A diagnosis of breast cancer is frightening news that no one wants to hear. Yet, living with a serious illness can have a positive effect, as raising awareness may encourage others to be more mindful of their health and carry out the checks that could save their lives.
Thanks to ongoing medical research and advances in science, breast cancer survival rates are improving and have doubled over the past 40 years in the UK*.
Here, four people share their experiences of breast cancer – and you can read more in a new book available in store in aid of our Tickled Pink campaign that supports charities Breast Cancer Now and Breast Cancer Care.
(Clockwise from top left) Jacqui Johnson, 52, is a section leader at Asda Living in Hull. She lives in Yorkshire and has three children, Stephanie, 29, Alicia, 15, and Alfie, 14. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, aged 31.
Andy Manson, 48, a broadband engineer, lives in Berkshire with his wife Michelle, 46, and daughter Hannah, 15. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2013, aged 42.
Emma Young, 41, a former teaching assistant, lives in Hertfordshire with her three children, Gracie, 20, Louis, 15, and Daisy, 12. She was diagnosed with incurable secondary breast cancer in 2014, aged 35.
Sonia Bhandal, 31, a marketing communications assistant, lives in London with her sister Marni, 37. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2016, aged 27.
What events led up to your breast cancer diagnosis?
Sonia: I was on holiday in New York with my boyfriend. I rolled over in bed one morning and my arm rubbed against a lump in my breast. My mum got breast cancer when I was eight and passed away when I was 14, so I immediately guessed that’s what it was.
Andy: I’d had pain in my nipple on and off for about six months, so decided to get it checked out.
Jacqui: I was in bed and lifted my arm, and it felt as if flesh was tearing. I had a feel and there was a lump.
Emma: I first found a lump in October 2013 but was told I was too young to have breast cancer. Then, in April 2014, I found another lump, so I went back to the doctor, who did a biopsy. A couple of days later I was taken so ill that I was rushed to hospital for treatment. What do you remember about when you were first diagnosed?
Sonia: Because of what happened to my mum, getting breast cancer was my biggest fear. And that fear became reality. It was surreal.
Jacqui: I was absolutely stunned when I got the news. There’s no history of breast cancer in my family – in fact, no cancer, full-stop.
Emma: I was on my own in the hospital and the doctor came in and confirmed that I had breast cancer. Then, five days after the first diagnosis, I was told that the small tumour in my breast had broken away and lodged in my bones and that I actually had incurable secondary breast cancer and might not make it until Christmas. It was then I realised that I was in a very bad way.
Andy: I overheard my doctor discussing my case when I was having tests, so by the time he spoke to me about the results, I’d looked up the terms he’d used and knew that he’d been talking about breast cancer. But as for getting the diagnosis, it’s like the cliché – you never expect it to be you.
How did you explain the news to your children?
Emma: My three were 15, nine and seven at the time. I didn’t tell the two younger ones what I had – they just knew I was having medicine because I had a ‘poorly boob’. Only Gracie, my eldest, knew I was pretty ill.
Jacqui: It was my dad who told my daughter Steph. He took her out to his greenhouse to help him pot some plants and explained that I had ‘naughty cells’ (we didn’t want to use the word cancer with her). She was only eight then and she got really angry and tipped all of the plants out of their pots, then ran off crying. But later she came and gave me a big hug and from that day on, she became my absolute rock.
Andy: My daughter Hannah, who was nine at the time, was surprisingly calm. My mother-in-law had been diagnosed with breast cancer about 10 years before and survived it, so I think that helped put her mind at rest. She dealt with it really well. How did cancer affect your day-to-day life?
Sonia: It affected every aspect. I was having chemo so I felt sick quite a lot, was low on energy and couldn’t socialise or work.
Emma: It had a huge effect because after a cancer diagnosis, you can never go back to the old you. My cancer support group calls it ‘the new normal’. Chemo was gruelling – I tried to sleep while the kids were at school so I had the energy when they were at home.
Jacqui: I had chemotherapy every Thursday, which meant that I was out of action for the entire weekend. I felt as if I had handed my daughter over to my mum and dad for that entire year of treatment. I missed her so much.
Andy: My chemotherapy was less frequent: every three weeks. But when they switched the drugs, I reacted badly to them and was in hospital for four days being sick. Radiotherapy really took it out of me, too – I felt so tired, I could barely walk. How did you keep your spirits up?
Jacqui: I spent my year in chemo planning a huge party to celebrate getting through treatment. When it happened, so many people came, even the chemo nurses. It was wonderful.
Andy: Music really helped. In my first chemo session, I listened to The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance. It’s odd because the album is quite dark. Sonia: I made a joke out of everything. By my second chemo, I had shaved my head, so when I threw up I said to my dad, ‘Well, at least you don’t have to hold my hair back now!’ and everyone burst out laughing. My dad is bald as well, so we looked like Phil and Grant Mitchell from EastEnders. That made us laugh, too.
Emma: I use humour as well. Our loft is in an absolute state but I joke that I won’t have to worry about it!
How has cancer treatment affected you physically?
Andy: I had a mastectomy, so I felt self-conscious the first time I went on holiday after surgery.
Emma: I’ve put on weight. I was a size eight when I was diagnosed, now I’m about a 14.
Sonia: I had fat removed from my stomach to be used for breast reconstruction surgery, so I came out with hip-to-hip scars, which I never expected when I was first
diagnosed. I have the faulty BRCA2 gene, which increases my risk of breast cancer, so I made the decision to have both breasts removed.
Jacqui: Recently, I’ve been having aches in my bones. My oncologist told me that the treatment would affect my bones and teeth – and now, 21 years on, I’m feeling it.
How have your experiences affected your mental health?
Jacqui: I take mild antidepressants for post-traumatic stress disorder. After cancer, the anxiety about it coming back can be terrible.
Sonia: I used to suffer with panic attacks, depression and anxiety. Getting my diagnosis, though, was such a big deal that my anxiety took a back seat for a while. So I actually felt calmer during treatment.
Emma: I’m very up and down. I live in six-month gaps between scans. After a scan, I have to wait two weeks for the results, and the ‘scanxiety’ feels unbearable at times. Are there any ways in which your life has changed for the better since your diagnosis?
Andy: I’m more of a ‘doer’ now and want to raise awareness about breast cancer in men. I’ve done things like abseiling from the top of the Madejski Stadium [the home of Reading Football Club] to raise money for Breast Cancer Care.
Jacqui: I do more, too, like taking to the catwalk as part of The Breast Cancer Care London Fashion Show last year, which was amazing.
Emma: I’ve written articles about my experience for the Huffington Post and Metro websites. I also work with the Younger Breast Cancer Network (YBCN), an organisation for women under 45 who have got or had a breast cancer diagnosis. I’m grateful for the opportunities I would never otherwise have had, so I’m going to carry on for as long as I can
Sonia: Now, post-cancer, I put myself first more. Plus, I’m on a mission to raise awareness and offer support to other young women who need help like I did.
Read more on Jacqui, Sonia, Emma and Andy’s stories (and others) in Breast Cancer & Me, £3.50, which is raising funds for our Tickled Pink campaign that supports charities Breast Cancer Now and Breast Cancer Care.