PUBLISHED ON: 10 June 2021

Helen talks us through her experience of a breast cancer diagnosis, as well as the website she founded to help others going through treatment. 

Split image of Helen - first in hospital three years ago, and now, looking happy and healthy

The lump was the size of a chickpea 

On a normal workday, my morning routine is nailed to an 11-minute turnaround. My alarm is set for 5am and the car booked for ten past.  

My clothes are laid out ready, so I jump in the shower, towel dry while brushing teeth, get a massive dollop of moisturiser and blast my whole body from my face to my feet. Finish with spray of perfume. Shoes and bag are by the front door. Brush hair and put mascara on in the car. Job done.   

Not quite the case on 15 March 2018. The alarm went off as normal and the 11-minute whirlwind ensued until the moisturiser went due south down my body and hit my right boob. I stopped in my tracks. The lump was sitting smugly about two inches below my right nipple and was the size and shape of a chickpea. I couldn’t stop feeling it.  

I made a GP appointment straight away. The doctor confirmed that it needed to be investigated further. She was very reassuring and said it was unlikely to be anything serious. So, I filed it away in my brain and waited for the referral. 

I hoped it was just hormonal 

Two weeks later, another four lumps had appeared in the same boob. It comforted me because I thought cancer couldn’t grow that quickly – it must be hormonal, right?  

When I saw the consultant, what I thought would be a quick appointment turned into a few hours. 

First, there was the mammogram. It was quite a bizarre experience. It’s not painful but it’s not comfortable either. You have to put your boobs onto a glass shelf and another shelf is then pulled down to essentially squash the life out of them. It feels like it’s never going to stop.  

A number of times I wondered if it was possible to squidge so hard that your nipple could come flying off. I also thought that if this was cancer then this machine must be able to squash it dead like an itty-bitty fly. 

I was then sent to the waiting room, and when I was called back I was told that the mammogram had showed up small calcium spots (calcifications) which are common in breast tissue as women age and are usually benign. At 39 years old, this was exactly what I thought it would be.  

However, I was then told that I’d need an ultrasound to check what these calcifications were, as they can be a sign of something more sinister.  

I needed more tests 

The ultrasound is completely pain-free and the same as if you've ever had a baby scan. I was told while still lying there that the ultrasound showed no signs of fluid in the lumps which ruled out cysts. They said I'd need to have a biopsy there and then. 

I suddenly felt like things were getting more serious and I asked whether this might actually be cancer. I was told that it couldn't be ruled out at this stage but that most breast biopsies come back benign.  

There are different ways to perform the small procedure. Mine was called a core biopsy, which meant that they needed to make a small incision to allow a thick hollow needle to go in to get a good purchase on one of the lumps. I had a local anaesthetic, so it was all pretty painless. 

Cancer was a responsibility I didn’t ask for 

Three days later I found out I had grade 3 invasive breast cancer (and later learnt it was hormone receptor positive and HER2 positive). I felt immediately submerged and any words that followed evaporated. I was, in an instant, somewhere else. Somewhere deep underwater. I can’t recall taking a breath.  

My husband, Mark, was holding onto my hands for what felt like dear life. 

In the fog, I was handed a glossy lever arch folder which had ‘My Breast Cancer’ printed boldly across it in that unforgettable magenta breast cancer colour. Like we’d just got ourselves something exciting and new, and this was our guide to how it worked. Except this was a manual that I didn’t want.  

In a blur, we got up, and the four of us left the room: Mark, me, the lever arch file and my brand-new cancer. 

My treatment was quite intense 

I had a right mastectomy and some lymph nodes removed on 4 May 2018. The sentinel lymph nodes came back testing positive for cancer, so I went back into surgery three weeks later for an axillary node clearance. Thankfully, they all proved cancer-free.  

However, due to the grade and spread of my cancer, the oncologist has prescribed me a robust ‘health package’ of 16 rounds of chemotherapy, followed by three weeks of daily radiotherapy, and Herceptin and Perjeta every three weeks until October 2019.  

I’m also on tamoxifen, which has given me menopausal symptoms – so I’m a joy to live with right now. 

I founded a website to help others   

I was told I was likely to lose my hair during chemo and that I would need to rethink my makeup and current beauty products. The advice was to avoid harsh ingredients and 'just use baby products', but how many six-week-old babies need deodorant or a splash of self-tan?  

If you're vegan (1 in 100 Brits are) then you're catered for, yet one in two of us get cancer but there's nothing that screams 'cancer kinder' in the shops. So, I made it my mission to find these products and curate them into a list: The C List.  

It began as a shoppable website, but it’s become so much more. It's full of advice and support, and I've included things like how I told my children to how to tie a headscarf. There’s a real sense of community. 

It's been a crazy journey, but I've loved every minute. I especially love gifting something to a cancer patient each month and then writing about their story for the website. Sharing stories is so key to helping each other and making us all feel like we're not in this on our own. 

I want people to feel they're not forgotten about, and that there are things that they can do to make themselves look and feel better. I also hope it takes out a little bit of the stress which I found unbearable. 

Going forward, I want to shine a spotlight on lots of different cancers. I want to grow the community aspect on The C List so that everyone feels that they're included.  

To find out more about Helen and The C List, be sure to visit the website or follow her on Instagram.

 

If you are going through treatment at the moment and find yourself struggling with side effects, Breast Cancer Now may be able to help.

Find out more