When Natasha was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at the age of 43, she tried to keep it at arm’s length. Now, she sees the value of community support, and wants to use her experience to educate others.

Natasha, her husband and her two daughters enjoying some time at the beach

My diagnosis made me face my own mortality

My world turned upside down the day I found out I had breast cancer. I was 38 and had a young family (my daughters were just nine and five at the time).

I went through every kind of treatment they could throw at me, and I felt the sense of urgency to ‘save’ me. I was terrified. It was the first time I had ever really stared into the face of my own mortality.

At the end of it all, I was told I was in remission.

However, in 2019, at the age of 43, I started to have some problems with my hip. It was initially put down to sciatica or hip impingement, and I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the doctor and physiotherapist. Even though they were aware of my medical history, they didn’t feel it was a red flag.

Then, one day, I couldn’t even stand – at which point they realised my hip was almost fractured and that something was badly wrong. After being referred for a CT scan, they discovered I had metastases in my hips, but also in my spine and my shoulder.

In other words, the breast cancer had spread to my bones and had become incurable.

I didn’t want to consider the possibility my cancer had spread

I suppose I’d always known the hip pain could have been secondary breast cancer, but I had tried to put that to the back of my mind and think positively. The doctors suggested it was something less severe, so I was happy to accept that at the time – the alternative was not something I was ready to accept.

Looking back, I realise that GPs aren’t always switched on to these sorts of things, and secondary cancer isn’t the first thing to come to mind when you encounter a health problem like this – even if you do have a history of breast cancer.

When I first got the news, I thought that was it for me. I was so poorly at that point and in so much pain. It was quite a difficult time. However, I had a hip replacement in July 2019 followed by six rounds of chemotherapy, and everything began to stabilise after that.

Now, I receive immunotherapy injections every three weeks, a bone injection every six weeks, and take tablets daily – all with the aim of keeping my tumours from growing. It’s a minor disruption to life, but otherwise I am able to get on as normal.

I do have days when I feel quite tired, but the pandemic has meant that I work from home mostly (which is great on the days I feel like I couldn’t do the commute into work). I also appreciate that it gives me more time to spend with my children – something I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Gradually, I overcame the stigma associated with secondary breast cancer

My secondary diagnosis is always something I’ve kept slightly at arm’s length. At first, I didn’t want to get too involved in any cancer groups; I think mostly because of the stigma attached to them. I wanted to try and continue living ‘normally’, and to acknowledge those groups meant I had to accept what was happening to me.

Over time, however, I have joined in a bit more, and in doing so I’ve realised there are so many people out there who are in a similar situation to me. Now, I tend to dip in and out of them as I feel comfortable.

Last year, I shared my story in a blogpost with Breast Cancer Now, after which they contacted me asking if I would want to be part of a TV advert – and I said yes. It might sound strange, now, saying I didn’t want to acknowledge my diagnosis and then doing something so public, but I feel it’s been really positive for me.

Not only has it helped me realise that there’s a community of support out there for people like me, but it’s also been good to push the message that we need to take action with breast cancer now.

I hope others will benefit from me sharing my story

I think a lot of people hear about breast cancer and think it’s maybe something they’ll have to consider when they’re older, if at all. But breast cancer is happening now, to young families such as mine. It needs immediate attention.

Things have certainly improved over the years, as there used to be a lot more stigma around cancer than there is now. Even when I was first diagnosed in 2014, the only younger person in the media I remember talking about their experience with breast cancer was Kylie Minogue. It sounds weird, but she was the only person I could relate to. And with nobody else talking about it, I felt quite lonely.

Not only was this advert a chance to remind people of the urgency of breast cancer, but it was also an opportunity to make other younger people with a secondary diagnosis realise they’re not alone.

Plus, for me, it was a way I could turn a bad experience into a positive one. I know that it has really helped me to hear about other people’s cancer experiences, especially from those who have been able to carry on with their lives normally. Hopefully, this advert will mean I can do that for someone else.

 

Right now, Natasha's cancer can't be cured, but she has hope that one day it will be. By supporting Breast Cancer Now, you'll be funding research that helps us learn more about secondary breast cancer.

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