A YOUNG Scottish woman is celebrating 2016 after being told she is in remission from a type of breast cancer so rare her consultant had never seen before.
For Alison Broomhall this New Year felt like a brand new start, one that she celebrated with her family by lighting a bonfire in her mum’s garden, burning hundreds of letters and folders full of paperwork.
Last January, the 32-year-old was about to start treatment for breast cancer.
Saying goodbye to the stacks of hospital letters and forms that built up during months of treatment and follow-up appointments seemed like the perfect way to start over. “New Year felt like a big turning point. I’ve got the all clear and I want to start afresh,” Alison says.
Alison, a legal counsel who lives and works in Aberdeen, was diagnosed in December 2014, in the week between Christmas and New Year. She had noticed a lump in her breast and visited her GP in November. The GP thought the lump felt like a fibroadenoma, a benign growth, as did staff at the breast clinic where Alison was referred for a check up.
Everything changed after a needle biopsy the Friday before Christmas. Alison was driving out of the hospital car park when her phone rang. “They said the biopsy was abnormal and I was to go back on Monday for a mammogram. I remember thinking, that can’t be good,” Alison recalls.
The mammogram was inconclusive but after another biopsy, and a week-long wait for results, Alison was finally diagnosed with a rare breast cancer that her consultant had never seen before.
“Because it was so rare, the doctors didn’t know how it would behave so I was prepared to be told I would need a double mastectomy.”
To Alison’s relief, the consultant recommended a lumpectomy followed by radiotherapy and an intense course of chemotherapy, six doses over 18 weeks.
She was also advised to undergo IVF in case the chemotherapy drugs damaged her fertility.
“Although I had thought about children, it wasn’t something I expected to decide about yet. Having said that, it was an easy decision to go ahead with IVF as an insurance policy in case my body doesn’t return to normal.
“I had a lot of decisions to make, and there was so much that I had no control of. It all happens so quickly.
“I remember saying to my family, that I wished it could just stop for a couple of weeks, there was always so much happening, so many appointments. I couldn’t fault the medical team though, they were fantastic. I felt in safe hands all the way through.
“I’ve never had so much support in my life as I have in the last year from my family and from Maggie’s.”
Alison first visited Maggie’s Aberdeen not long after she was diagnosed, on her mum’s recommendation.
“Mum had been to Maggie’s Dundee and found it really helpful, she could get answers to questions that she didn’t feel she could ask me.”
There are seven Maggie’s Centres located at major cancer treatment hospitals across Scotland, offering free support to people with cancer and their family and friends, from the opportunity to talk one-to-one with a psychologist to practical advice and information on, for example, nutrition, stress management and money, to courses designed for people at every stage of treatment and beyond.
Alison took part in a course, called Getting Started, for those with a new diagnosis as well as their family and friends; she also found the Centre in the grounds of the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary a haven when she was feeling low.
The side effects of chemotherapy were exhausting and debilitating. As well as hair loss and nausea, Alison suffered gastric reflux, mouth ulcers and motion sickness so bad that it kept her awake.
“I remember one night I watched The Lion King for eight hours, on a loop, because I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t get up to turn it off. I do like The Lion King but I haven’t watched it since,” she said.
“I thought chemotherapy would just make me feel sick and make my hair fall out but it’s much more than just throwing up.
“I felt like a zombie, I would fall asleep at the drop of a hat, I couldn’t read, my hand-eye co-ordination was affected, my fingernails fell off. It was like resetting my body, taking it back to the beginning and starting again.
“When I was feeling down and scared, just a bit lost, I would go to Maggie’s. Just being there lifted a weight off and there was always someone there who would make time to answer my questions.
“It can be really hard to talk to friends and family because you don’t want to upset them. Maggie’s offers a third party to talk to in a really lovely environment. And someone, a member of staff or a volunteer, always makes time for you which is so important when you are feeling vulnerable and insecure and going somewhere takes a lot of effort.”
Alison finished chemotherapy in the summer and after a course radiotherapy began to put her life back on track. That included buying a house and setting herself an extraordinary goal for 2016: in May Alison will take part in the Edinburgh Marathon Festival, running the full marathon to raise funds for Maggie’s.
“I was desperate to get back to how I was before. I thought having a goal would help and that it would help me to get back some of the confidence I lost last year. And, I get to raise funds for a really good cause.”
Alison has been building up her strength gradually, swimming, jogging or walking most days. She is already half-way to her fundraising target of £500 and, now Christmas is over, plans to start training in earnest. Her brother Graeme, a marine, and a friend David Riddell have signed up for the marathon too. “When they heard I was running, they wanted to support me,” Alison says.
“I don’t know how long it will take, and it might take a while, but we will cross the finishing line. I’m really excited about this year, I feel lucky. I didn’t feel like that in the middle of chemotherapy, but I do now. I feel like I’ve got a second chance.”
Maggie’s has places available for the marathon as well as all other race distances at the Edinburgh Marathon Festival. For more information and to register, go to: www.maggiescentres.org/edinburghmarathon