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I wasn’t prepared for the secret side effects of breast cancer treatment

Heidi was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2020, and has recently finished chemotherapy. She shares the difficult emotions and side effects that came with her treatment.

Heidi was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2020, and has recently finished chemotherapy. She shares the difficult emotions and side effects that came with her treatment. 

I was told it was just a cyst 

I found a lump in my right breast in November 2019. After a mammogram and several ultrasounds, I was told I had a cyst. It was drained and I was sent on my way. Unfortunately, the doctor didn’t spot the tumour growing behind it. 

By May 2020, it had doubled in size, but I had been unable to go back for treatment until then due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 14, it was biopsied, and I wasn’t given a diagnosis until the 26th. That wait was so hard. 

I was told I had grade three invasive ductal carcinoma, which had grown from 1.7cm in November to 4cm. 

My family and I were utterly devastated upon hearing the news. Our life went from technicolour to black and white in less than an hour. 

Because of what had happened, I didn’t feel that I could trust the team at my local hospital. I transferred my care to a  clinic 50 miles away, where I underwent further biopsies, a CT scan and a bone scan. Thankfully these all came back clear. 

Treatment really changed the pace of life 

When COVID-19 hit, I was mainly spending time with my family. I have three teenagers, three different jobs (college counsellor, lecturer in counselling skills, and run my own private practice), and my husband travelled a lot for work.  

 I still worked full time, but now all my work switched to an online platform. The same for my husband. This was something we had never experienced as a family, and we had great fun filling the time and dealing with our new 'normal'. 

Sitting them down and telling my family I had breast cancer was the most terrifying moment of my life. At this point I thought I was dying. I had no scan results and no idea what was happening to me. I was numb. 

I have always been honest, and they have been with me every step of the way. They were all there when I shaved my head, and we celebrated like there was no tomorrow when I got the results back from my scans.  

This whole experience has taken us to parts of ourselves we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. We all experienced cancer. Just mine was in my breast.  

I took control where I could 

As my cancer was HER2 negative with weaker hormone receptors, I needed chemotherapy. I was told I would be having eight cycles and started my first one just six days later.  

Within two weeks, I had lost my hair and of course took control myself with the shaver. My husband shaved my head as we drank Prosecco!  

I have had four cycles of AC chemotherapy and four cycles of docetaxal, and have just finished my last treatment. In August, an ultrasound scan showed no tumour. 

Unfortunately, the treatment came with a lot of nasty side effects. 

You don’t just go back to how you were before 

My chemo liked to leave its mark. I could see its signature across my skin, stomach, hips and face, which was puffy and tight. My doctors told me some drugs can trigger water retention – a build-up of fluids in the tissues.  

The combination of treatment I had resulted in me gaining weight, which can be very difficult to lose. I had been told that, when treatment was over, I would go back to how I was. But, while I may get my immune system back, the long-term effects of the chemo can be hard.  

This includes ageing, so I will look older than I should. It’s also common to experience fatigue, difficulty with focused thinking, and early menopause. Some people have heart problems, reduced lung capacity, kidney and urinary problems. Treatment can also trigger issues with nerves, bones and joints. 

Sometimes known as ‘late effects’, these can occur towards the end of the treatment. I have had about half of them and consider myself lucky. My friend still has numbness in one of her feet after the treatment. 

I have never felt like a victim  

Even as I sit here now typing this, I can feel the side effects of the last dose crawling all over me. However, wine and complementary therapy should help with that a bit!  

At the start of December, I am having a lumpectomy. This will be followed by radiotherapy at end of January, all being well. I am having five sessions of this. 

I believe my strong mental attitude has helped saved my life. I knew right from the beginning that I would tackle cancer and chemotherapy the best I could. Not getting through the treatment was never an option; I looked it straight in the eye and winked at it.  

As a counsellor, I work with configurations of self with my clients. Learning that there are different parts to us and we have the freedom and autonomy to use these parts and honour what they need gave me the confidence to see myself as much more than a victim. I don't like that word as I do not and have never felt a victim. Cancer was just a part of me. 

I got cancer, and I got to know myself much more because of this. It has changed me and will continue to do so.  

You can read more about Heidi’s experiences with her diagnosis and treatment on her blog. 

 

No matter where you are in your treatment, Breast Cancer Now is here if you need support. There are many ways you can reach out to us.

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