Donna Fraser represented Great Britain at four Olympics Games in athletics. In 2009, when she was still an athlete, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Here Donna shares her experience of going through treatment.
This isn’t right
In May of 2009 I found a lump – it was the size of a pea but rock hard. I checked my breasts on a monthly basis and as an athlete you have to be body aware. I just thought “this isn’t right”. I went to my doctor and she said it was probably a cyst, but we would need to get it checked out. I had the lump removed together with a biopsy.
I went straight back to training and two weeks after I had the lump removed, I competed in Switzerland. I was still bandaged up and I remember thinking “ooh that hurt” as soon as I came out of the starting blocks. But I was doing what I knew best and that really did help take my mind off it.
My alter ego kicks in
The biopsy came back as the early stages of breast cancer – ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). As soon the doctor said the words ‘cancer’, it went silent. Her mouth was moving, but I didn’t hear a word. I had all these thoughts going through my mind – how the hell did this happen to me? What’s going on?
My breast care nurse started talking me through the next steps. And that was when I burst into tears. After I left the appointment, I picked up the phone and called my mum and sister. I’m usually seen as the backbone of the family, so I just said “I’m fine, this has happened, yes I’ve got breast cancer”. Then I put the phone down and burst into tears again.
I’ll let you into a secret – I’ve got an alter ego called Diane, she’s been with me throughout my athletics career. If Donna has an ounce of doubt, Diane will step in and say “sort yourself out, this is what you’re doing”. That was when Diane kicked in – I dried my tears, and started thinking about what would happen next.
Deciding what to do
At my next appointment, the doctor asked if I had considered a mastectomy, because with my age (I was 36) the cancer was more likely to come back. That really threw me because I thought we were going to be talking about the plan for radiotherapy, and a mastectomy hadn’t been mentioned before.
The doctor said he couldn’t tell me whether to have a mastectomy or not, and I had to make that decision. I had a couple of weeks to decide. I spoke a lot with my family, people who knew me, the nurse, the surgeon. I had loads of conversations – it’s good to talk, as they say. You can’t possibly make a decision like that on your own.
I decided to finish the athletics season and then go for a mastectomy. In the end, I asked myself whether I wanted that constant worry of going back and checking year after year and that’s what made my decision really – cut to the chase (excuse the pun) and get rid of it. I know the worry for a lot of women is that you get something taken away from you and feel you’re less of a woman. But that wasn’t the case for me.
I had the option of reconstruction by taking tissue from my back, but because I was an athlete there was no fat there! So an implant was the next best thing, and I had the whole thing done at the same time, which I’m pleased I did.
I didn’t have to go through radiotherapy or chemotherapy, so I do count myself very lucky not having to go down that path.
Recovering – physically and mentally
From the day I got my results, my breast care nurse was always there for me, she was fantastic. She was so reassuring and talked me through the whole process. I wasn’t just another patient, I was an individual, which made a huge difference. I could ask her anything – and I did!
Just after the mastectomy, I went to Sports Personality of the Year and I had to find an outfit that I could wear that wouldn’t show all my bandages. So I wore this black catsuit that was zipped right up to my neck! That whole night I was in absolute agony, but that was me trying to carry on with life as much as I could.
Because I was so fit, I healed quite quickly. They gave me a list of exercises to strengthen my arm and shoulder back up – because at first you lose mobility completely – and I do think my athletic background helped me tremendously.
But I think the most difficult thing I had to deal with was the mental side of things, more than the physical. It’s life changing, because your confidence levels go down the pan. Nobody actually notices, but you think they do! So psychologically it’s quite a challenge.
That’s why I became a Breast Cancer Now ambassador. I felt that I could help other women who have gone through the same thing, but I also thought that hearing other women’s stories could help with my recovery, mentally. And it has – over and above what I thought it would have. I have a great cohort of women that are now my close friends, I call them my survivor sisters. They’re my support, and I support them.
I’m well now. I keep an eye on the other breast and I still have annual mammograms, when I pray that everything’s ok. I know I have to do it, but it brings everything back – the whole process, that hospital smell. So there’s always a little bit of anxiousness.
But I always think positivity is the best medicine. Sometimes it’s only when I do an event with Breast Cancer Now that I remember just what a journey I’ve come through.