Vicks' diagnosis was a shock, and she found it difficult to manage treatment on top of being a single mum and starting a new job. Thankfully, she found support online.
My early mammogram showed no evidence of breast cancer
I had been called for an early screening at 49 in the summer of 2018. It all came back clear, and I didn't think anything more about it. A year later, I found a lump under my breast while towelling myself down after a shower.
I was a specialist practice nurse, so I had close contact with a lot of GPs, including my own. I sent her an email to let her know I'd found the lump.
I couldn’t make it in for an appointment because I was moving away in 48 hours: I'd be in Cornwall for the summer holidays before settling into a new place in Eastbourne. My doctor told me to just see the GP as soon as I was in my new home.
I had a mammogram and other tests
I moved on 31 August 2019 and registered with a new GP the same day. When I finally got to see a doctor, she couldn't say for sure whether the lump was something to be worried about but – especially because of my age – I needed to be referred for more tests.
Even at that point, I never thought it would be cancer.
A week later, I went with a friend to see the breast surgeon. By coincidence, he turned out to be the son of my mum's neighbour in Cornwall. I'd met him and his wife before I moved, and he'd given me tips about settling into the area.
He ordered a mammogram for the same day, and I thought he was doing me a favour because he knew me. After I had that done, he said he'd book me in for an ultrasound and possible biopsy in the next 10 days.
I got a call a couple of days later to say there had been a cancellation, and could I come in at 8am the next day for the follow-up. Again, I thought the surgeon might have pulled some strings - especially as he knew I didn't want to take any time off from my new job.
Now, I know it was because they'd found something on the mammogram.
Waiting to find out if it had spread was the hardest part
Even before I got the official diagnosis, the radiographer said I needed to be prepared for bad news. It was clear there was a tumour present and that there were three abnormal-looking nodes in my left arm.
I was distraught.
After some blood tests and an MRI, I had a week's wait before I could get the results.
It eventually turned out that the tumour was grade 3 and HER2 negative. That was the only positive news during that beast of a journey, as a Macmillan nurse explained to me that HER2 negative cancer is less aggressive.
What followed was a horrendous fortnight of waiting for the results of the CT and bone scan. Every twinge and every pain in that time made me so worried. I kept thinking of my 11-year-old. During this whole ordeal, those two weeks were the worst.
Fortunately, I got the news that it hadn't spread.
There were some difficult moments during treatment
I needed a single mastectomy and full lymph node clearance, which I had just five days after my diagnosis. During the operation, the surgeon found that the tumour was right up against my ribcage, and he'd had to do two bone shaves to make sure he got it all. I was in quite a lot of pain afterwards.
Two months later, in December, I began my eight rounds of chemotherapy. I worked all the way through it. Mentally, I didn't want to stop – I felt like I needed something to keep me going.
After my fifth dose, however, I remember walking the dog and feeling that I couldn't manage it. My fortnightly bloods showed that I needed a blood transfusion. Once I'd had it, I felt much better again.
I came to the end of chemotherapy treatment in March 2020, around the time the first lockdown was looming. I made the decision to get my daughter, dog and guinea pig in the car, and we bolted to Cornwall. The house there was empty, and I knew I didn't want to be around too many people because chemotherapy meant I was vulnerable.
My radiotherapy care was transferred over to Truro, and I was lucky to be one of the first women to have a higher dose over a shorter period of time (five days), rather than needing treatment for three weeks.
I turned to Breast Cancer Now for answers and support
The care I received was outstanding. The only hitch was that I had to change oncologists at the end of my chemotherapy, and the second one left me feeling quite abandoned.
It was during that period that I contacted Breast Cancer Now.
I called up the Helpline and the nurse I spoke to was amazing. She didn't try to 'normalise' what I was going through, but she made me realise that everything I was encountering during my treatment was to be expected.
After that, a friend of mine who'd had triple negative breast cancer a few years earlier told me about the Moving Forward course. She told me how helpful it was for her, so I signed up for it.
Due to the pandemic, it was moved to an online course, but I still went along – and it was brilliant. It was a lifesaver. Because I was so isolated, and because I was no longer under the care of my original oncologist, I felt like I needed that extra support.
It gave me somewhere to ask questions I hadn't previously been able to – but I didn't need to, really, as it was all covered on the programme.
One of the most helpful things for me was the information around medication. I'd been having issues with tamoxifen, and through the course I learned I could try a different brand. I still have some side effects now, but nowhere near as bad.
The Moving Forward course is an excellent resource
Being able to navigate the concerns I had by looking through the course topics and talk with others about their experiences really helped me – especially while I was in that treatment gap between chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Just knowing Breast Cancer Now is there is such a comfort, and for anyone considering the course, I’d say absolutely go for it. The information you get from it is amazing, but it’s also so simple. You don’t feel bombarded by terminology or overwhelmed at all. It’s a fantastic resource for support.
If, like Vicks, you feel you need some support during or after a primary breast cancer diagnosis, we'd love to invite you to the Moving Forward programme.