Angela was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989. Since then, she has done what she can to help others with a diagnosis.
Attitudes were so different when I was first diagnosed
I was diagnosed for the first time in 1989 at the age of 45, and I had my first lumpectomy around the same time as the Berlin Wall came down. This was shortly followed by a course of radiotherapy, after which I felt like I could cook an egg on my left breast! Other than that and some tiredness, I didn’t really experience any side effects.
Attitudes towards breast cancer were very different at the time – there seemed to be a general consensus that even talking about it could make it contagious. Even medical staff would talk to me with their heads tilted to the side, asking ‘How are you?’ in a whisper.
Aside from with my immediate family, it wasn’t really an area for deep discussion. However, I do recall that my sister absolutely refused to discuss it and wouldn’t even have a mammogram for her own sake.
Years later, her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer and sadly passed away. When my niece received her diagnosis, my sister called and asked, ‘Do we know anyone in the family who has had breast cancer?’ She was totally oblivious to my experiences!
I dealt with everything pragmatically
10 years later, in 1999, I had my first recurrence. I then had another in 2003 and a third in 2006. In total, I’ve had three lumpectomies and a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
The first time, my cancer was discovered by mammogram. It was detected by ultrasound each subsequent time. I was very lucky to have had excellent care with specialists with each of my diagnoses.
I recall being rather pragmatic about everything. It was a shock but, when you’re a patient, it can feel as if you are on a conveyor belt going through procedures. You just have to get on with it. Often, it is harder for other people, as to them everything appears to be out of control.
The fourth diagnosis was probably the hardest as it came back so soon after the third. The oncologist called me directly, so I knew it was going to be bad news.
On the whole, I was mostly worried that people would treat me differently because of cancer. But I was and still am the same person I always was.
I loved volunteering and helping others
After my first diagnosis, I volunteered at Breast Cancer Care (which later became Breast Cancer Now). I even had the pleasure of meeting Betty Westgate, who founded it in the first place – a delightful and fascinating lady. I used to go in once or twice a week, make or take calls, and continued to do so for a few years until personal circumstances got in the way.
When I became a counsellor all those years ago, I realised just how lucky I was to always have people around when I wanted or needed them, as so many people do not.
I felt this most keenly when having my radiotherapy in 1989, when friends filled up my ‘dance card’ within nanoseconds, so there was always someone there to take and bring me home – usually just after a lunch.
At the same time, there was another lady having treatment who was always alone. When I asked her how she was, she said, ‘Getting through it’. I asked if she had any friends or family who could share the experience with her and she explained that, although her family were very sympathetic when she was diagnosed, they felt it was over once she’d had surgery – hence no need for any discussion or support when needed.
I feel very lucky and I want to give back
Because of experiences like this, I have previously volunteered and raised money for different charities. I enjoyed meeting people, finding out their stories, listening to their fears and their attitudes to life when diagnosed, during or after treatment.
When I married my husband Peter in 2014, a lot of our friends wanted to buy us gifts even though we requested no presents (I did not need another toaster!). We did, however, say that people could donate money if they wanted, and we ended up raising £13,600 in total – half of which went to Breast Cancer Now.
Overall, I would say having breast cancer has given me a greater awareness of life and a determination not to waste it, and really to forget the small stuff and focus on the bigger picture. I learnt to pace myself and listen to my body.
I feel I have a lot still to offer and, being 77 and approaching semi- or full retirement, I would like to give back some of the special gifts I have been lucky enough to receive.
If you would like more support after a breast cancer diagnosis, we can help.