Mhairi made beating cancer into an art form

REMEMBER, remember the fifth of November goes the rhyme. For Mhairi Fisher, the words have a much more personal resonance - it was exactly a year ago today that she had both her breasts removed.

• Mhairi Fisher

She was just 33 when she had the drastic surgery which she hopes will mean she never has to face a diagnosis of breast cancer again.

And while for some it might be a moment from which they never recover - at least mentally - for Mhairi it has meant a whole new way of life.

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For the last 11 months she, along with a committee of other volunteers, has been organising the annual Edinburgh Macmillan Art Show, currently on display at Infirmary Street's Dovecot Studios. It has given her the chance to immerse herself in art and to give something back to the cancer charity which helped her and her family so much during their darkest hours.

"Macmillan were with me and my parents all the way," she says. "When you get your diagnosis you are given their information leaflets and for me they were the best guide I had to what was happening to me and what I could expect to happen. For my parents, the support centre at the Western General was a wonderful help, as was the ability to pick up the phone and have their questions answered. I could not take all that help and not give something back."

Mhairi, research head with an Edinburgh headhunting firm, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009, although she had watched the lump in her right breast grow larger by the month for some time.

"I had always checked my breasts after a friend's mother had cancer, so when I found a lump I knew that I shouldn't just ignore it. But I think because of my age and the lack of any family history of cancer it just wasn't considered that's what it could be. Even a biopsy said it wasn't.

"I was told it would be cosmetic to have it removed, but it was getting so big that I just wanted it out. When I went back to the hospital ten days later, I was told it was cancerous."

Rather than getting angry Mhairi says she just became "practical".

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"I thought 'right it's cancer, how do we get rid of it and get me better?' It was a particularly oestrogen-loving form called invasive lobular cancer, and while it hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, the recommendation was for a mastectomy.

"Then there were further discussions that because of my age there were higher chances of reoccurrence, so I just thought 'let's get this over and done with'. So on November 5 last year, I had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at the same time. It's amazing really that they can do that and it was great to wake up and not to face having no breasts, although really by that time that's the least of your worries, you just want rid of the cancer."

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Mhairi, now 34, admits that during the bouts of chemotherapy there were "dark days", but she refused to succumb to the soft call of her duvet, and faced the world instead.

"Those days, the worst days, were the days when I just said ‘no, get up and get out there. Put on a pretty dress, who cares if your hair has fallen out?' I drew on an inner strength. I wasn't going to be beaten.

"All in all," she adds, "I've had four operations and eight bouts of chemotherapy. At the time I just got on with it all. I was very young to be told I had breast cancer, and as I'd always been healthy and there was no history of it in the family. People kept saying I was 20 years too young. I was just very unlucky. But I just kept thinking at least I don't have children that I've got to tell about this. I had a strong family and friends around, and that helped steel me for everything. I didn't want to be scared in front of them because I knew they were scared too.

"And I think in being like that, having that attitude, it helped me to be strong."

She admits that as the anniversary of her operation approached she has been more reflective about what's happened.

"Losing my hair was difficult because it was shoulder-length, but it was also hard because before then no-one knew anything was wrong. I also found wearing a wig difficult - I was more a bandana person.

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"I kept working through the chemo treatments, really only taking time off after the operation because then I really had to. I couldn't lift my arms, do anything for myself. I was living with my grandparents at that time as my parents live near Aberdeen. I think if I had gone home I would have automatically reverted to being an ill child, and I didn't feel that would help me recover. Work kept me feeling like a real person. Beating cancer is a mental game as well, you have to keep going."

She adds: "A lot of the time I didn't want to speak about it. I didn't deny it, but I wanted to keep doing the things I had done before. I wasn't going to let it define me."

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It was just before her operation last year, though, that she first got involved with the Macmillan art show.

Still in its infancy in Edinburgh compared with Glasgow where it's run for 25 years, Mhairi says she was told about it by a friend who'd said "here's two things you know about - art and cancer".

"I got involved at the very end of last year's show, helped to sell some of the works, did some bubble-wrapping, so when they were organising the committee for this year I was asked to join.

"I'm not an artist, but I have always loved art and gone to galleries.

"To be able to find a quiet space in this city and see beautiful colours and images - it is inspiring. Being involved in the art show has helped me to remember who I am, that I am not just a cancer statistic.

"I also think that it's only when you go to the chemotherapy unit, when you see just how many people are affected by cancer - for me that was the most shocking thing about it all.

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"It made me realise I had to be involved, I had to give something back to the people who helped support me through it all.

"My parents and brother and sister-in-law and my whole family are all coming to see it on Saturday and we'll be having a celebratory meal to mark the anniversary of my operation. They were all so fantastic at supporting me through it."

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Mhairi is now taking the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen, which she admits does have side-effects, and is aiming to get her five-year all-clear.

"It's a strange feeling not being able to fully trust your body, and having to wait so many years to be told that you are, at last, cancer-free. But I am well now and that's how I intend to continue. I've got great longevity genes in my family."

And she laughs: "I always knew I was going to survive, but I'll certainly never be able to forget the fifth of November."

n The Edinburgh Macmillan Art Show in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support is on at the Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, 10.30am-5.30pm, until tomorrow.