The Big Cs: Cancer & Conversation

To mark National Conversation Week, Prevent Breast Cancer supporter Jan Greenwood, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, shares her story and explains how speaking with her loved ones has helped her through over the past 12 months.

Having a ridiculously positive personality did not prepare me for the dreadful diagnosis of breast cancer. Deep down I feared the worst, but convinced myself that my inverted nipple was due to a minor problem with my milk ducts. The power of positive thinking would resolve everything. If only it was so simple.

I consider myself to be an intelligent woman who would not miss the signs of something sinister. I went directly to my GP and was referred within days. I recalled that a few months previously I had noticed a dry, creamy blob on my nipple. As this did not reoccur, I thought no more of it. Around the same time, my daughter, Sophie, asked how often I checked my breasts. Honestly, not as often as I should.

However, I did so and thought that I felt one, two, three small lumps. Panic set in momentarily, but then I could not find them again. Neither could my husband. As there were several of them and they had disappeared, I assumed that they were of no consequence. A few months later, I noticed the change to my nipple. I still could not feel any lumps, nor could my GP. Within days of seeing him, I had an appointment for a mammogram and ultrasound at my local Breast Clinic. There, the nightmare began. I was totally unprepared for the immediate diagnosis, not expecting a verdict until after receiving the results of the biopsies.

In the days prior to this, the very clever and informative ‘Know Your Lemons’ campaign was launched. I realised then that I was presenting with more than one symptom. What a simple but effective way to get the message across. Why then do many of my friends look blank when I mention the campaign?

Spreading the word
Prior to surgery, I spread the word around my shocked friends and family, informing them of the various symptoms and stressing the benefit of regular checks. Many mammograms and prostrate tests were hastily booked. I was the last person they expected to succumb to this terrible disease. I have never smoked, I drank moderately, I enjoy a healthy balanced diet, I walk regularly and I have an active outdoor lifestyle.

My main concern was for my daughter, Sophie. Thankfully, as I was 58, it was not considered to be genetic, despite my paternal grandmother, aunt and cousin having suffered from breast cancer. My daughter is sensibly breast aware. Unfortunately, breast cancer has no boundaries regarding age.

It was confirmed that I had three early stage tumours requiring a mastectomy and that several lymph nodes were also involved. A scan then revealed that the cancer was advanced and that I had secondary cancer in my bones. The shock was devastating. Through this dark, terrifying time it was the power of friendship that pulled me through.

The power of conversation
Talking to close friends was a great comfort, for me and for my husband. It reinforced the need for a positive outlook. When you are at your lowest point, it is those closest to you who will pick you up and give you the strength to carry on. I was also contacted by a friend of a friend who is a breast cancer nurse. This lady was invaluable in helping me to accept my situation and to cope with what was to come. She was a total stranger, but I could share with her my tears and innermost fears. I could discuss issues that I felt were too distressing to raise with even my husband or closest friends for fear of upsetting them. She had the experience and knowledge to really understand. I have met her since and we are still in contact. To know that she is there whenever I feel the need to chat is such a comfort. Discussing your fears and feelings does help to ease the burden of this life changing diagnosis.

The most difficult conversation of all was breaking the news to my daughter. To learn that I had breast cancer was a huge blow. To be followed so quickly by the second diagnosis was shockingly cruel. We have had frank discussions since. Both of us accept that our lives will never be the same again, but also that life must and will go on. We have chosen to continue as normal, living life to the full, enjoying each day, making happy memories, convinced that, despite the odds, together we shall beat this.

It is a little discussed fact that over 30 per cent of breast cancer patients will later develop advanced secondary cancer. Too painful to accept and even more so to talk about. This is so wrong. Conversation is essential. It promotes understanding of a difficult topic and allows those affected by this cruel disease – not just the cancer patient themselves, but also their loved ones – to better appreciate the views and needs of everyone concerned. That way we can better support one another.

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