Helena shares her experiences of being diagnosed with breast cancer and some of the choices she made about her treatment.
Helena was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 and started documenting her journey through treatment through personal video diaries. She looks back at her treatment and tells us what she did to keep some control over her diagnosis.
Please note, these are Helena’s personal views and treatment choices and every woman’s experience of diagnosis and treatment is different.
I sat in a small, plain white room. An old 1980s style wooden desk to my left decorated with a standard issue PC and keyboard.
The usual royal blue hospital curtain was pulled back revealing a cold-looking leather examination table. The windows didn't offer much in the way of a view but, that was the last thing on my mind.
I was alone in that room. Completely alone. The surgeon and the breast cancer nurse were almost part of the furniture that day. I mean they sort of blended in, you know?
I wasn't much interested in anything other than finding out the results of the biopsy, mammogram and ultrasound scans I’d had two weeks before. After all, I 'knew' already deep inside what it was and I only had a two hour window to get this thing over with before having to rush to the local bowling alley to joyfully greet people at our son's ninth birthday party!
I remember that day as being sunny and gorgeous... It was August and the sun shone through the window onto my arms and legs so much it was almost uncomfortable.
Three people entered the room, one of them had a mildly solemn look on his face. He did the relevant security and ID checks and he began to speak. The words I heard were blah-blah I’m terribly sorry it is cancer-blah-blah-chemotherapy-wahwahwah-mastectomy-wafflewaffle-blah. In fact, it was a lot like the teacher on Charlie Brown!
I remember breaking into an uncontrollable cry, it lasted maybe 10 seconds and I was fine, then it happened again. It wasn’t even the news as such that made me cry. Firstly, anger and sheer befuddlement at how on earth this could happen to me! I mean, I’m a dance and fitness instructor, I don’t smoke or drink, my diet is great and I’m super fit! How does any of this make sense?
The second time I cried was when I heard the word chemotherapy… My curly hair has earned me the nickname ‘Noodles’. Although it is my ‘signature’, I didn’t really mind losing my hair. But I found my imagination getting the better of me and I immediately pictured myself looking like Nosferatu’s ugly sister. That was it, I cried again!
The surgeon looked at me with sympathetic eyes and said:
“Do you need a few moments, we don't want to overwhelm you.”
“No, I just need you to give me everything I need to know (while clicking my fingers in a demanding fashion), I've got two hours until my son's party starts...”
“Do you have any questions? Is there anything you'd like to ask?”
“Yes... Do you HAVE to chop my boob off!?”
“Unfortunately there is no safe way we can allow you to keep your breast.”
“Ok. Next question, am I going to die?”
“No that is why we are attacking this with an aggressive treatment to kill the cancer so that you can have the best chance of survival.”
“Fine then,” I said, “cut them both off - I don’t give a sugar.” (Or words to that effect!)
So, that was it… in the next two weeks I would start chemotherapy, lose my hair and look forward to having my boob chopped off and an IV shoved up my arm every month for a whole year of Herceptin treatment. Herceptin is this super-amazing-antibody drug that puts a fence up around the HER2 protein on the cancer cells. The cancer then starves and dies.
I chose to have chemotherapy first because at the time I was so physically strong I felt I would be able to handle the chemo better than if I was recovering from major surgery. I figured one set of recovery was better and less time consuming.
I chose: chemotherapy – mastectomy – recovery, instead of mastectomy – recovery – chemotherapy – recovery.
I didn’t want to have to stop everything and put my life on hold! All this cancer and treatment stuff was such a bloody inconvenience and I needed normality ASAP!
Getting back to work
I was told by almost everyone that I should take it easy. My answer? “I refuse to sit down or stop until this cancer makes me!” In fact, the first thing I did after my first chemo was go to the gym (teehee).
I continued to work at schools across the city, teaching dance and loving every minute. Apparently schools are the worst place for picking up germs, so when I was hug-bombed by the kids I did it standing up so they couldn’t get me round the neck. I also carried hand sanitiser. Problem solved!
I love my job and seeing hundreds of excited faces every week made me feel so happy and helped me to forget for a while. Once I finished my 3x FEC I then started 3x Docetaxel. A close friend who had been through the same treatment 18 months previous said:
“Helena, you’re going to need to take time off work, I’d say until at least Christmas!” (It was early October)
“Nah, I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
“I don’t think you understand Helena, this is going to mess you up! You need time off!”
“So, maybe I’ll have chemo on Fridays, have four days off and go back to work on Wednesday?!”
I seem to remember her calling me something sweary.
I wouldn’t change a thing about my treatment
The oncologist also warned that these last three treatments with Docetaxel can make you feel increasingly rotten, but of course I remained stubborn. Although I found it hard to teach with no voice at times and feeling terrible, I compromised by having chemo, taking a week off, then back to work before my next treatment. It was the only way I could have some sort of control over what was happening to me. I refused to let cancer take over!
Although at the time I suffered greatly with various symptoms and infections, looking back… I wouldn’t change a thing about how I handled my treatment!
You can watch Helena’s video diary documenting her journey on her YouTube channel
Find out more about how breast cancer is treated