I was one such woman who was told at 2pm on a spring like August afternoon in 1990 that breast cancer had been diagnosed and that I must report by 4pm to hospital for surgery the following morning. In a trance like state I obeyed instructions, asked a daughter if she could take me to the hospital and tried to reach my husband who was away on business. I went into surgery not knowing whether I would have a mastectomy or not ( they would do a frozen section whilst I was under the anesthetic) but determined that breast cancer was not going to make me feel a victim.
When I was back in my room my husband was at my side and he told me that my breast had been removed. Words that no woman wants to hear. With love and supportive care I began the journey to recovery and in the process learnt so much about myself. I also decided that I would find out everything that I possibly could about the disease of breast cancer and how it was treated. Whilst I was in hospital a volunteer, herself a breast cancer patient, had come to visit me. She was a Reach for Recovery volunteer and her presence showed me that there was life after breast cancer. I decided that I too would train as a RFR volunteer and help other women on their journey of recovery. And so began my journey with an organization that in time became the centre of my working life.
Amazingly because of having had breast cancer I now had the opportunity to develop programmes that would train new volunteers and increase services that were on offer to patients. I was invited to join the international Board of Management of the organization. I trained volunteers in many countries and represented the organization at many conferences. I had beaten cancer and was leading a productive life helping other women.
But life is never plain sailing and in January 2005 whilst showering I found another lump, no bigger than a grain of rice, on my mastectomy scar. This time I knew all about breast cancer. Over a few days the lump grew and surgery was again required, as a needle biopsy confirmed the diagnosis:- Breast Cancer. They were able to get a clear margin and because of the size I felt sure the pathology would not show a high grade. I was wrong it was aggressive and in fact HER2 positive so I required chemotherapy, radiotherapy and of course Herceptin, which I had monthly for a year.
In the intervening years since my first encounter with breast cancer so much has changed for the better in the treatment of the disease, and in the way surgeons and oncologists discussed treatments with their patients. No longer do you have to report immediately to a hospital for a mastectomy. There is time to discuss the many possibilities now open to a patient. Patients have the opportunity to be part of the decision making in their treatment.
Whilst having treatment I was elected President of the International Reach to Recovery a position I held for 6 years and which culminated in the 2013 Reach to Recovery International Conference held in Cape Town During my time as President I was invited to be on the Breast Health Global Initiative ( BHGI) panel for supportive care . Their Guidelines for International Breast Health and Cancer Control implementation in low and middle resourced countries are an invaluable resource for countries planning a breast health policy. I now find myself drawn more and more into advocacy work. There are many women not as fortunate as I was and so another chapter in my life opens up.
I have no idea what lies ahead of me. I only know that my breast cancer has enabled me to help other women, and to do things and go places that I would never have done had it not been for that dreadful diagnosis. I don’t wish this disease upon anybody but if it does come use it as an opportunity to get your priorities in order and live your life to the full.