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Mary got in contact with CoppaFeel! after being diagnosed with breast cancer during lockdown, at the age of 27. She spoke to us about being diagnosed during a pandemic, facing fertility fears and finding a community online.
Hi Mary, thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m 27 and live in Shropshire with my fiance, Dave. I come from a family of farmers and have been involved in agriculture and farming for as long as I can remember. My fiancé and I both work in that industry – it’s actually how we met. Last year I went freelance and made a move into Digital Marketing. Unfortunately, my work has been impacted by Covid, and more recently, my breast cancer diagnosis, which means I’ve still been picking up farm work alongside my freelancing jobs. More than anything I love the countryside and being outdoors, I’m happiest when going out on long walks and going to country shows – I’m hoping these will return after lockdown!
When did you notice any symptoms?
I noticed a lump at the beginning of the year (2020) and it didn’t go away. As a girl from a strong farming background, my family is very much of the attitude that ‘It will be nothing’ – myself included. So, I left it for a while, but my fiancé really pushed me to go and get it looked at. I eventually made an appointment to see my GP in late March 2020. I then got referred to the breast team. Never did I imagine the outcome would be cancer.
Did you know much about breast cancer before your diagnosis?
To be totally honest, I didn’t know a great deal.I had heard of CoppaFeel! through social media and was familiar with the organisation’s work through Fearne Cotton, who is an ambassador. It must have stuck in my mind because of the young and fun way it is promoted. Despite that, at 27, I felt like it wasn’t something that would happen to me. I know it may sound a little short-sighted, but I thought it happened to older women. I have known of a handful of women that have had a diagnosis but very few, and all of these were older than me. No one in my family has had any form of cancer, let alone breast cancer, so this has been such a huge learning curve for us all.
“The strange thing is, since my diagnosis I’ve come into contact with so many other young people who’ve been diagnosed, and it’s really opened my mind”
Less than 24 hours after I found out I had breast cancer, my cousin Laura, who’s 34, was diagnosed too. It was a huge shock, and we all feel pretty flummoxed by the whole thing. I am currently being tested to see if I have any genetic links that would increase my risk of breast cancer. Of course I am hoping I don’t, because this opens us another door into a bigger world of risk for myself and my family.
When i first noticed the lump I casually mentioned it to my mum and my fiancé, but none of us were particularly concerned that it was anything sinister. It was more than two months before I went to the GP, which included a two-week ‘watch-and-wait- period, where I was asked to continue monitoring my symptoms. Still unworried, I returned to my doctor a fortnight later – around the end of March.
“This was when lockdown had just come into place and I was greeted with full head-to-toe PPE and doctors wearing visors.”
It was such a surreal experience. The doctor had a feel and said she thought it was a cyst, but she would refer me anyway for peace of mind. I then received an appointment to go to the Breast Clinic at Shrewsbury Hospital. I was expecting just a consultation and a scan, but immediately after my ultrasound, they asked me to have a biopsy as well. This rang alarm bells for me, but, having been told I would get the results in a few weeks, I tried to put it out of my mind until I knew more.
It was right at the height of COVID-19 when I received my follow-up letter about making an appointment to discuss my results. Nervous about visiting a hospital during lockdown, I rang the clinic to ask if I could have a telephone appointment. When they said I needed to visit in person, I was terrified.
My follow-up appointment came not long after, on the 6th of May. Because of lockdown guidance, I was advised not to bring my fiancé in with me and I remember sitting in the waiting room on my own. When they called me for my appointment, the clinician seemed alarmed that I was unaccompanied, and suggested that I could go and get my fiance. At this point, I was fairly certain it was bad news, but I just wanted to get the results, and said I was okay to go in on my own.
I went into a room with a doctor and she said that the results indicated that I had breast cancer. They were just as surprised as me and told me that they did not expect this in a woman of my age. The whole experience was made even more strange by the fact that there was so much PPE and no faces or smiles. There could be no hugging or consoling touch. One of the breast care nurses sat near me and could see my eyes welling up. The nurse was really supportive, and whilst neither of them tried to dress up the facts, she was a huge source of emotional support.
The doctor focussed on the clinical side of things, explaining the results and what the next steps would be. They told me they wanted to do genetics testing and that I would be referred to the fertility clinic at a later stage, as this was closed due to COVID. They also told me that I would need to start my treatment soon.
“Everything after that was just a huge blur. It felt like there was so much information to take in and I was so overwhelmed.”
I just wanted Dave there with me. I remember just thinking ‘this is not real’, and to be honest, there are times when I still think that. I went and sat with the breast cancer nurse and she went through things with me, gave me a folder of information and showed me how I could leave the hospital through a more private side door. My fiancé spotted me walking and rushed over. I could see the blood rush from his face when he saw the folder in my hand. We stood in the hospital car park and both cried.
How are you coping now?
I am a really positive person. A lot of people have said I am very strong, but i’m just trying to keep upbeat. That’s my way of dealing with it. I try my best to look at it objectively; I just want to get on with the treatment and get better. My fiancé has experienced cancer in his family and he is positive too. We are both trying to take each step at a time and make a bit of light of the situation…if that is even possible!
I have been diagnosed as a Grade 3 HER2 +, Oestrogen + and Progesterone +. Because of Covid, the NHS referred me to a private clinic for my lumpectomy, which I had on the 4th June. I am currently on my second round of fertility treatment to make embryos and freeze them. That’s another huge thing to have to consider and begin to go through. I will then start chemo on the 16th of July and will have to take FEC-T and Herceptin for a year. Following chemo (if I do not have the genetic factor to consider) I will have radiotherapy and then hormone treatment.
“One thing I have learnt is nothing is guaranteed in this whole crazy cancer life”
I am nervous about starting chemotherapy. With the surgery I felt like I knew what to expect: I’d have the operation, i’d probably experience some pain and discomfort whilst it healed, and then i’d rest and recover. But with chemo I feel nervous of the unknown – because I don’t know what side effects I will have. I’m also trying the Cold Cap to see if I can preserve some hair, and I know that can be quite painful. I just hope it works. The nurses tell you about the symptoms you might experience, but there are so many different side effects, and everyone reacts to chemo differently, so you just don’t know. But the way I see it the quicker I start, the quicker it ends…hopefully. I call it the blip in my life, and I hope that is what it will be.
There are times when I feel like my whole life revolves around cancer, appointments and fertility treatment. With COVID it has thrown it’s other spanners into the situation. Like, not being able to see my family during this hard time as much as I wanted. Not being able to even go for a coffee with a friend and get my mind off it. You are at home, thinking about it 24/7.
Lockdown must have made things particularly tough. Who have you turned to for support?
My fiancé and my parents are my biggest support. Dave and I live together in our beautiful little cottage in the Shropshire countryside and it really is as idyllic as it sounds. He is a real good egg.
I am thankful every day now that I am here. And on a practical note, Dave works a busy job and I am self employed so we smash the working from home – and that keeps me sane. Despite that, it can be hard not having someone to talk to who’s actually going through it – who understands what it feels like to be diagnosed with breast cancer in your twenties.
“I’m the youngest person at the breast clinic by a long way and it can feel really lonely.”
Sometimes you just want to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. That’s where i’ve found that my social media community has helped massively. The cancer community on Facebook and Instagram are just incredible. I haven’t met half these amazing people and yet I am forming new friendships – speaking to women on the other side of the country who are in a similar situation to me.
Has your experience during this time changed anything else for you?
My outlook on life has definitely changed. I always felt like I appreciated life but now it really means so much more.Since my diagnosis I have really tried to share my story through my Instagram because I want my friends and family to know this could happen at any age.
“I’ve been so overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers and the messages I’ve received from people telling me i’ve inspired them to start checking their boobs.”
One of the things I didn’t know before my diagnosis was that breast screening is less effective for younger people, because we have dense breast tissue that can make it harder for mammograms to identify changes. I think a lot of people are aware that breast screening is offered to women in their fifties and think ‘i can’t be at risk’. But actually, breast cancer can happen to you at any age – i’m the case in point! I would love to use my story to raise awareness and educate young women on the fact that getting to know their boobs could save their life.
Have you got any advice for people who might be in a similar situation? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Differently?! I probably would have taken the lump more seriously, I would have told myself that breast cancer can happen to young people too.
“I always always tell people to check, even if it seems small, go and get it checked out”
That is what our NHS is for. Try your best to be positive. It has really helped me with the process. I want to remember this part of my ‘blip’ as a time when i tried my best to enjoy every moment, not a period of being down in the dumps.
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