Thangam Debbonaire MP is one of our Breast Cancer Ambassadors. Here, she talks about her experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer, the challenges of returning to work and her hopes for the future.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the Bristol Breast Care Centre on 19 June 2015. I was 48 and I had just been elected as a Member of Parliament in the general election, for my home constituency Bristol West. I’d spent three years juggling job, family, relationship and being a parliamentary candidate. I now realise how much I neglected my health. I was very breast aware but had stopped checking. Days after the election, three years of build-up and tension over and getting to know my new life, I saw puckering in my right breast. I felt the breast and realised I had a clear lump. I made an appointment with my GP and carried on.
Keeping it to myself
Not telling anyone helped me. I know it wouldn’t work for everyone. Making my maiden speech in Parliament was such a wonderful day – my parents, husband, one of my sisters and one of my nieces were in the gallery and I knew how proud they were of me. I was glad we could all enjoy it – if we’d all known about the lump it would not have been the same. The next week my GP referred me to the Bristol Breast Care Centre (BBCC). Two weeks later I woke my husband Kevin and said he needed to drive us both to Southmead hospital and quickly told him why. That was the first time I told anyone other than my GP.
My surgeon, Simon, told me it was cancer immediately. I had a biopsy – that’s when I cried – to confirm it and see if it had reached the lymph nodes. Eventually I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, on the borderline of stages 2 and 3, with a 5cm tumour and cancer in the lymph nodes.
Simon and Angie (my breast cancer nurse) were wonderful. They helped us to get through that day very calmly. I was glad to be part of a clinical trial for a painless alternative to mammograms – one which I hope will soon replace them.
Dealing with the news
I was desperate to sort things out so no one would miss out on having an MP and my staff would be OK. I knew that Bristol was one of the best places to be for cancer treatment. Being diagnosed in a specialist place, focused on breast cancer, I felt very secure.
I had only recruited two staff by that point. The work was already overwhelming. I tried to reassure them that it was going to be OK and they were brilliant. I arranged to speed up the recruitment process for the rest of the team.
By the time Kevin and I were on our way home, we’d met the oncologist and made a plan for treatment, and made a plan for work. We spent the weekend telling people. This was hard.
On Monday I went back to Parliament. Shock set in. I walked around in a daze. Colleagues helped me work out how I was going to do as much of my job as I could and to realise that when I couldn’t do it, I had people to help.
I first had six rounds of chemotherapy. My constituency office is about 500m from the oncology department which helped. The three-week cycle was a rollercoaster. One week of feeling poisoned, one week I was coming back to reality and one week relatively OK. During the latter two weeks each cycle I worked as hard as I could, doing constituency meetings, emails, parliamentary questions and so on. Over time, I felt more tired and achy but the pattern stayed. And it shrunk my tumour.
Because of treatment, I got to spend more time in my constituency than other MPs and support more casework. I’m proud of how my team and I have dealt with cancer and how well we've put our principles into practice even when I felt very ill. It was just a different way of being an MP.
In one operation in November 2015 I had a lumpectomy, lymph node clearance and double mammoplasty (reconstruction to the affected breast and matching work in the other breast), followed a few weeks later by radiotherapy. Daily radiotherapy burned sometimes and made me tired beyond anything I’ve ever felt. One of my doctors said “you’ve had Chernobyl in your armpit, that’s why you feel so bad”, which helped.
Recovering is hard work
My arm was affected by the lymph removal in the armpit and I’ve had problems with mobility and pain, but it’s getting better. I’ve returned to Westminster doing more and more each week but so far not staying for the evening votes. This means my voting record looks like I have been abstaining for a year. The House of Commons doesn’t have a way of allowing remote voting, even though often I had read all the briefing papers and watch the entire debate from home.
Throughout treatment I focussed on constituency work and getting well – no constituent lost out because I had cancer.
Hope for the future
I urge people to become breast and cancer aware. I’d love everyone to learn how to support someone with cancer. One friend decided his role would be to bring me a basket of fruit every week. Another gave me moisturisers (treatment is very dehydrating). There’s lots of different ways of helping.
I feel hopeful about the future. I’m glad new cancer treatments, such as immunotherapies, are emerging which will help cancer patients to have better treatment with fewer side effects, or save lives which might otherwise be lost. I’m fortunate to be back at work and able to scrutinise the national cancer strategy as part of a Parliamentary enquiry, for example, drawing on my own experience. It’s always going to be part of who I am as an MP.