As Breast Cancer Care launches its new B-Aware campaign in Scotland, three Scottish women share stories of when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.
Margaret Wickham, Inverness
“I’ve always been breast aware, partly due to my professional training as a nurse, but also due to my own personal experience. I’ve always had ‘lumpy’ breasts and when I was as young as 21 years old I had a benign lump removed. Over the years I’ve always kept checking for lumps and bumps and in 2011 I had another one investigated. Again, it turned out to be benign fatty lump.
“The following year I was called back after a routine mammogram and yet again the lump was found to be benign, this time a cyst, which I subsequently had drained. Later that year, in 2012, I found another lump and – considering everything that had gone before - expected it to be benign.
“I could easily have ignored it, or put off a visit to the GP, but I knew how important it was to always have anything unusual checked out. I was referred to the breast clinic and everyone – me, my husband, my GP – just expected it to be nothing to worry about. Two hours after arriving at the clinic, following a mammogram, ultrasound and needle biopsy, I was called back in to the surgeon’s office. I knew right away that something was wrong when he asked for the nurse to come and join me. I was on my own at the clinic as I honestly didn’t think there was a need for my husband to be with me. I just expected to be told I had another cyst. This time though I was told I had breast cancer.
“I decided there and then that I would opt for a double mastectomy – I wanted the cancer dealt with as quickly and thoroughly as possible. There was no doubt in my mind that it was the right decision for me – and this was confirmed when I was told after the operation that I’d had a particularly aggressive form of cancer.
“In my Christmas letters to friends that year I remember starting off my news with ‘I’ve had a boob job and a tummy tuck!’ It was my way of breaking it to them gently, and with a bit of humour!
“I often say that although it is such a negative experience to have breast cancer, in ways it has had a positive side for me too. I was very open with my friends and family from the start – that gave me, not the cancer, the power – and I learned the value of true friendship at that time, and since. We actually all fought my cancer together.
“My message to everyone is to make sure you go and get checked by your GP as soon as you find anything at all unusual or different from what is normal for you.
“I could easily have become complacent as previous investigations were benign, and not bothered returning every time I found something unusual with my breasts – but just because you’ve found something benign before doesn’t mean that that’s always going to be the case. And the earlier you’re diagnosed, the more likely it is that the outcome will be a good one. Don’t die of embarrassment because you don’t want to bother your doctor.”
Valerie Gillies, Glasgow
“I found a lump in my breast not long after my 40th birthday. I wasn’t actively checking my breasts – I didn’t have any kind of routine – I just felt a lump one night when I was taking off my bra. The next day I decided to look online, as we do, and I was really lucky to come across the Breast Cancer Care website.
“I can honestly say that BCC has helped me in so many different ways ever since, through every step of my breast cancer journey and beyond. The information that I found on the website meant that I went along to my GP the next day much better prepared, and when I was sent for my mammogram and needle biopsy I had a good idea of what to expect.
“Things didn’t go altogether smoothly for several weeks after that, and I had a long wait for my diagnosis. The not knowing was the worst thing. When I was told I had cancer, I knew what I was dealing with and that helped me to look ahead in my usual optimistic way. I had two lumpectomies before it was agreed that a mastectomy with instant reconstruction was the way forward.
“I’m always one to look on the bright side, and the tummy tuck that was part of the reconstruction operation was definitely one of the silver linings of my breast cancer diagnosis!
“When I look back to that time, I remember noticing (a few months before I found the lump) that one of my breasts had got bigger. I’d always had one breast slightly smaller than the other and it was while I was out shopping for new bras that I realised I was filling both cups more equally than usual. I remember just being pleased about it at the time, that my bras would fit me better! I had no idea that a change in the size of your breast can be a sign of cancer.
“That’s why I think it’s so important that we get to know what’s normal for us. Everyone’s breasts are unique to them, so we’re really the best placed to notice if there are any changes. Get familiar with your breasts, and make sure you get checked by your GP if you notice anything different or unusual - that’s the message I’ll be hoping to spread when I’m on Betty’s Bus.
“Being a B-Aware volunteer has helped to fill a void in my life, especially with my kids growing up and after losing my mum. I find it so rewarding. And, if even just one person goes along to see their GP after hearing my story, or coming along to the roadshow, that means that every day I help out will have been worthwhile.”
Michelle Milne, Dundee
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 37, just two years ago. I definitely wasn’t breast aware – I thought I was too young, I just didn’t think it was important for me to be checking my breasts. I found the lump purely by accident; I’d raised my arms up, lying back on the couch, and I happened to feel a lump on the left hand side.
“I made an appointment with my GP and went along two days later, but I wasn’t too worried. I was referred to the breast clinic three weeks later and had a mammogram. That very same day the consultant told me that it was 90 per cent certain I had cancer. It came as a complete shock to me. The biopsy one week later confirmed the diagnosis of Stage 3 Ductal Carcinoma In Situ.
“I had chemotherapy first to shrink the tumour then a lumpectomy and 23 lymph nodes removed. After that, I had radiotherapy and, every three weeks, a Herceptin infusion. It was such a lot to cope with. My treatment finished in December last year and I’m still going through the process of trying to get my life back.
“Volunteering for Breast Cancer Care is definitely playing a part in that. I’ve just started delivering talks in the community to help raise awareness of the importance of getting to know what’s normal for your breasts. Looking back, I had noticed that one nipple seemed higher than the other, but I didn’t even know that this is one of the changes we should be looking out. I simply wasn’t breast aware.
“It’s so important to get familiar with what your breasts normally look and feel like, so that you’ll notice any changes and get them checked out as soon as possible.”
The new breast cancer roadshow for Scotland began its tour at Holyrood on 21 September.
The mobile bus service, run as part of Breast Cancer Care Scotland’s B-Aware campaign, was hosted at the Scottish Parliament by Bob Doris MSP. The bus will visit Scottish cities over the next six weeks to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
Betty’s Bus – named after Breast Cancer Care’s founder Betty Westgate – has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Chris Weir, Breast Cancer Care Scotland’s first-ever Breast Health Awareness Ambassador.
The bus will be travelling into the heart of communities across the nation, encouraging people to check their breasts regularly for any unusual changes.
Nicolas White, Head of Breast Cancer Care Scotland, said: “Anyone can be at risk of breast cancer, no matter what their age, gender or ethnicity, so it’s really important that people are aware of any unusual changes in their breasts, and act quickly if they are worried about anything.
“People can visit Betty’s Bus to ask questions about breast cancer and find out more about the signs and symptoms. All information and support is free and confidential, and there’s no need to make an appointment.”
Every year around 4,500 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Scotland – that’s the equivalent of 12 people a day. One in nine women in Scotland will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
Knowing what warning signs to look for can lead to earlier detection of breast cancer. This can be crucial in providing more effective treatment and, ultimately, saving lives.