After finishing treatment for primary breast cancer, Jac began feeling a pressure in her chest. It was eventually diagnosed as metastatic breast cancer, which Jac has now been living with for eight years.
I was worried about how I would tell my children
In 2006, I woke up one morning and felt a pea-sized lump in my right breast. For most of that day, I kept feeling my boob to check it wasn’t my imagination. I booked an appointment with my GP and, within a couple of days, was called to the local hospital.
First, a doctor did a physical examination. This was followed by an X-ray and ultrasound. Then, I was called back to the doctor for a core biopsy and told to wait. After an hour or so, the doctor called me back in and said I needed another biopsy as the first wasn’t good enough. I felt sick – it wasn’t a nice experience at all.
Throughout all this, I was with a very lovely friend who did her best to keep my mind from running wild. I had been divorced five years at that time, but had managed to build myself some great friendships which are still propping me up now.
By eight o’clock that evening, I had my diagnosis. It was breast cancer.
My biggest fear was how I was going to tell my three boys.
I felt so relieved to have finished treatment
I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and later radiotherapy. I tolerated the treatment quite well if I say so myself. Knowing I would come out the other side made it more bearable, and I just saw it as a means to an end.
I also saw the positives. I had such a fun experience trying on wigs. I felt so sorry for the wig lady; my friend and I were besides ourselves with laughter. In the end, I decided scarves were the route I’d take.
Eventually, I managed to get on with life, and was only gently reminded of breast cancer by my annual check-ups.
I was also taking tamoxifen, which I was told would be for 10 years. However, I struggled with it, as it seemed to exacerbate the enforced menopause that had been brought upon me (breast cancer really is the gift that just keeps giving!). Thankfully, I eventually found an alternative.
After the magic five-year milestone, I switched to annual check-ups. I was so grateful for them; they were just the reassurance I needed to get on with things.
My secondary breast cancer was initially misdiagnosed
Two more years later, when doctors were talking about signing me off, I started feeling pressure in my chest. It felt like an elephant was sitting there. The sensation didn’t last long, and I had a check-up due shortly so made a mental note to mention it.
After a physical exam, the doctor said the sensation was common after the kind of treatment I’d had. He gave it a name - inflammation caused by radiotherapy - so I went home feeling confident that all was well.
But it started to get worse.
Soon, a small lump appeared on my sternum and the pain was unreal. I got girlfriends over for lunch to ask their opinion, and they urged me to go to my GP.
After a night of particularly bad pain, I got in to see a locum that same day. She was brilliant. She referred me to the orthopaedic hospital to the musculoskeletal department ASAP. From there, I was told I needed a biopsy, which happened a week later. A week after that, I got the results.
Sure enough, they had found breast cancer in my sternum, meaning it had become stage four.
Even with metastatic cancer, I have been able to live well
I was drowning in a language I didn’t know. All I could think was, ‘I’m dying. It’s game over.’ I can’t tell you how lonely and isolated I felt.
I just wanted it out of my body, but the surgeon explained it couldn’t be removed as it would leave me with a poor quality of life. However, I could have radiotherapy – and it worked like magic. The pain disappeared and the lump vanished.
What I was left with afterwards was the label of stage four breast cancer. It hung over my head like a dreaded sword. My mental health suffered and I was referred to a counsellor.
Slowly, I came to terms with it, and was reassured by regular scans that showed everything was stable. For the next six years, I was living a full and happy life. At times, I even thought that my diagnosis couldn’t have been right.
In 2019, I began to notice my voice changed, but I shrugged it off thinking it was me using my voice more than I used to. Then, one day while chatting away on the phone at work, I felt a lump just above my collarbone. I was gripped by fear.
A scan showed the disease had progressed. Ok, I thought, I can cope with this – so long as I don’t need any more chemotherapy. Unfortunately, radiotherapy was not an option as I’d already had my quota. I needed 18 weekly rounds of paclitaxel.
I’m now on fulvestrant and ribociclib, and I have regular scans. I’m so grateful for these relatively new drugs that have come along for all of us secondary breast cancer patients. My family and I still lurch from scan to scan, but I’m still here and have a reasonable quality of this precious life, so I’m not complaining.
If you’ve been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer and want more information or to talk others who understand, our online programme and virtual meetings are here for you.