In 2013, Esther had a mastectomy to treat primary breast cancer. Following a secondary (metastatic) breast cancer diagnosis earlier this year, she is sharing her pictures to raise awareness and encourage self-checking.
I was unsure about my reconstruction options
In September 2013, I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer after finding a lump in my breast. I had six rounds of chemotherapy (three of FEC and three docetaxel), a mastectomy, then 15 sessions of radiotherapy.
I spent many hours trying to decide what to do about reconstruction. Because I had radiotherapy, I couldn't have an implant, so my only option was to use my own skin and tissue.
I joined the Breast Cancer Now Forum to see what other people had decided after needing a mastectomy, and also spoke to someone via the Someone Like Me service. Everyone was really helpful. After much soul searching, I realised I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice one part of my body for another, so I decided to stay flat.
I wanted to share my pictures in order to raise awareness and encourage people to check themselves. Sometimes people take their health for granted, but it’s important to make sure there are no lumps or any other unusual things going on with your body.
I want people to talk about cancer more
When I was first diagnosed, I was quite shy. I didn’t want to talk about it and needed space and time to deal with it in my own way.
In late July this year, I received a secondary breast cancer diagnosis, and that’s made me a bit more open. I think it’s important to share ideas and make cancer a topic that you can talk about, and I hope that seeing such a stark image will make people really think.
This is the true picture of cancer. So many people don’t realise what you go through – not just with surgery, but all the other treatments and side effects.
I am so glad I didn’t go through with reconstruction now. I wear a bra with a prosthesis in and no-one is any the wiser. Physically it hasn’t affected me. I am still able to do the things I love – running, Pilates and general everyday life. But mentally, the scar is daily reminder of what I went through, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of the whole experience.
I do not want to know my prognosis
I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer after finding a hard, immobile lump in my neck that was similar to the original one in my breast.
The news didn’t exactly blindside me, but I hadn’t expected the tumour to come up in that spot - I thought it would be around my chest somewhere. I went for a PET scan, at which point they found further tumours in my spine and some lymph nodes around my sternum area that were also affected.
The doctor explained that it was incurable, then asked me if I wanted to know ‘how long I'd got’. I said that I didn’t - I just wanted to put it out of my mind. I later got a letter to confirm the conversation we’d had, and it mentioned that I ‘didn’t want to discuss my prognosis’.
I was in tears for the rest of the day. All I could think about was death.
I think that doctors could think about the sort of language they use a bit more, because it can be really upsetting to hear. A nurse later explained to me that it’s usually patients who ask the doctors about their prognosis, and so he was just trying to do his job. But the way he asked me was as if he was just ticking a box - I don’t think he considered how it would affect me.
For him, it might just be another day on the job, but obviously it had a huge impact on me.
The treatment side effects can be difficult to manage
I’m currently taking abemaciclib alongside hormone therapy and get monthly injections.
At first, the tablets caused me to lose my appetite. I just couldn’t face any food. They have reduced the dose now, but I still experience some gastrointestinal issues and I’ve got a really sore tongue – it looks like I’ve got streaky bacon in my mouth all the time.
I’m taking other things to manage the symptoms, and it’s still a work in progress.
At first, I didn’t know what was a ‘normal’ side effect and what wasn’t. However, I got lots of leaflets about what to expect, and I've also got the specialist breast care nurses on hand to call and email whenever I need to, so I contact them if I'm ever struggling.
I know that Breast Cancer Now has monthly talks for people with secondary breast cancer, too, which is something I want to sign up to.
Recently, I have had some other MRI and CT scans which have showed my treatment is working so far. I can also feel the lump in my neck going down.
I’ve also been part of the Cambridge Personalised Breast Cancer Programme, in which they take a biopsy of your tumour and use genome sequencing to make a treatment specific to you. If my current line of treatment stops working, I know I have that to fall back on.
I hope one day I’ll be cured
Treatment days are long and sometimes unexplained delays mean waiting hours between appointments. The staff themselves are brilliant, but the system itself has problems. Just last week, I was supposed to have a blood test first thing in the morning. I arrived on time only to be told they were running an hour behind schedule. On top of everything else, it’s so draining.
I'm fortunate to have family supporting me, and my other half drives me to all my appointments without any complaints. He's always there for me.
Overall, I’m coping, but I am definitely more emotional these days. I seem to cry at the drop of a hat, and am much less resilient than I used to be.
I suppose, deep down, I worry how long I’ve got. Though my cancer is treatable, it is incurable. I try to focus on the treatable part of it but, in the back of my mind, I dig deep and hope beyond hope that a miracle will happen and that I will be cured.
If you have previously had a diagnosis of primary breast cancer, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer. If you do notice any changes, make sure to visit your GP or call our Helpline on 0808 800 6000 to talk about any concerns.