Seven years ago, Hellen Baker found a lump on her breast. She had been checking them regularly due to campaigns and media attention encouraging women to check for abnormalities.
After being diagnosed in July 2013, the now 44-year-old said she just “wanted it all gone” as she felt like her body had “turned” against her.
Hellen opted to have a right-side mastectomy and had four months of chemotherapy and one week of “intense” radiotherapy.
She also underwent one year of perception injections and two years later had a breast reconstruction.
“I was scared, but chose to have a mastectomy over a lumpectomy,” she said.
“I just wanted it all gone. It is a strange feeling, like your body has turned against you.
“It took me months afterwards before I could look in the mirror, I was in my thirties then and it really affected me.
“There was a dent in my chest where my breast used to be, I felt I had lost my femininity, I was uneven, unattractive physically.”
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Hellen said she struggled with her emotions towards her breasts for two years and felt as if she was on “some crazy rollercoaster”.
“Most days I would breeze through even make jokes and be very positive,” she explained.
“But some days were very dark for me, wondering ‘would I beat this or would it beat me’?”
Hellen said her outlook on life has now changed and she is a “stress-free person”.
“I appreciate it is just not worth it, life is so short and unpredictable, you have to live for today,” she said.
Hellen praised the treatment she received at Derriford Hospital, noting the doctors, nurses, chemotherapy consultants and health care assistants were “incredible people”.
“They do an amazing job with what resourced they have,” she said.
“The Mustard Tree was great, to have somewhere peaceful to wait for your treatment made a huge difference.
“It can be stressful sitting in amongst a lot of people at different stages of cancer, and it’s very clinical and cold in waiting rooms.
“There is an amazing local group called Bosom Pals, advertised in The Mustard Tree. Even if you don’t feel like meeting up, these ladies are all going through or have been through cancer and someone will always be online if you need to chat at 2pm or 2am.
“We know sometimes you can’t sleep and you think of questions or you just want to chat to someone. It’s a great group, I found a lot of life-long friends through them.”
Hellen urges anyone who is unsure how to check their breasts, or does not know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, to research online.
You can contact the Bosom Pals via email on [email protected].
Advice from The Primrose Foundation
Whether your friend or family member is newly diagnosed or in the midst of treatment, you will want to do all you can to help.
The Primrose Foundation has put together some ways of helping that you may find useful.
1. Hands-on support
Many people want to carry on doing as much as possible during their treatment and you should encourage this – it helps things feel more ‘normal’. However, side effects can sometimes make it more difficult for your loved one to carry on with the everyday tasks and asking for help is not always easy.
Knowing how to help can often be tricky too. Your loved one may not have the brain space to say what they need, and you also need to think about what you’re able to do and how much time you’re able to commit.
Instead of saying ‘What can I do for you?’ try focusing on something specific so ‘Would you like me to pick the children up from school tomorrow?’ or ‘Give me a shopping list and I’ll drop it on your doorstep so you don’t even have to chat if you’re too tired.’
Give your loved one an ‘open ended invite’. They may not know how they will feel day to day, so call or message and ask how they are on that day and make a plan from there.
Other ideas we have been told could help are:
- Washing, ironing or putting away clothes – take a load home and drop it back
- Gardening – even just some weeding or mowing the lawn
- Cooking some meals for the freezer that are nutritious and just need heating up
- Offering a lift to and from any hospital appointments – as friends, could you share a
- Taking their children to or from school, to the park or cinema to allow them to rest
- Shopping – grab a shopping list and just do it or order an online shop for them
- Research – do they need help looking for make up or wigs
Your loved one may well be stubborn and not want to accept help or they may even feel embarrassed. Keep trying but be careful not to take over!
2. Emotional support
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re likely to experience many different emotions ranging from anger, fear, sadness and even depression.
Feelings can change from day to day and even hour to hour – that is all totally ‘normal’ and ok. As a friend or family member looking on, you may find it difficult to know what to say and you may be worried about saying the wrong thing. You’ll also want to make sure you’re helping in the right way.
Just being there for someone and standing alongside them is the most important way of helping and supporting.
Let the tears fall – yours and theirs! Don’t let it bottle up. Physical contact (if they are happy and you feel comfortable) is good too – touching an arm, holding a hand or giving a hug is a wonderful way of showing your support. And if you aren’t a ‘hugger’, just sitting close and letting them know you are there is more than enough too.
Of course, there may be bad moments and your loved one can become angry. You may take this personally but try not to. Remember that the likelihood is they are upset about what they are going through rather than being upset with you.
If you know other friends or family that have been diagnosed and you think they could help, do suggest it but only at their own pace. They may not be ready to hear about a random friend, so make sure you respect that.
Distract as much as you can and as much as they want to. Sometimes a little joke or a funny story can really lighten the mood. Just sending a message, a funny gift or a postcard can be a great help in them passing the time during certain treatments.
Above all, just being there to listen to your loved one talk about how they are feeling can help them enormously. You don’t always have to try and fix something or have all the answers.
3. Don’t forget you!
Supporting a loved one can be demanding on your time and upsetting, so we want to remind you to look after yourself as well.
We would say, make sure you’re eating well, exercising if you can – just a little walk can do wonders! Try and get a good night’s sleep, if you have lots on your mind, write it down in a notebook so you can come back to it.
If you are finding it difficult to do these things and are feeling overwhelmed, let a friend, family member or your GP know – they are all there to help you too.
Breast cancer – the signs
The following information has been taken from the NHS website, here.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50, but younger women can also get breast cancer.
About 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. There’s a good chance of recovery if it’s detected at an early stage.
For this reason, it’s vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always have any changes examined by a GP.
In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. Find out more about breast cancer in men.
Symptoms of breast cancer
Breast cancer can have several symptoms, but the first noticeable symptom is usually a lump or area of thickened breast tissue.
Most breast lumps are not cancerous, but it’s always best to have them checked by a doctor.
You should also see a GP if you notice any of these symptoms:
- a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- discharge from either of your nipples, which may be streaked with blood
- a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
- dimpling on the skin of your breasts
- a rash on or around your nipple
- a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast
Breast pain is not usually a symptom of breast cancer.
Find out more about the symptoms of breast cancer.
Causes of breast cancer
The exact causes of breast cancer are not fully understood. However, there are certain factors known to increase the risk of breast cancer.
- age – the risk increases as you get older
- a family history of breast cancer
- a previous diagnosis of breast cancer
- a previous non-cancerous (benign) breast lump
- being tall, overweight or obese
- drinking alcohol
Find out more about the causes of breast cancer.
Diagnosing breast cancer
After examining your breasts, a GP may refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further tests. This might include breast screening (mammography) or taking a small sample of breast tissue to be examined under a microscope (a biopsy).
Find out more about how breast cancer is diagnosed.
Types of breast cancer
There are several different types of breast cancer, which develop in different parts of the breast.
Breast cancer is often divided into either:
- non-invasive breast cancer (carcinoma in situ) – found in the ducts of the breast (ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS) which has not spread into the breast tissue surrounding the ducts. Non-invasive breast cancer is usually found during a mammogram and rarely shows as a breast lump.
- invasive breast cancer – where the cancer cells have spread through the lining of the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue. This is the most common type of breast cancer.
Other, less common types of breast cancer include:
It’s possible for breast cancer to spread to other parts of the body, usually through the blood or the axillary lymph nodes. These are small lymphatic glands that filter bacteria and cells from the mammary gland.
If this happens, it’s known as secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer.
Breast cancer screening
However, you should be aware that a mammogram might fail to detect some breast cancers.
It might also increase your chances of having extra tests and interventions, including surgery, even if you’re not affected by breast cancer.
Women with a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer may be offered screening and genetic testing for the condition.
As the risk of breast cancer increases with age, all women who are 50 to 70 years old are invited for breast cancer screening every 3 years.
Women over the age of 70 are also entitled to screening and can arrange an appointment through their GP or local screening unit.
The NHS is in the process of extending the programme as a trial, offering screening to some women aged 47 to 73.
Find out more about breast cancer screening.