Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer three times before she turned 30. She shares how she’s kept her sense of self while living with secondary breast cancer.
I thought I was too young
At the end of my third and final year of university, I was 21 and ready to take life by the reins to begin my journey as a qualified adult. However, it appeared that my body — my right breast to be precise — had decided otherwise. I was diagnosed with grade 3 primary breast cancer. These are words that would make any woman plead with the big guy upstairs when gazing imploringly into the eyes of their doctor.
My primary diagnosis came as a shock. Up until that point, I had been optimistically led to believe that the sizeable, hard and mobile lump in the forefront of my right breast was more than likely a benign condition because of my age.
I was thought to be too young, a lightweight on the cancer probability scale. The doctor kept mentioning fibroadenoma, a non-cancer tumour typically found in younger women due to our supposed raging hormones.
It’s not often that a 21-year-old receives a diagnosis of breast cancer and then an intimidating prescription of hardcore chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiotherapy and hormone drugs. A tableau of bald, hormonal and boobless patients flashed through my mind.
I didn’t know how to navigate breast cancer
A few days after the C-bomb had dropped, in the utter desolation left in its wake, I found myself wondering where the guidebook was on how to navigate life now that cancer had bought a majority stake in my future.
I coped with my primary diagnosis by channelling my trauma into something proactive to assist others. I penned blogs for magazines, spoke on stage for the Teenage Cancer Trust, took part in radio interviews and created YouTube vlogs documenting the highs and the lows of my recovery.
My cancer did fall into remission and I did move on. I trained to become a secondary English teacher. It’s my absolute passion and purpose in life to educate the future generations and make a positive mark.
They found another tumour five years later
In 2016 during my yearly scan, a second primary tumour was found in my left breast. It was found early, so it was decided that I should have second mastectomy. Yet again I moved on with my life.
Despite the trials and tribulations of dealing with two diagnoses before my 27th birthday, I learned again that cancer needn’t consume my day-to-day life.
When it came to the aftermath of my second diagnosis, the fear I felt began to gradually decrease from a noisy attention-seeking nagging to a dull throb. Life gets busy and you learn to live again.
During this time, I tried desperately to avoid thoughts of a recurrence. The concept terrified me because it means labels like ‘incurable’ and ‘palliative’ rather than ‘curative’.
I’m managing my secondary diagnosis
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. My fears were suddenly a reality. I was sad for those around me, for the ways they might have to come to terms with my disease as a lifelong presence. For me, there was never an option to give in. I’m stubborn like that.
An online search around secondary breast cancer will mean you’re suddenly met with horrific figures, diminishing your hopes and filling your head with thoughts of mortality.
The truth is, there’s a certain liberation in being told you have secondary breast cancer. The ‘worst’ has transpired and yet I feel good. I am acutely aware of the value of life, of each day, of the need to truly see the positive.
I’m also on oral chemotherapy and bone-strengthening drugs meaning I can still work full-time and manage my disease.
I like to think of my secondary diagnosis as a chronic condition. Not ideal by any stretch, but certainly manageable. My most recent MRI reveals a stable disease, which is music to any patient and words I will never tire of hearing.
Cancer hasn’t taken my sense of self
Cancer may have taken both of my breasts, my fertility and potentially precious time, but I will forever retain my unique sense of self. It could so easily have been lost in the minefield that is breast cancer.
So, what makes my account unique? My experience as someone with secondary breast cancer has been documented by people across the globe in books, vlogs and videos, but not often by young women who have received news of cancer three times before thirty.
I create videos on my YouTube channel and content on my Kate's cleavage Instagram page to combat the taboos surrounding a secondary diagnosis.
After all, despite everything, my heart is so full of gratitude. I have a renewed capacity for seeing life through the eyes of someone acutely aware of how precious it is.
Find out about diagnosis, treatments and living with secondary breast cancer.