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Cousins form unbreakable bond after being diagnosed with breast cancer just 24 hours apart

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Two cousins have forged an unbreakable bond after being diagnosed with breast cancer just 24 hours apart.

Both Laura Ainsworth, 36, and Mary Evans, 28, found lumps in their left breasts in early 2020, even though there is no breast cancer history in their family.

A whirlwind of tests followed until, eventually, in May last year, both women were given bombshell diagnoses of breast cancer in the same 24-hour period.

Navigating their treatment together, they went on to become an invaluable source of support for one another and, though kept physically apart by the coronavirus pandemic, were side-by-side, emotionally.

Now, having both been told by doctors that there are no traces of cancer left in their bodies, they are sharing their remarkable story to remind other young women to regularly check their breasts.

Mary, who works in digital marketing and lives in Prees, Shropshire, with her sales manager fiancé David Perry, 30, said: “There’s no history of breast cancer in our family, so for this to happen to Laura and I at the same time has been a huge shock for everyone.”

She added: “From the start, we promised one another we wouldn’t compare our situations, as that would just drive us crazy.

“She’s been such a huge support. Coronavirus means we haven’t physically seen each other since we were diagnosed, but we’ve messaged constantly to check in and talk about anything and everything.

“I can’t wait until the day I can finally see her in person, have a huge hug and a bit of a cry.”

And like her cousin, Laura, who lives an-hour-and-a-half away in Derby, with her fiancé and their two children aged seven and two, has found it immensely comforting to be able to talk to somebody who understands.

She said: “My loved ones have been amazing, but it’s so difficult to explain how cancer makes you feel to someone who hasn’t lived it.

Mary and Laura as children

“I had no idea what was normal and what wasn’t, so being able to text Mary and know I wasn’t alone meant the world. Cancer never leaves you emotionally. I’m not the same person I was before.”

Looking back, Mary recalls feeling unusually tired from mid-2019. “I was getting frustrated with myself for my lack of energy – but I never even thought about cancer,” she added.

Then, in early 2020, she noticed a hard, pea-sized lump in her left breast.

She continued: “I wasn’t previously one to regularly check my breasts – which I’ve obviously now realised is an incredibly important thing to make sure you do – so I’m amazed I even found it.”

Convinced it would not be anything serious, Mary pushed thoughts of the lump to the back of her mind.

But when it had not gone away by March, her fiancé David persuaded her to speak to her GP.

“I didn’t really want to go to the doctors, as the Covid-19 outbreak was starting to get very serious, so I kept putting it off,” she admitted. “But David made me realise I needed to speak to someone.”

After an initial consultation, Mary was referred to the breast clinic at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, where she had an ultrasound scan around two weeks later.

She recalled: “About 30 seconds into the scan, the doctor told me that she wanted to do a biopsy too. It all happened so quickly. Now, PPE is really normalised, but back then, seeing people in full masks and protective clothing was very surreal too.

“Alarm bells were ringing in my head, but I knew I’d get the results in a few weeks, so I tried to put it out of my mind until I knew more.”

Mary

Then, on 6 May, Mary was called back to hospital to discuss her results. Due to Covid restrictions, she had to attend the appointment alone.

There, doctors broke the news that she had HER2 triple positive breast cancer.

“Because of social distancing and so on, the nurses couldn’t even hug me or give me a consoling touch,” said Mary.

“I was crying and asking any question that came into my head, then I went outside to meet David, who’d been waiting for me. I was holding a folder full of leaflets about breast cancer, which he took one look at, and his face just fell.”

Next, Mary had the harrowing task of breaking the news to the rest of her family. And during that round of phone calls she discovered that, 60 miles away, Laura was also waiting for the results of a string of tests after she, too, had found a worrying lump.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mary. “I had no idea Laura had even been having tests.”

The following day, May 7, Laura, who first found her lump when her little boy accidentally kicked her while they were playing together, received her official diagnosis of grade three breast cancer.

Doctors had found two tumours, one of which was slightly oestrogen positive, and one of which was triple negative, in her left breast, as well as traces of the disease in the lymph nodes under her left armpit.

“My heart broke for Laura when I found out,” said Mary. “She’s got two kids, and I couldn’t help but think of them.

“I’m not a mum and this has been hard enough – I can’t imagine what it’s like to face cancer with children, too.”

From there, both women began their gruelling treatment. First, they had surgery, with Laura undergoing a full mastectomy at Derby Hospital, while Mary had a lumpectomy, in which only the tumour and surrounding tissue is removed.

Laura during treatment

Recalling her operation, Laura said: “Because there were two tumours in my breast, it was decided from the get go that I’d have a mastectomy, rather than a lumpectomy.

“In a way, I’m glad that was taken out of my hands. I didn’t want to look back with what ifs, or worry I’d made the wrong decision.”

She added: “The morning of the surgery was one of the worst of my whole journey.

“Because of Covid restrictions, nobody could come with me, so while my partner drove me to hospital, I had to go in alone. It was really scary.”

Then, in mid-July, both women began chemotherapy, with Mary having six rounds, and Laura eight.

Laura continued: “Chemotherapy affects everybody differently, but for me, the fatigue was something else. I felt angry at my situation. Going through cancer treatment during a pandemic meant that I couldn’t just stay in bed and take it easy.

“I have two young kids who were at home all the time and needed me.”

Both women received the same type of chemotherapy drug and, as the way their cycles fell meant that Laura would have her treatment the week before Mary, she often warned her what was coming.

While they were unable to see each other in person due to coronavirus guidelines classing them both as vulnerable, they kept in constant contact over the phone.

Mary having herceptin injections

Mary, who had her eggs frozen prior to starting chemotherapy, in a bid to preserve her fertility, said: “It was such a huge support, knowing Laura was out there, going through the same thing.

“We’d message to check in with one another, or to say things like, ‘I’ve got this ache or this pain – have you?’ We’d even talk about silly things like having a glass of wine to take our mind off things.”

“Our family is close knit and we’d essentially grown up together,” she continued.

“As kids, we’d run around on our family’s farm, and as adults I used to work near where Laura lives, so would see her for catch ups. I never dreamed we’d go through something like this together.”

Since being diagnosed, both Laura and Mary have had genetic testing to determine whether they carry any of the BRCA gene mutations that can increase the risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

However, neither do, meaning the fact that they have both been hit by cancer so young is pure bad luck.

Now, Laura is still receiving hormone treatment, while Mary continues to have regular injections of targeted therapy drug Herceptin, and also takes daily hormone tablets, which she will need to do for the next five years.

Both are currently cancer free – though Laura candidly admits that she cannot shake the fear of relapse.

She said: “Doctors told me I was essentially cancer-free after surgery, and the chemotherapy and radiotherapy was just to make sure there were no stray cells lurking.

“In my head, I’m convinced it’ll come back. Perhaps it’s because it’s still so fresh, but I can’t seem to move past that fear.

“The thought of leaving my children and not seeing them grow up really frightens me. People assume that the moment you finish cancer treatment, you’re flooded with relief and can move on with your life – but it’s not that easy.”

Sharing their story to raise awareness of breast cancer in younger women, Laura and Mary are speaking out as statistics from the charity CoppaFeel! shows that one in five young women would delay a visit to the GP for fear of catching Covid-19.

Laura in August 2020

Their research has also found that 61 per cent feel that there is not currently enough awareness being generated to encourage young people to be breast aware.

Keen to highlight the symptoms of breast cancer, which include changes in skin texture such as dimpling, swelling around the armpit and collarbone, nipple discharge, a rash or nipple inversion, Laura said: “It’s so important to know your body well enough to notice when something changes.”

She added: “Throughout my appointments, I was always the youngest person at the clinic. I could see people looking, thinking, ‘Poor her, she’s so young.’

“A lot of the support is tailored to older people, so you end up almost feeling like you don’t belong. But the truth is that cancer doesn’t discriminate, and can happen to young people too.”

Echoing her cousin’s sentiments, Mary is also supporting CoppaFeel!, who aim to ensure breast cancers are diagnosed earlier by educating people on how to check themselves – and when to seek help.

She concluded: “There’s a misconception that because you’re young and healthy, cancer won’t affect you. Laura and I are proof that isn’t the case.

“Now, all we want is to use what we’ve been through to educate other women – and to see one another in person for a huge hug.”

If you are worried about a change to your chest, contact your doctor for a phone appointment or visit coppafeel.org for more information

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/cousins-form-unbreakable-bond-after-19855464

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