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Alison Keenan: adjusting to life after breast cancer

QVC presenter Alison Keenan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and modelled in Breast Cancer Care’s 2012 London fashion show. She talks about adjusting to life after treatment.

I was diagnosed in January 2011 with invasive lobular breast cancer. It’s sometimes difficult to see this type of breast cancer on a mammogram or ultrasound and even the MRI scan I had failed to show both tumours.

Following a biopsy to get a definite diagnosis I had a lumpectomy, then a mastectomy, total lymph node clearance, six months of chemotherapy, 15 radiotherapy sessions and began taking tamoxifen to inhibit the production of oestrogen.

I wasn’t able to work during treatment and that was hard – I missed my friends and that sense of purpose and belonging. I did, however, save a fortune on shampoos, conditioners, make-up and epilation because nothing will ever be as effective as chemotherapy when it comes to hair removal!

I then found a lump in the remaining breast. Although this wasn’t cancer (it was a condition called lobular neoplasia) it was a precursor to the same invasive cancer I’d had in the right breast. To find that the disease had already started setting up in the other side shocked me. I had the breast removed and immediate reconstruction using an implant, but luckily didn't need any more chemo.

Life after treatment

Adjusting to life after treatment has been harder than I thought it would be. I expected to feel relief that the chemo and radiotherapy were over. But I had been so well looked after – any ache pain or worry was investigated – and now I was flying without that safety net.

Everyone around me understandably wanted to believe that I was better and could now get on with my life. After all, my physical appearance was much the same as it had been before cancer. But I see the scars and struggle with the fear that this wretched disease will return.

You also can bet your bottom dollar you'll bump into someone who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer within the same timeframe that you’re now living in. Your sorrow for them is combined with fear for yourself.

Lasting effects

When I first went back to work, I really struggled with hot flushes, particularly in the TV studio environment. They definitely worsened as the years passed. I had to plan what clothes to wear to avoid certain colours that show the perspiration and the physical effect from lack of sleep has been quite crippling. I had up to nine hot flushes a night and even more during the daytime. At work a fan was set up to be switched on whenever I needed, but the overall effect was distracting and debilitating. It's embarrassing when in company you have to start disrobing and fanning yourself!

I haven't been very lucky with my reconstruction surgery. I had several issues that required additional surgery and a haemorrhage that required blood transfusions. Fat from my thighs and tummy was used as part of the reconstruction and I was unfortunately left with hard ridges in my tummy, which had been pretty flat even after three children! I was very uncomfortable for weeks, and yet when I returned to my plastic surgeon to express my concerns he was anything but sympathetic.

My right arm is compromised with lymphodeama but I’ve given up wearing my compression sleeve as I don't like to wear it at work. Within an hour of removing it my arm has swollen up again.

Loss of femininity

I always used to sunbathe topless before my diagnosis, but now I wear a swimsuit to cover not just my breasts but also my tummy.

I don't feel anywhere near as feminine as I used to and I feel huge insecurity on holiday surrounded by 'normal' women. My fiancee has been incredibly kind and supportive and has always made me feel attractive. But I know how I looked when I first met him and how I look now.

I feel very lucky that my partner is so understanding. But I also feel cheated – breast cancer robs you of so much – and because the tamoxifen I take is there to block the effects of oestrogen my libido has been affected, not just by my insecurity but also by this loss of femininity.

Incredible support

Two years after I was on the catwalk as a model at Breast Cancer Care’s London fashion show, I returned to the Grosvenor House Hotel as a guest for the 2014 show. And as soon as I stepped back into the Great Hall the memories came flooding back.

For me the afternoon show was a tad more nerve-wracking as most of us had never dressed up and walked out in front of an audience before. But the evening performance was unbelievable. My children my partner and my closest friends were all sitting at the end of the catwalk, so when I dared to look ahead I saw them. Tears were pouring down my son Jack's face, although he was smiling and there were whistles, cheering and clapping from the rest of the table.

These were the people who had got me through the previous two years and it meant the world to have them there. I think the most overwhelming feeling of all was one of relief that I now had hair, eyebrows and lashes, confidence, happiness and hopefully good health. And possibly the overriding memory is of the incredible support love and energy that the audience gave us.

Visit Alison Keenan's website.

Breast Cancer Care’s booklet Your body, intimacy and sex contains tips and information about coping with changes to your body after breast cancer treatment, as well as how these can affect intimate relationships.

Content last reviewed November 2016; next planned review 2018


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