When Mandee, 45, from Kent, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she never expected it would lead her to new friendships. Here, she explains how the support of other women living with the disease helped her through.
I remember sitting in the doctor’s waiting room trying to decide if I should mention the dip. “It’s probably glands because I breast fed for 10 months,” I thought. “It’s probably just my age. He’ll think I’m a fussing.”
It was October 2012. I was there because I had a bleeding, cracked mole on my back. My husband, Steve, had lost his mum to skin cancer so I knew the signs.
There was nothing wrong with the mole, but as I sat there with my top off I thought back to my TV in the kitchen. There’d been something on about the TLC breast awareness campaign. It had said to be aware of changes. This was a change. I asked the doctor if he would mind checking the dip in my boob.
Better to be safe than sorry
The doctor said it was probably nothing to worry about but better to be safe than sorry, so I was sent for a mammogram. I wasn’t in the least bit worried. I was just doing the sensible thing.
Steve came with me to the hospital. After a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, we were called back to a room on the right. I had gone left every other time, why was I going right? I felt sick. This wasn’t the way today was supposed to go.
“I am so sorry to tell you, you have breast cancer.”
I was numb. I didn’t know how to react. My first question was, “Will I need chemotherapy?” Yes, highly likely. “Will I lose my hair?” Most likely was again the answer. In retrospect, it’s crazy that my hair was the first thing I worried about.
Steve looked like he had been hit by a bus. Telling my parents, and then our son, Tom, was difficult because I didn’t know the answers yet to their questions. A breast cancer diagnosis has a ripple effect. It’s not just about you; it impacts your family, friends and everyone in your social group.
It was around this time that it became very clear to me the importance of being able to talk to others in the same position. My friend Amanda had been diagnosed a few years previously. She offered to introduce me to a friend of hers, Chantele, who had gone through treatment only that year.
Chantele and Amanda came over to have a chat. Soon, I was bombarding them with all my worries and questions. By this point I knew I needed a mastectomy, but I didn’t know what a mastectomy looked like. Was it really revolting? Would it be sliced off and leave a round hole?
Chantele simply said, “Have a look.” She lifted her top to show a torso, quite androgynous, no boob, and a thin line at an angle. The most inoffensive thing I had ever seen.
I couldn’t wait to have my mastectomy. By this point an MRI scan had shown a further three lumps ranging in size from 1mm up to 13mm. I had lobular carcinoma, a slightly less common variety of breast cancer that is in small lumps rather than one big one. My consultant told me that if I had come a month earlier, they wouldn’t have shown up at all on the mammogram. Thank god for my mole and the TLC campaign!
Just normal girls
Throughout this time, I had been receiving messages of support from Chantele and Amanda. They had hatched a plan to have a get-together with all the girls they knew who had had breast cancer. We met in a local pub. I was nervous, but excited.
There must have been about twelve of us. Some were waiting for surgery; others were further along and coping with tamoxifen-induced hot flushes. Two others, Wendy and Tracey, were around the same age as me and were also about to start chemotherapy. We were all linked by this huge thing in our lives.
It struck me how ordinary they were. Not inspirational, as cancer patients are usually described. Just normal girls with husbands and kids and all the usual worries and stresses that life brings. None of it stops because you’ve got cancer. The shopping will still need to be done, kids will still argue and husbands will still leave dirty washing on the floor. I went home feeling I wasn’t on my own.
Coming to terms with my appearance
After the mastectomy, I struggled with body image. I started covering over the mirrors so I couldn’t see myself when I got out the shower. I decided to ask Chantele how she coped with it. How did she get her head round this mutilation of our bodies being a good thing?
“Mate, think about the alternative.” That was that. And she was absolutely right.
Chemotherapy started soon after. I used a cold cap and kept about 40% of my hair. With the help of my hairdresser and a bit of clever comb-over I hid the bald bits and wore hats and headbands. It meant that it was up to me who knew about my cancer. I didn’t get sympathetic looks, and bizarrely, people who did know about my cancer assumed that it couldn’t be that serious because I still had hair!
Solid support and pink power
I continued to have numerous get-togethers and messages from the other breast cancer girls. Tracey, Wendy and I would arrange times to try and coincide with our good days. Our support for each other was solid. I never imagined cancer could create so much laughter.
Mid-way through my treatment I began to feel really uncomfortable with pink. At times it seemed that the world and his wife were running around with pink tinsel, fluff and glitter, all having a fabulous time in the name of breast cancer awareness. This wasn’t my experience of breast cancer – I was fat, one boob down, had patchy hair and feeling like death. I approached Chantele again, by now knowing she wasn’t one to mince words.
“Look mate, we need this money to be raised. This money will find a cure. It will also fund drugs to fight secondary breast cancer, so suck it up and put on the bloody tutu!”
It took time, but I understand now the power of pink and the incredible amount of money it raises, so I happily pull on the pink tutu and support the cause.
By August 2013 my treatment was finished. I had a follow up mammogram on my remaining breast, and it came back clear; however my type of cancer doesn’t always show up on mammograms. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t there.
The following year, I met my plastic surgeon who agreed to remove my other breast and do a bilateral reconstruction using my tummy. As I have a family history of breast cancer, as well as having had lobular carcinoma, she understood my concerns. Since then, my scars have faded and I’ve had nipples constructed and tattooed. I am chuffed to bits with my new boobs!
A whole new perspective
Our support group is sadly getting bigger and bigger. We currently have 24 girls all at various stages of their treatment. We now meet at the local rugby club as there are too many of us to fit round a kitchen table, and the pub didn’t allow us enough privacy.
Breast cancer is frightening, ugly and disfiguring. But through it, I have met some truly amazing women who have helped me appreciate life from a whole new perspective.