Natasha is one of six sisters, all of whom have had cancer. After testing positive for the altered BRCA1 gene and receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, she reflects on how cancer has affected her life.
The wait for the results was painful
Up until 2012, I was part of an ovarian screening research programme. When it ended, they told me they couldn’t keep monitoring me for ovarian cancer – but they could test me for the altered BRCA1 gene. When it came back positive, I decided to have my ovaries removed. This was not a difficult decision, as I’d already had a child.
At the start of 2015, following my annual mammogram, I received a letter asking me to make an appointment as they had found a mass in my right breast. I had an ultrasound and a biopsy and waited two weeks for the results. It felt painfully long.
My son was my rock during treatment
The day I went to get the results was harrowing. I felt I already knew that I had cancer. I was impatient with the oncologist. They started asking me all the usual questions (which I’d already answered before) and eventually I blurted out, 'I just want the result.’
She told me I had stage two breast cancer.
My heart leapt and the adrenalin ran through my body. I felt unable to speak or move. I just sat looking in disbelief, even though I had expected the worst.
The next few minutes were a blur. I was taken into another room with a nurse who was very kind and listened to anything I had to say. She asked me if I was accompanied by anyone, and I said I wasn’t but that I’d like to call my son, Alexander.
I stayed positive when he answered, but he wasn’t having small talk. He told me to tell him the result. When I did, he let out a massive sigh. He was shocked and upset.
After that point, he was my rock. Every time I went for consultations or surgery, he was there.
I was careful in choosing my treatment
At first, I was offered a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, which I refused. My late sister, who had secondary breast cancer, had also had this treatment option. As I was a confirmed altered BRCA1 carrier, I knew I wanted a double mastectomy to give me the best chance of survival.
After the procedure, it was discovered that there had also been a tumour in my left breast.
I was offered chemotherapy to cut down the chances of the cancer returning, but I was told it would only improve my odds by 3%, so I refused it.
I did go on hormone treatment, however, but had to change it three times because it made me feel so unwell. The suggested period for this is five years, but, after speaking with an oncologist, I stopped at two.
Cancer has affected so many family members
Even though I was relieved to eventually find that the cancer hadn’t spread, I still had to deal with the loss of my breasts, the recovery period, the isolation, and the interminable thoughts of recurrence.
I have an ability to carry on, no matter the pressure, as I have been through a lot of difficult times. You become more stoic about problems. You have to get through it with a goal to survive.
So many members of my family have had cancer. My grandfather and uncle both died at the age of 60 from cancer. One of my sisters died from secondary breast cancer at the age of 46, and another died from ovarian cancer four years after she was diagnosed.
Three of my nieces have tested positive for the altered BRCA1 gene. One of them has had breast cancer, and the other two have had preventative ovary removal.
I have three surviving sisters, and all of us have or have previously had cancer.
Cancer doesn’t just invade your body, it invades your whole life
When you are diagnosed, you have to go through treatment, which means time off work. I was off for five months, so I lost a lot of income.
I had no partner, so I didn’t have that sense of special, constant support, and everything else in my life had to take a backseat, holidays, friends all my other interests. Everything became based around cancer.
It eats away at normality, and leaves you wondering if you’re going to get through it. It was a rollercoaster of fear, anxiety and worry.
I also mourn the loss of my breasts. The implants are just not the same.
Poetry has helped me express myself
I’ve written poetry since I was 19, but I hadn’t written about cancer until this year.
My writing is my tonic to express my views attitudes, passions, and interests. I hope that whoever reads them will be inspired by them – either to write themselves or to look at things from another perspective.
My piece, CANSURVIVE, is an acknowledgment of pain and the joy of getting through an enormously challenging time. And even now, though I’ve hit my five-year mark of being NED (no evidence of disease), there is the challenge of living with the knowledge that it could return.
It’s a new normal which takes some time to get used to.
To read some of Natasha’s poetry and other writings, make sure to visit her blog.
If you have struggled with anxiety during or after treatment for breast cancer, our Becca app may have some tips and tools to help.