Flora Sheringham is a 73-year-old mother of three and a grandmother of six, and has been living with secondary breast cancer since 2014.
I have had several different cancers
I first had breast cancer in 1987, which was treated with a lumpectomy and radiotherapy. Then, 10 years ago, I found lumps in my groin which were found to be Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, for which I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I’ve also had several, non-invasive basal cell carcinomae on my face. I think I’m defined as a person with multiple tumours.
I found I had breast cancer again in 2014. Needing new underwear, as one does from time to time, I bought a new bra and, while trying it on, I noticed a change in my left breast.
I immediately went to my GP who referred me to the breast care team for an appointment. Scans were arranged and I was diagnosed with grade 3 breast cancer. This was classed a completely new incidence of cancer and I had a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy with all the ‘free gifts’ that it brings.
The following year, I found that cancer had spread to my lymph nodes on the side I'd had the lumpectomy. When they were removed, I opted to have another mastectomy at the same time.
Continuous chemo has damaged my veins
Within a few months, I found a lump on my scar and then a lump at the base of my neck. I’d got a check-up booked with my surgeon that week and he told me he couldn’t operate, so he referred me back to the oncology team. This is when my secondary breast cancer was diagnosed.
The initial treatment was radiotherapy and then four years of different types of chemotherapy.
I was referred onto a clinical trial. Unfortunately, this didn’t work for me and I felt very poorly. I was put on other treatment, which improved my condition very quickly.
The worst aspect of this for me, much worse than hair loss (for which wigs are an instant fix), was that continuous chemo has left my naturally fragile veins even more difficult to use, both for treatment and taking blood. Secondary tumours in my abdomen have also changed my body shape, which is something that needs mental as well as physical adjustment.
The treatment and care I’ve received is excellent
During all the chemo I was so well looked after. Any side effects were dealt with quickly, and the team were not only knowledgeable and sympathetic but also able to keep me comfortable.
I live pretty much a normal life, e.g. going on holiday - both in this country and abroad. You can imagine my surprise when I had a phone call (I was on a beach in Barbados, at the time!) to see if I’d remembered to take my medication at the right time.
Although the treatment seems endless and difficult at the time, I’ve always felt it was excellent and like the team were treating me as a person. There is sadly no identified breast cancer nurse at our hospital anymore, but there is always a contact to phone who can listen and give informed advice.
My husband and family are paramount in my life, giving me love, support and pleasure. We’re lucky as we see our grandchildren often, helping out after school with the younger ones and at holiday times.
I relish the sensation of feeling ‘normal’
I’m also involved with Breast Cancer Now’s Insight and Experience panel. Opportunities have come through that allow me to use my previous experience: talking to researchers, interviewing prospective students for City University and volunteering as a patient advocate. I’ve also recently begun working with a drug company on their patient participation panel.
These activities, just for me, sustain me and my identity. They are very important in maintaining my self-esteem and the feeling I can contribute in a meaningful way.
I am happy to say that at the present time, although I’m not cancer-free, I’m not on any treatment and relishing feeling ‘normal’ with my own hair.
We are sharing the voices of women with secondary breast cancer as part of our Unsurvivors campaign, which highlights that 11,500 people still die from breast cancer every year in the UK. We’re demanding urgent change so that everyone with secondary breast cancer can live well for as long as possible. Until we're seen. Until we're heard.
If you have any questions or concerns about secondary breast cancer, you can call the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.
To find out more about the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer, visit our information pages. And if, like Flora, you want to use your experiences of breast cancer to help shape and improve our work, please check out our Insight and Experience Panel.