage, then it could mean the difference between life and death. Also, had I spotted it earlier, then I may not have needed chemotherapy- or perhaps less chemotherapy would have been required. Especially given that me and my partner were managing life with a young baby, the intense and long schedule of chemo (4 times twice a month then weekly for about 16 weeks) was the worst. It was a grueling period with feeling rough every weekend for almost 6 months. There were some dark moments and we only got through them with strength and also the loving support from our friends and family.
Six months of our lives, it feels, were stolen from us. So whilst ignorance was ‘bliss’ during the first 7 months…. The next 6 -13 months were not!
They hope they have removed it all but I’ll be on medication to stop it coming back for 10 years and they have some side effects of their own (I didn’t realise there are a number of different types of cancers and the one I have is receptive to oestrogen and progesterone – the medication stops the oestrogen from feeding the cancer…).
I’ll have some minor and some more major side effects from the chemo treatment.
I had our son by IVF and my partner and I are of an age where we probably weren’t contemplating another child but others in my position would be disappointed to know they may not be able to get pregnant again …
For me, my periods stopped and I also would not be able to go through IVF on the medication I am on. If I came off the medication there would be a risk the cancer would come back.
There is still a lot that I don’t know about cancer and more I’d like to learn.
Some key things I didn’t realise and learned in the process was that women who have children later on in life are more likely to get breast cancer (something about the life cycle of your breast completing when you give birth). There are other factors like genetics, diet, eating and drinking but still so much is unknown. I am told IVF probably didn’t cause it but as they pump you with hormones it may have accelerated it.
It didn’t even occur to me to get my breasts checked whilst I was pregnant or breastfeeding which was naive in hindsight.
My advice to expectant mothers and in fact all women is to feel your breasts regularly. Research the best time in your menstrual cycle to check them and familiarise yourself with how they feel. If you feel anything, or aren’t sure what to look for (like me) go get it checked by your GP and get some advice on how to examine your breasts properly.
Also, if you are one of the unlucky ones who are diagnosed, make sure you have a genetic test to find out if it’s generic, as this wasn’t offered in the first hospital I went to. Genes are a big player in contracting cancer.
I hope I’m one of the lucky ones having a complete cure. I’ll have annual scans and I hope with living a healthy lifestyle and taking my medication, it won’t come back. Others are not so lucky.
Being aware could save your life.
It’s normal to notice changes to your breasts during and after pregnancy, but if you notice changes in your breasts – and you’re unsure about it, speak to your GP.
You should also see a GP if you notice any of these symptoms:
- a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- discharge from either of your nipples, which may be streaked with blood
- a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
- dimpling on the skin of your breasts
- a rash on or around your nipple
- a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast
Breast pain is not usually a symptom of breast cancer.
Find out more about the symptoms of breast cancer.