October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – the good news is survival rates are soaring. Improvements are due to new treatments, earlier detection and greater awareness − here one survivor tells her story...
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. Every year more than 48,000 women and 350 men are diagnosed with the disease. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the UK has the 11th highest rate of breast cancer in the world – with 89.1 cases per 100,000 population.
Belgium tops the table with 109.2 cases per 100,000 population, closely followed by Denmark and France.
Survival is improving
Survival though has improved significantly; latest figures from Cancer Research reveal 85.1 per cent of women now survive breast cancer for five years or more in England and Wales compared to just 66 per cent 20 years ago.
“I fought breast cancer and won”
Breast cancer survivor Sue Wheeler, 58, an education adviser who lives with her husband Andy, in Coleshill, North Warwickshire, shares her recovery diary with AXA PPP healthcare.
"Sadly I lost my mother to breast cancer in 2005 – so after her diagnosis I always checked my breasts regularly for anything unusual.
In February 2007 I noticed some changes to my right breast – there wasn’t a lump and you couldn’t even see anything if you looked in a mirror – but when I was examining myself I found a finger shaped area of skin which felt granulated to touch and slightly swollen.
I went to see my GP a few weeks later and, because I had private medical insurance with AXA PPP healthcare, I was able to get an appointment to see a breast cancer specialist at the Spire Hospital in Solihull, on Friday – two days later. I had a scan, needle biopsy and mammogram all done that day and then spent an anxious weekend waiting for results.
Initially the specialist thought the cells were pre-cancerous so I felt quite relieved – but following surgery tests on tissue removed proved otherwise. I was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer. My specialist explained lobules were milk-producing glands, and cancer cells had started to grow there and spread outside into the surrounding breast tissue. He said it wouldn’t have shown up on a mammogram so it was so lucky that I’d noticed changes.
How I coped
I was totally shocked by the news though – the first 48 hours after my diagnosis were the darkest days, I just thought I was going to die. I’d already lost mum to breast cancer 18 months before and seven years before I’d lost my twin brother Alan to bowel cancer.
After the first two days, though, the practical side of me took control and I just wanted to get on with the treatment. From that point on I managed to be very positive and found an inner strength I didn’t know I had.
Getting through treatment
I was given the choice of a total mastectomy or a wide local excision and removal of the lymph glands in my armpit. I chose the latter, hoping it would be successful, and luckily it was. This was followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy was the worst part. One of the most upsetting things was losing my hair but from day one I decided that I wasn’t going to look like a cancer patient so I wore a wig − it just looked like I’d had highlights! Everyone told me I looked younger, more glamorous and that I looked really well. It really boosted my self-esteem and made me feel more confident.
Chemotherapy makes you feel progressively more tired but I managed to work part time – I found it helped to have some sense of purpose.
I also kept a diary which I later published as a book – Do I Look Like I Have Breast Cancer? new wig, new life, new look which was really therapeutic – I also hoped to be able to help other women.
Next came 22 sessions of radiotherapy – by then I was suffering from cumulative tiredness from the chemo, so it was draining and a huge relief when it finished. I still had to take hormone therapy afterwards – which I’m still taking today.
Visit our Cancer Centre for more information on breast cancer, breast cancer treatments and the various symptoms to look out for.
Find out more about Sue Wheeler’s book – Do I Look Like I Have Breast Cancer?