I always knew I needed to keep an eye on my breasts. I lost my mother to breast cancer when she was just 43 (Dad also sadly died from cancer in his late 30s), and as I grew up I was determined to make sure that if it ever happened to me I caught it early.
I lived in America for 20 years, where I could get regular mammograms easily – the Americans are much hotter on preventative medicine than we are. Over there they seem to have everything you could possibly want when it comes to women’s health. Every year they take your full history and look at what your risk factors are, and they assign you any treatment and testing that needs to be done. So religiously they sent me a note every year inviting me for a smear and a mammogram.
But when I moved back to the UK in my 40s I was dismayed to find the NHS didn’t screen women until they hit 50.
I learned that a charity in Belfast (I live in Strabane, Northern Ireland) called Action Cancer offered free screening services for women aged 40 to 49. So along with my best friend Frances, we would go every year to get tested. We’d make a day of it, going out for lunch and to the shops in Belfast.
It was on one of those routine visits to the Action Cancer HQ (they also have a bus which drives around Northern Ireland, pitching up in car parks for women to get screened) that a mammogram showed up an irregularity. Within days, I was told I had four tumours and was given a double mastectomy.
I am living proof of the importance of giving women mammograms before they hit 50. I’ve always banged the drum for early screening, but especially now that I have been through what I’ve been through.
The mammogram I had found one tumour in my left breast. But a further ultrasound discovered two more in my right breast. I could see them while they were doing the biopsies. The nurse said: “Are you alright?” I said “yes I’m fine, but I can see there are three tumours there, not one”. She clicked and said: “you’re a nurse aren’t you?”
As a nurse, I could assess my own prognosis better than most. I thought well, that’s it then. I’m done for. Thankfully, my oncologist was more optimistic. He told me I’d only need hormones, that he was confident he could get it all out. He planned to give me a mastectomy on my right breast and a lumpectomy on my left, but I insisted he take them both off. “I don’t care at this point,” I said, 49 and unsentimental about my breasts. “They’re poison, I don’t need them. Why wait for something else to come back later? Just get rid of them.”
Being a nurse, you know too much about worst case scenarios. And given my family history, I wasn’t taking any chances. I wanted a full mastectomy. It’s a good job I was so insistent, because a few days later when I was under the knife, they found another tumour at the back near my ribcage.
I was given a double mastectomy and had reconstructive surgery all at the same time. Three years on, I’m fighting fit and relieved to be rid of the cancer. But it isn’t lost on me that it could have all been so different.
It seems nonsensical that women aren’t screened until they hit 50, particularly as some forms of breast cancer are associated with hormonal changes and the onset of the menopause. You can start going into the menopause in your early 40s. Why not start scanning then? The Action Cancer bus came to Strabane where I live a couple of years ago. Within a week they had diagnosed nine women in the area.
I once asked one of the nurses who was scanning me what might have happened if I hadn’t had the early mammogram when I did. Would I have felt the tumours eventually? She took my finger and pushed it into my left breast. “Do you feel that now?” I did, but I would never have pushed that hard, and I’m someone who is used to checking my own breasts. Six weeks, she said. That’s the difference between being fully cured or having to have chemotherapy and radiation. If that isn’t a good enough reason to lower the mammogram age, I don’t know what is.
As told to Eleanor Steafel