Lisa Farrell – My Breast Cancer Story
For many women, the word Breast Cancer brings terror, but with survival rates growing there’s always hope. Today, a good friend of mine shares her inspirational breast cancer story to show other women going through breast cancer, that she survived!
Lisa’s Breast Cancer Story
You can ask the majority of Rovers fans what the relevance of 19th November 2010 is and they will be able to you that Venky’s took over…..if only that was the only significance of that date for me. You see, I found myself stuck in a consultants room being diagnosed with Breast Cancer (An Invasive Ductal Carcinoma to be more precise.)
It was on a Tuesday night 3 weeks prior to this that I discovered a lump whilst checking myself in the shower. I kept on checking it throughout the night to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, even taking pictures with my arm above my head – yup no mistaking I definitely had a lump there.
I decided against ringing my mum (no need for us both to go without sleep due to panicking) so I rang 111 and the lovely lady did her best to calm me and advised me to make an appointment with my gp for the following day.
Ringing the Doctors
Anyway I rang up the doctors – the only appointment I could get was to see a locum – he examined me (yup a definite lump which he considered to be the size of a pea – more than likely to be a cyst he said – how wrong was he!!!!) He asked me numerous questions about family history and drew x marks the spot a diagram of a pair of breasts – this is where he interpreted the lump to be.
He arranged for me to go to the breast clinic at Burnley general as a precaution – didn’t feel too bad until I saw him write the word urgent on the top of the referral (my mind went in to overdrive at this point why the need for an urgent referral if it a cyst???) l left the doctors and stood there in a haze for a few minutes then I rang my mum in floods of tears. She came and picked me up, calmed me down and offered to take me to her house for a bit (instead of doing this, like a rational person would, I went back to work). All I had to do now was play a waiting game for the appointment. I told one of my best friends what was happening as she dropped me off at a quiz night later that night.
Just under a week later I found myself sat in suite 1 at Burnley General. (My mum and dad came with me for moral support) Me and mum where shown into a room and I was given a pink gown that I had to put on once stripped from above the waist. (I giggled to myself because it made me become nostalgic and think of running round as a kid in the school playground with your coat fastened at the hood pretending to be a super hero).
Anyway, the doctor entered the room and began to examine both breasts, and said he thought it was a cyst. He told me that was more than likely to be caused by a hormone imbalance, and that he would arrange for an ultrasound and fine needle biopsy just to be sure. I began to feel a bit better about things. I got dressed and went and sat in a long corridor waiting for a radiologist. Two other women were also waiting, both had a good 20/30 years on me. Again, once in the room, I undressed and led on the bed, with mum sat at the bottom so that she could see the monitor. As soon as the radiologist had squirted me with gel, running the probe over my breast and started looking at the screen, her face changed.
I was Sent For a Mammogram
Instead of being told it was a cyst and being sent home I was sent for a mammogram, little did I know that the mammogram would be my first and last. (Yes – they bloody hurt, but at the end of day, if a squashed boob is going to save a life then a few minutes of being uncomfortable is worth it).The radiologist told to come back and have a fine needle biopsy and core biopsies taken. They hurt too, but at least you are given a local anaesthetic. My baps were black and blue for weeks after!
Whilst I was having the mammo, the radiologist came and told my dad it wasn’t looking good. I was told to come back an hour later because the results on the fine needle biopsy would be back then, so to kill some time we went to McDonalds.
Back at the hospital I was told I had suspicious cells that would need operating on, and that I would need to come back the following week when all the results where in. Mum asked the doctor “Would my daughter end up losing her breast”? He was a bit stumped on how to answer, so I turned round and said I didn’t really want to know yet so there was no point thinking about that when we don’t know what we are dealing with. My thinking was that just because there were suspicious cells didn’t mean it was cancer right? After all, I was only 28 years old, how blinkered was I? Trying to explain to people what the doctor had said was a nightmare, they just couldn’t grasp what the doctor was getting at, for which I got at few funny looks as well as a few whispers behind my back.
My lovely friend Linda was a star that night. She took me to a pub and listened to me witter on about random crap whilst I got drunk and being interrupted by numerous calls of people wanting updates on my health.
Different Scenarios were running through my head..
The week in between having the biopsies done and getting an official diagnosis, I drove myself insane with thinking about different scenarios. I think the unknown was the hardest. It was a breast care nurse who informed us of the official diagnosis, I can’t really remember my reaction. All I remember is mum breaking down and my dad sat there looking like he was on another planet. In the meantime, I was shown behind a curtain by the breast care nurse, she kept trying to talk to me, but I sent her back round the curtain to check on mum. Hearing her sob like that was breaking my heart. I’m gowned up yet again waiting for a surgeon to appear to take a look at my boobs. I just lay there shitting myself, thinking that I wasn’t ready to die, wondering why me? I must have been a right bitch in a previous life.
Miss Mc was lovely, but everything seemed to happen so bloody fast! One minute she was telling me about treatment plans, the next she was asking me to make a decision on whether to have chemo or surgery first. I made the decision to have chemo first, because in the surgeons’ words, “It would make the tumour more operable”, so the answer was easy to make really. They then asked me to make a decision on freezing my eggs. I decided against this as it would have delayed treatment and considering the tumour was 7cmx4cm I wasn’t really in a position to have treatment delayed
I remember heading out of the hospital phoning my boss and a couple of others. I got back home to mum and dad’s and remember going in the house whilst dad sat in the car by himself, looking lost. I can’t even remember where my sister went; she just disappeared upstairs to her room. I nipped to the loo at one point and she opened her bedroom door and gave me a Christmas present early to try and bring a smile to my face, but I can’t really remember much else from that day apart from being sat in front of the TV watching children in need and having a couple of family friends visiting.
Telling my friends that I had cancer
I remember how I told some of my friends, others I’m not quite so sure about, I even told a couple via text message as it was murder trying to pin them down. Rumours were beginning to spread at work, but it didn’t bother me, because in one sense, it saved me a job, but I would have like to have told a couple of people I worked with face to face – hey ho. The strangest response I got back was “Well you’re the first one of my friends to have cancer”…..Go figure!
Laura came to mine the day after with flowers and a six back of beer bless her! We went to Preston and then caught up with some of my other friends, ones that knew of what was going on, the others, unaware which made things a bit difficult when my phone was going off every few minutes with people wanting to know how I was.
I went back to the hospital a couple of weeks later, for which I received a treatment plan. The nice Dr Kennedy informed me I was to undergo 4 sessions of Epirubicin, (The red devil – it turns your pee red for 48 hours after having it infused), and Cyclophosphamide, followed by 4 sessions of Taxatre. Bone Scans and CT Scans where also arranged to see if it had spread.
The week before I started the chemo, I was invited to the chemo unit to have a look around. I was told about things like the cold cap. A cold cap looks similar to a bicycle helmet. It is designed to cool your scalp while you receive a dose of chemotherapy. In cooling the scalp to -15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold cap reduces the amount of blood flow to the scalp. This reduces the amount of chemotherapy medication that reaches it. During each chemotherapy session, you wear the caps for 20 to 50 minutes before, during and after each chemotherapy session the amount of time you wear the cap after the chemotherapy session depends on the type of chemotherapy you’re getting. I thought wearing the cold cap would be a breeze given the amount of freezing cold nights I sat out at the football, but yet again though I was wrong. In fact I only used it for the one session and I ended up with a chest infection.
The staff on the chemo unit reminded me to look into things I hadn’t even thought of. Mortgage protection/critical illness policies, free prescriptions, diets, council tax, levels of sick pay, when will sick pay resume once back at work? Some ladies who had previously been on the unit still didn’t receive sick pay even though they had been back at work 3-4 years! It’s certainly hard to imagine that even after that length of time people still find themselves in debt, simply because they are left without sick pay when the need for follow up procedures arises, or they find themselves off sick because of something else.
I worked up until the day before I started chemo, (First one was 15th December 2010) finishing the day in floods of tears. Suddenly I was no longer talking about cancer in general, whilst I stood outside the preverbal box, it was me who was starting chemo and it suddenly became very real. I had previously been told by my Oncologist, that because I had a low immune system, I was to avoid work and busy places to be able to cut down on infection risks. (Yup, I’m the silly sod that bought a season ticket for 2 years even though I couldn’t go, just to keep my same seat! After all, being back at the football amongst friends was an aim and a sign of a bit of normality for me I guess).
I was given steroids to take for a couple of days before and after each session and mum was given the task of injecting Nulasta in to my stomach the day after each session to try and help my white blood cell levels (Not nice for either of us).
The side effects of Chemotherapy
Whilst on the EC chemo my side effects included; sickness, (Bloody horrendous, they even tried me on 4 different anti-sickness tablets and I was still hurling for England) and hair loss (And not just the head, I was bald from head to toe. Like I said the cold cap wasn’t for me) my hair started to fall out on New Year’s Eve (So much for me trying to enjoy it with the girls). By now, I couldn’t be bothered going anywhere, so I put up with the hair falling out gradually for 2 weeks, but got sick of waking up with a mouth full hair, so I asked my mum to shave all off. Again, I ended up in floods of tears. It was another of those stark realisation moments. Not only had by hair began to fall out, but I now had an ulcerated mouth/oral thrush, Nystatin is a wonder drug to help with this. I also found my taste buds changed, 1 minute I was constipated, the next I couldn’t keep off the loo.
At some point in between cycles one and two of the EC, it was decided I was going to undergo a procedure to have a portacath fitted (I had shocking veins and they needed an easy way to take bloods and administer drugs) this procedure was done on the same day as my 2nd cycle of EC mum and dad took me to Preston Royal first thing in the morning the procedure was done under local aesthetic, then we travelled to Burnley for a 2pm appointment on the chemo unit. I finally got to the end of the 4 EC Cycles, with each session your side effects become more severe and tiredness increases because the drugs have built up in your system.
Next came the Taxotere I was told it wouldn’t make me as sick as the EC, thank goodness for that I thought!
Throughout my whole life, I’d never have wished to be somebody else or me without the Cerebral Palsy. After all, it was all I’d known, but that all changed at two points through all this:
- When I started the Taxotere. (Bone pain was unreal even after the first dose! I ended up on both MST and Oraramorph, which meant the sickness came back tenfold (It got to the point where I wouldn’t have topped myself, but then I wouldn’t have said no to drifting off in my sleep. It affected my mobility even more so than normal. I was defiantly carrying on fighting for the people who were supporting me, rather than for myself)
- When I was told that because of the Cerebral Palsy they wouldn’t be able to reconstruct my breasts using my own muscles but I’d have to have implants and they would be nowhere near the size of my original G cup.
I ended up also losing my finger nails and toe nails whilst on the Taxotere, and again my taste buds altered. My body really took a hit! I was admitted to hospital 4 times with various infections and twice for blood transfusions. I was constantly exhausted throughout the whole of chemo but tried to make the most of my good weeks, even now tiredness takes its toll.
My last chemo session
I finally had my last chemo session on May 11th 2011. It was strange saying goodbye to staff and patients alike, it becomes such a big part of your life, so much so in fact, that it became the norm. The next goal was to build up my strength ready for my surgery on 4th July (It really was MY independence day and I will celebrate it every year I can!) During this time I had numerous discussions with doctors. I had to really fight to have the beginnings of my reconstructive work at the same time as the mastectomy. They wanted me to wait 18 months before reconstructive work, and to this day, I could never imagine coming round from the op with nothing there. At the same time as mastectomy and recon, I was having a lymph node sweep to see if cancer had spread to the nodes. I was admitted to hospital on the day before the op, I did nothing but cry, especially when I was left to my own devices – goodness knows what the other ladies in the bay thought!
I carried on watching random bits of TV to try and block it all out, I didn’t get a wink of sleep the next thing I know, breakfast is being served to the rest of the bay and it’s time for me to gown up. The anaesthetist appears with a checklist full of questions a mile long, followed by the surgeon to mark me up. (Don’t know why he bothered though, as both breast were going and the scar was going to be right across the front causing me to lose my nipples). I felt like the loneliest person in the world, all I wanted was hugs off mum, dad and even Lindsey, but they were back in Blackburn. I ended up getting myself in a tizz but at that point it was too late for a pre-med so a nurse just sat on the bed and hugged me whilst I sobbed. I woke up in recovery and just burst in to tears, it all felt surreal and yet very real at the same time. (We were told that I’d roughly be in theatre for 4 hours, (8 hrs later, I reappear). I ended up with 3 drains, 1 in each breast and one under my arm. I ended up carrying them in plastic bags but they were murder to manoeuvre especially when I was using my walking stick as well.
The day after surgery, the nurses got me out of bed and took me to the bathroom, helping me put on a sports bra for support (I had to wear the bra 24hrs a day for weeks – deffo not the most comfortable when trying to sleep). I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing me, but I had no sensation. (Still don’t to this day). Covered in tape and bandages, it was like an out of body experience. There really wasn’t much I could do whilst in hospital, apart from think, which caused my moods to become very low. I was so glad when visiting time came round and I got to see family and friends, but, as usual, I just ended up in tears. I just wanted to turn back time and for this never to have happened. I was finally let out 6 days later, minus my drains, but under the care of the district nurses for the dressing changes etc.
The results of the node sweep
Two weeks after that I was back at the hospital for the results on the node sweep. Turns out they took 16 lymph nodes, 6 of which were cancerous, and they managed to get rid of the entire tumour, but it had tested positive for the HER2 protein, coupled with the issue of oestrogen+. It had already been decided that I was to have 15 radiotherapy sessions to mop up any stray cells, but hearing these results changed the game plan yet again. I was put on tamoxifen for 5 years, Zoladex for 2 years (This meant early menopause. Oh the joys! At least I’d save on Heating bills in winter), and I would have to go back to the chemo unit every 3 wks for a year to have a treatment called herceptin (It’s never ending, or so it seems).
I was left to rest and recoup for a few weeks before the radiotherapy, then I had to go over for an assessment. Before I started, I was given 5 tiny tattoos to help the staff when lining up the beams. (It bloody hurt, especially near my rib cage). I didn’t really suffer any major side effects from radio therapy; it was more about constant fatigue, (Not helped by daily travelling to and from Preston) and burnt skin. I did end up back in hospital though with 2 infections one from where a finger nail had lifted and the other was cellulitis around the implant. (It was touch and go as to whether they would have to take the implant out, lucky for me they didn’t).
I ended back at the chemo unit ready for my Herceptin treatment, but the only problem was, I had no central line, anymore the portacath was taken out when they did the mastectomy. It meant I had a whole year of nurses prodding and poking trying to find veins to put in cannulas (why did the specialist agree to the removal of the portacath if they knew that the tests carried out on the tumour could mean more treatments could be needed).
A few weeks after I’d finished radiotherapy and regained a bit of strength I’d gone back to work gradually, building my hours after being off for just short of a year – just going to the hospital every 3 weeks for the Herceptin and doing a few hours a work each day took its toll though, I was bloody shattered, but I was still here that’s the main thing.
Roll on a year………only then, did I find my treatment plan had quietened. I’d finished the Herceptin, and I was just beginning to realise just what the bloody hell I’d come through. It had been one hell of a rollercoaster ride. A friend at the time, sent me an article by Dr P Harvey, called ‘After the Treatment Finishes – Then What?’ It helped me begin to get a grasp of things. But still those what if’s continued to appear (deep down I know that I had to make the decisions, I made the right choices for me at those moments in time but my head was just in a complete mess).
Even now, (3 yrs clear) I struggle with the emotional aspects of it all. I’d rather keep myself to myself around anniversary time, rather than lash out at my friends and family. Some people see this as negative, and think I’m shutting myself off, but I call it, self preservation – ha! Needless to say, the people who think this are no longer friends. My lashing out though can happen at any point, I guess I’m still a little angry at the world. I’m just thankful that my family and majority of my friends have understood and stood by me when I’ve been a complete and utter bitch!
I have major hang-up’s regarding my body image, and I’m slowly working through these and other issues with a clinical psychologist . Hopefully, once I’ve had all my reconstructive work done, (As it stands, I am looking at 3 lots of procedures, 1 more lot of lipo-modelling, nipple construction and the tattooing) I’ll be in a better place. I think a lot of my anger is also directed at the lack of control I have as well.
Things I learnt during my breast story are:
Cancer scares people. Some people aren’t sure how to act around you and would rather ignore or avoid you.
The people who love you the most will sometimes become uncomfortable and sometimes the most unpleasant.
If you have some of these people in your life, remember: their reactions are not about you, it’s about them.
“Everyone’s journey is their own – I know a few people who have had their own cancer experiences. I have some friends that went through treatment and knew nothing about their stage of cancer, type of cancer, or their long-term diagnosis. They just showed up and did what the doctor suggested. I know others who wanted to know everything and be involved in each decision. Relatives and friends sometimes try to force their opinions regarding treatments or how they think you should be acting in certain situation or at different times. Take advice by all means, ask questions, but just remember, we are all individual, we all do things for a reason. Don’t be forced into doing something to make others feel better – they have not been in your shoes do what is right for you!
Chemo Brain Does exist
Chemo brain does exist, people laugh when I forget stuff but it really is true my memory is shocking after cancer treatment, some people notice changes in their memory, concentration and the way they think. Women with breast cancer were the first to report these problems, which they linked to their chemotherapy treatment. So they called the changes chemo brain. Another name people use is chemo fog.
Symptoms can include
- Memory loss – forgetting things that you normally remember
- Difficulty thinking of the right word for a particular object
- Difficulty following the flow of a conversation
- Trouble concentrating or focusing on one thing
- Difficulty doing more than one thing at a time (multi tasking)
- More difficulty doing things you used to do easily, such as adding up in your head
- Fatigue (tiredness and lack of energy)
- Mental fogginess
The changes are often mild and very subtle. But if you have them they can reduce your quality of life.
You come out the other side a changed person, staring mortality it the face, has an effect on people. I’m more stubborn and pig headed than I ever was, but I alone know you have to make the most of the hand you’re dealt. Even during the dark times something good can always be taken from it. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and about others; good and bad. I’ve made some fab friends and I’ve realised that I’m stronger than I ever thought I could become, in fact we all are when needs must.
There are other things that are relative to my story that I’d love to discuss in more detail but unfortunately, office politics, amongst other things, prevent me from doing so……
The Signs of Breast Cancer are:
So Ladies and Gents instead of going through a journey similar to mine, look out for the signs, you know your body listen to it!
Lumps or thickening of breast tissue
Continuous pain in a breast or armpit
One breast becoming larger or lower
Puckering or dimpling of the skin
Nipples becoming inverted (turned in), changing shape or position
Nipples developing a rash, crusting or producing discharge
Swelling under the armpits or around the collarbone.
I have too many people to thank individually – both to people who stood by, and the people who walked away, you all got me to this point! But without a shadow of a doubt, I know for a fact I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for mum, dad and Lindsey.
Thank you for not wrapping me up in cotton wool growing up. It helped to provide me with the sheer will and determination to get through this shit. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and dragging me through the dark times.