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This year, we’re celebrating 10 years of the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. By collecting tissue samples from people affected by breast cancer and making them available to researchers, our Tissue Bank accelerates progress towards faster diagnosis and better treatments.
Around 10,000 people have donated tissue samples to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. One of those people is Sue Stannard, 69, from Caythorpe. Now, she reflects on her experience with breast cancer and donating to the Tissue Bank.
I had a history of cysts for most of my adult life so lumps and bumps felt quite normal, and when I went for a routine mammogram in August 2010 I was told that there was nothing unusual to report.
However, when I was on holiday in South Africa later that year, I thought I could feel something a bit different on the side of my right breast, so I made an appointment with my GP for when I got back to the UK. That was in December 2010, and they referred me to the breast unit to check it out.
Initially the consultant thought that it was just scar tissue from previous cysts, but nevertheless sent me to the radiographer for an ultrasound. As she scanned the area, it became very clear that something wasn't right and she took a biopsy from what she could see. She then said that she also needed to biopsy under my arm and from that moment everyone’s attitude changed.
Three days later the results came through and they confirmed that it was breast cancer - both oestrogen positive and HER2 positive - which had already spread to the lymph nodes under my arm. My life changed massively and very quickly after that. Previously, life had revolved around travel and sport, particularly golf and tennis. We’d retired early and I would go to the gym pretty much every day, do step classes and generally be very active. All that was just whipped out from under me and when my immune system collapsed after the first round of chemotherapy, my world shrank to home and hospital.
Due to the cancer in my lymph nodes, I was due to have eight cycles of chemotherapy prior to any surgery. After the first two cycles they switched me to a different type of chemo, and after two cycles of that they said it still didn't seem to be having enough effect and that I should go straight to surgery. I had been hoping to avoid a mastectomy, but my doctors were adamant that I would need it.
I had a right mastectomy with a temporary implant on 23 May 2011, and that was when I donated to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. I remember I was sitting in these disposable hospital knickers and gown with black ink all over my chest from the surgeon’s preparations for my mastectomy and a white beanie hat covering my bald head - a fairly low point for me emotionally. A woman then came in with some forms and spoke to me about the hospital collecting tissue for breast cancer research. I don't recall what she said other than asking if it was something I would be willing to consent to, but I didn’t have to give it a second thought.
I signed a form and that was it. I didn’t know at the time it was for a new tissue bank. The decision took no more than a millisecond because I could see the importance of research. Every little development is so significant and I learned later that research Breast Cancer Now had previously been involved in had resulted in the development of Herceptin - a treatment I then had for a year which is probably why I am alive and well today. If having real human tissue can help speed up the development of other new treatments then there’s really no decision to make - it’s so obviously a positive thing to do and it’s not as if I needed the tissue for anything else!
I could never have imagined after signing that form what a legacy I was contributing to. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tissue Bank in London, which was such an interesting experience. I remember Professor Louise Jones, the Co-Principal investigator of the Tissue Bank, showing me a sample of a breast that had recently been removed and she was able to explain the structure to me and show me where the cancer was located. I found it absolutely fascinating.
It’s really important to support breast cancer research now more than ever because the hard truth is breast cancer isn’t going away. It’s such a sneaky disease and having real tissue to work on is the fastest way to get treatments from the lab to the clinical settings where they can help people and save lives.
I’ve met so many different people through my work with Breast Cancer Now. I’ve modelled at the Show, attended all sorts of events organised by them and given speeches, but these things might never have happened because if it weren’t for breast cancer research, I might not be here. That’s a very powerful thought.
The Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank is generously supported by funding from Asda Tickled Pink and the Garfield Weston Foundation. We would also like to acknowledge the past support of Walk the Walk, a founding partner of the Tissue Bank alongside Asda Tickled Pink. But we still need further support and donations to keep investing in projects like the Tissue Bank – please donate now.