Brenda's Story 

May 2011 is a month I will never forget. I had just turned 47 and things were looking good; I was happily preparing for my eldest daughter’s wedding in June, when my gorgeous Cocker spaniel started acting strangely around me.

She wanted to be on my lap and was putting her face close to mine and just sniffing me. I thought there were crumbs on my top but she kept doing it. One evening, she jumped up on me whilst I laid on the sofa and her paw landed on my breast. I found this very painful and next morning I looked expecting there to be a bruise and found ‘the lump’.

I’m not a worrier but something was telling me to get this checked, so off I went to the GP. Fast forward 2 weeks and I’m having a scan and a biopsy all within an hour.

I thought it was a cyst and so did they - so convinced that it would be nothing, I went into work the morning of the results. I even told my husband not to bother coming. It was a sunny day and I planned to spend the afternoon in the garden!

How wrong I was. In a matter of fact way, I was asked if I had private medical insurance. It was a nasty cancer.

I remember I was calm. Due to the position of the tumour it would probably need a wide local excision and depending on the results after the op maybe chemotherapy.

I had 3 days to prepare and drove home in a daze. My mind reeling; trying to take in what I had been told. My husband and 2 daughters were upset - I knew then, I would deal with this head on and remain positive.

I had the surgery at Spire and thankfully the surgeon came to see me afterwards and said that the tumour was removed with good clear margins and the lymph nodes looked clear, this apparently was good news.

To be honest, I hadn't known anyone with Breast cancer and didn't fully understand that there were different types and all required different forms of treatment. I was home next day sore and tearful.

I had a three week wait for results and during this time, I attended my daughter’s wedding and went on a pre-planned holiday to Cyprus! It was a bit surreal, but the sunshine on my bones felt healing to me.

The letter from the oncologist, brought me back to earth with a bump. But at our meeting, he said three tests had come back negative; we thought this was fantastic news. But he went on to say that he would recommend chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

I got home and told everyone my good news; I said I was all clear but the treatment is just a precaution. Only then did I decide to do some research. Why would I need such gruelling treatment when my results were negative? I logged on to the Breast Cancer Care site and joined a forum for newly diagnosed ladies.

The first question I was asked was ‘What type of cancer do you have?’. Oh I don't have it anymore my three tests were all negative – I was directed to the forum Triple Negative.

Google Triple Negative cancer, and what I read shocked me. I felt so stupid that I hadn't asked more questions and I was also angry that the surgeon and the breast nurse had not given me all the facts.

Triple Negative is an aggressive type of cancer and nearly always grade 3, only 20% of women get this so it’s considered a rare type. I read that it has a tendency to come back and normally shows its self as a secondary cancer within the first 2 years.

I thought ‘That’s me done for!’ and that moment was one of my lowest.

I cried; I was frightened; I was heartbroken. I thought I would not see my twin Granddaughters, grow up.

My poor family and friends were just as shocked, but decided to remain positive and be strong in front of family and friends.

Once I’d met with my oncologist, I felt better; she was the expert and whilst she could not guarantee that the cancer would not come back, she reassured me that it was isolated.

At the pre-chemo tests, I was asked if I had any other health issues. Apart from some unusual heart palpitations, which I’d put down to my age.

Cardiology tests followed (as chemo drugs can cause damage to the heart) and I was prescribed 6 doses of Taxol.

D Day arrived, and I was lucky enough to have my chemo at home. I still felt fine after two days, so I decided that the following day, I would go back to work. But, what was I thinking! The following day I felt like I’d been run over. Every bone in my body ached; I felt weak and so, so sick. I instantly regretted agreeing to this treatment and wondered how I would cope having six doses every 3 weeks.

The next few days seemed to drag; I was miserable and making everyone else miserable. I had been told to avoid lots of visitors especially those who had colds etc as my immune system was being depleted and to get an infection was dangerous, so why oh, why when I noticed my belly button was sore and weeping did I not seek help?

My friend came to see me, bringing me the ice lollies, I'd craved and by the Monday morning, I felt great again. I gleefully told everyone that this chemo lark was ok and that I’d be back in work soon.. raised eyebrows all round!

By tea time, I started to feel very unwell again and kept taking paracetamol (wrong thing to do as they were masking a fever). It turned out that I had the life threatening Neutropenic Sepsis, probably brought on by the infected belly button. I then spent a wretched week in hospital being pumped full of antibiotics.

Surprisingly, I still wanted to go into work for a day or two. I craved normality, but that weekend, my hair started to fall out. I was leaving a trail of blonde hair wherever I went. My hairdresser, kindly came to my house and cut it short. I thought I looked like man and my hubby had a shock when he came home but only said nice things, which is just as well because Id have punched him on the nose (the steroids made me quite aggressive!).

I had my wish and went to work the next day, my colleagues were wonderful but my hair all fell out the next day and that was my low point; I cried and cried.

Once again, I decided I could be strong. I dug out some scarves and surprised myself with my tying techniques. I put on a bit of make-up and felt so much better. I did have a nice blonde wig but it felt weird so never wore it. I had just started to feel normal and then it was time for round two.

None of it was straightforward though! I had a anaphylactic reaction to the next round, so it was abandoned. Then I ended up in coronary care with a heart rate of 240bpm, home after 3 days and now taking heart medication.

Round three with a new drug, Abraxane, and back to A&E being cardioverted to bring my heart rate down. Whilst in coronary care, my twin Granddaughters were born! They were upstairs in whilst I was bed ridden. This was unbearable, as I so wanted to see them but sadly I missed those first few days.

Round four was pretty much the same but by now I had been back to Spire about my heart. With three things wrong with my heart (Atrial fibrillation, counter clockwise flutter and focal tachycardia), I would now need more drugs and a procedure to correct this.

Round five was no more bearable as I was taking a drug to stimulate my bone marrow. And by now I had lost my eyebrows and lashes – I looked blank! I really wasn’t sure if I could carry on, but at this point I was invited to take part in the Breast Cancer Care fashion show, with a full makeover, which really made me smile.

Round six chemo and MRI scans revealed a benign tumour on my spine – what more could there be?

Next part of the treatment was 15 sessions of radiotherapy, every day for three weeks. I decided to drive myself to Velindre hospital and had the treatment, then went to work. Yes, I was exhausted but I had the fashion show to look forward to and then a much needed holiday to Miami.

I loved the show and it was fantastic walking down the catwalk on the arm of a an International rugby player and seeing my nearest and dearest cheering me on. I really felt I had achieved something and had got to the end of it. Battered, bruised but alive!

Here are my survival tips!

1.       Be prepared and do your research. Don't be afraid to ask advice and make a list of questions before you see your doctors.

2.       Put yourself first. This is about you. It’s hard trying to stay upbeat to protect the feelings of others.

3.       Keep your best friends close and be prepared to lose friends along the way. My circle of friends has got smaller but that was my choice.

4.       If you feel you want to work then do it. I hated having the cancer label. I wasn't dying. I was striving to live and going to work helped me. It helped that my boss was fantastic and she is now a very good friend.

5.       Don’t be scared to lose your hair! It’s a small price to pay to stay alive. Embrace baldness and experiment with new makeup techniques and scarves. It made me realise that actually a short pixie style really did suit me and I keep it short now. Also your morning routine takes much less time... every cloud eh?!

6.       Be prepared to gain weight. The steroids and reduced activity all contribute to this. But the time will come, when it soon comes off.

7.       Lastly, don't be afraid to cry. Who cares what people think? This is your fight. Deal with it your way. Do what you want to do and make the most of every day. Its rare that women do that, but this is your time. 

So, how is life now?

I am six years cancer free. I have had three heart procedures and I'm now mostly symptom free. I work part time, exercise and enjoy my life. I love travel and spending time with my family and friends. I am healthy. I am me.

 

​Read the news article on Brenda's cocker spaniel here and how she discovered the breast cancer.

 

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