PUBLISHED ON: 5 October 2020

Elen writes to her ‘dragon’ – the name she calls her breast cancer. She shares her experience with primary breast cancer and how it changed her outlook on life.

Elen with her son

It felt like life had finally settled down 

So, when did we first meet each other? We were informally introduced one beautiful spring day in June 2008. I was at my happiest. I had three children, my youngest had just turned two. We were celebrating our second wedding anniversary and had a trip booked for Paris to celebrate. Life was incredibly good.  

I had met Trev, the love of my life, three years previously after a long and very stressful divorce. Our son raced along 12 months later, and it felt as if finally, life had settled down and the happiness that I so craved was finally here.  

Then we were watching TV one day and I felt a lump on my breast. It was you. Trev felt you too, and in the subsequent days I felt you so often that my breast hurt. I was 37.  

Waiting for my diagnosis was like looking into the abyss 

My GP was familiar with dragons and open to the possibility that you could be lurking in my breast. Three days before flying out to Paris I found myself in a full waiting room for my breast clinic appointment. I was squashed and prodded, and then we sat and waited. We sat for so long that in the end it was just Trev and me in the waiting room.  

Then I saw the nurse and I knew. I used to be a nurse, and all nurses know that you only go into consultations if the news is bad.  

The consultation was unremarkable, in fact all I heard was cancer. Trev heard everything else, that it was normal mammogram, dense tissue but the cells were abnormal, maybe cancerous but I needed a core biopsy that would be done the following day before we went away.  

After the core biopsy we went off to Paris. There is one photo of us up on top of the Eiffel Tower. When I look at it, I can see our fear. I didn’t really enjoy the trip as I was on pins. It felt like looking into the abyss and not knowing where or how to turn. 

I didn’t know that there were different types of breast cancer 

When we got home the letter came to go back to the clinic. I was told that I had breast cancer.  My parents were waiting for me at home and my father cried as he hugged me.  

The following three weeks preceding my operation, a lumpectomy, were an endless stream of phone calls, cups of tea, tears and hugs. We decided to tell the older two children. Trev had to tell them because I couldn’t.  

The surgery went well. Away with the dragon, I had won.  My friends who still worked at the hospital visited on their breaks and a sense of relief returned. 

Three weeks later, I was thrown a curveball. My surgeon told me that my cancer was grade 2 with no lymph nodes involved. But the margins were not clear. The 0.8mm little dragon had lots of other baby dragons incubating. My cancer was lobular. I didn’t even know there were different types.  

I was given the option of having a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.  

Time is different when you’re waiting for appointments 

It didn’t feel immediate. It felt like more referrals and more waiting. In cancer land, time is like dog years, with one day feeling like a whole week.  

I decided that no breasts meant no risks, so we went to meet the plastic surgeon who talked through my options. I could have an expander implant, which would mean more commuting to the hospital for appointments. I could use the abdominal muscles and skin, but I hadn’t quite given up on having another baby so that didn’t seem wise. In the end I chose to have an LD flap reconstruction. Since my operation I have suffered endless nerve and shoulder issues.  

During this time, I couldn’t look at my children without wanting to cry and I was exhausted. The dragon robs you of the ability to sleep. He creeps in when you least expect him, usually in the early hours. He also has the knack to let you wake every morning with the realisation that you have cancer. 

My breast care nurse kindly allowed me to meet a woman who had previously undergone the same procedure. She was lovely but it took all my energy not to cry when she showed me her two nipple-less breasts. I still miss my nipples to this day. 

I started to feel human again 

My friends took me on a night out to cheer me up and we passed a shop window of naked mannequins. All I saw was myself. A broken mannequin, as attractive as an old slipper. 

Before the surgery, Trev and I took one final walk around the hospital. Then, it was time. I had my brilliant breast care nurse and original breast surgeon to assist on my operation.  

On my way to the theatre I made Edwina, my breast care nurse, listen to my last will and testament, terrified that I was going to die.  

I woke up after the surgery, the sun was shining brightly through the window above. The amount of anaesthetic I had taken convinced me that I was in heaven. And the best part was that the dragon had gone.   

After five days I was transferred to our local hospital. I was treated like a queen by the staff, with the nurses even applying fake tan for me before my parents visited. I also wore my trademark pink lipstick religiously.  

Three years after this, I had my fake nipples replaced with 3D nipple tattoos by a woman called Gail who teaches nurses how to tattoo nipples. She transformed me from a mannequin back to a human again.   

I recognised myself in other women 

Following my surgery, I ended up our local oncology waiting room. I was terrified but my oncologist told me that she didn’t need to see me again. I wouldn’t need chemotherapy or tamoxifen. It seemed that the dragon had really been slayed. I felt lucky. I had won.  

But every time I went back to the clinic for check-ups, I felt awful. It reminded me of what I had been through, and the sadness was palpable. I recognised myself in the young women who were there, staring into the abyss.  

After four years, I had my surgeon's blessing not to go back for checks. Finally, I felt free of my dragon.  

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This blogpost is part of a series from Elen, who has since been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. You can find out more about the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer.  

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