Last year, Francesca was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had lost her husband five years before and struggled with handling treatment during the pandemic. She shares how her family helped her cope.
I was so naive
My name is Francesca. I am a mother of three children: Joe, Siena and Sonny. My husband Ryan was sadly killed in an accident just over five years ago and, nearly one year ago, I found out I had stage 2 breast cancer.
I guess, like most people, I was shocked to hear my diagnosis. I didn’t think I had breast cancer. Even though my mum had it four years ago, I was completely naive.
I wanted to protect my children
My first thoughts were for my children. Since Ryan died, I have been in 'fight' mode. I saw myself as a tough mother who must protect her children from any more sadness. I wanted to try and make their lives as ‘normal’ as possible. My 17-year-old had just started his A Levels, so I was especially worried about putting too much strain on him.
I was also scared that if the cancer spread I wouldn’t be able to bring my children up.
Many people felt for me. I had already lost my soulmate. They thought I deserved a break, but life doesn’t work like that.
Out of all my friends, I have always been the control freak who never drank too much, has never been overweight, always exercised, and always eaten well. On paper, I didn’t seem like someone who would get cancer at 43. It didn’t make any sense.
COVID-19 caused me so much anxiety during treatment
I managed two of my eight chemotherapy sessions before lockdown, then I was on my own with the kids.
I was so petrified at one stage of catching COVID-19 that I wasn’t sure whether I should continue with the treatment. My thought was that I would rather take the risk of the cancer coming back than leave my children without a mother. It was the most awful time.
Thankfully, my oncologist talked some sense into me and said I must continue. So, for six cycles I didn’t have any company as no one was allowed in. This was tough, as I was sitting on my own with lots of thoughts going through my head.
It was a very difficult period
I also wasn’t allowed to drive to treatment, so it was difficult making the decisions about who was going to take me. It was like a military operation. My sister would disinfect her whole car and I sat at the back with the windows wide open. I had a mask, and we didn’t talk just in case. She was so frightened of infecting me with COVID-19.
I then had radiotherapy and, over the last few months, have tried to get myself back on track.
I was lucky to have support
The thing that helped me the most were my children. They were all out of school and my youngest, who is nine, was full of energy.
I still had to keep to routines the best I could, and this would make me get out of bed every morning. The beautiful summer helped too, as the kids could play in the garden and it was lovely weather to go for walks (which kept me sane).
My family were brilliant, they would drop shopping off to the doorstep. I had a very good friend support network who would make food to drop off, too. They were all so frusrated that they couldn’t do more to help.
I found out I have the altered BRCA2 gene
Then, towards the end of 2020, I got the results of a genetic test. I have the altered BRCA2 gene.
I can’t believe I have had this all my life. Everyone has been taken aback with my result.
Following the news, my mum got tested for the gene. My three sisters also called their GPs and are arranging to get tested, and my brother will hopefully do the same soon
Looking at our family history, my mum’s aunts had ovarian and breast cancer. There seems to be a link, although we won’t know until mum gets her results if she is carrying the altered gene.
I still have surgery to go through
All my active treatment is done now, but I am taking tamoxifen. It causes hot sweats but they have calmed down a bit.
I’m hoping to see the gynaecologist soon to discuss the removal of my ovaries due to the ovarian cancer risk. I am going to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction this year, too.
I felt that, once my chemo and radio was over, I could start to move forward and get my life back on track - but I now have another diversion with two possible operations to come.
More people should know about altered BRCA genes
I wanted to write about my experience because no one thought I had the altered BRCA2 gene. I really pushed to have the test, and even the medical team were surprised with the results. However, the gene specialist said anyone under 50 who gets breast cancer should be tested.
I feel that things should change, and that everyone should be offered the test.
But I am also feeling positive and grateful that I found out about this altered gene. I have a large family and children, so it is important we all know.
People often say, ‘I don’t know how you cope, losing Ryan and now cancer.’ I always say I have three children; I just carry on and do my best. He would want me to do my best, and that is what I intend to do.
For more information on altered BRCA genes and increased family risk of breast cancer, please visit our page on genes and family history.