Breast Cancer Awareness – Gemma’s story

Meet awesome mum, Gemma, who was diagnosed with Breast Cancer whilst pregnant with her second child. She shares with us her moving story from undergoing mastectomy during pregnancy, to exclusively breastfeeding her daughter before a second mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and how advice from a good friend helped her remain positive and tackle each hurdle on her journey to recovery. 

How did you discover you had breast cancer? 

I found a lump in my right breast by accident really. I wasn’t doing a routine check as it wasn’t something I did often. I was pregnant with my second child at the time. It was the first trimester so I assumed it would just be hormonal but I thought I’d get it checked just in case as my mum and my auntie both had breast cancer. After a GP referral, a physical examination, an ultrasound, and a biopsy the doctors confirmed I had a type of breast cancer known as DCIS.

What was your first thought when you heard the news? 

I was genuinely shocked. I had gone into it thinking, “this is probably nothing but I’ll check it in case.” I think in the back of my mind I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t have cancer so it was an enormous shock and a lot to take in. Naturally, my first thought went to my unborn baby. My primary concern was to make sure she would be ok.

How did the diagnosis impact your family?  And Family Life?

We had a lot going on at the time. We were in the middle of the Covid pandemic, I was pregnant and my husband’s uncle (who was more of a father figure) was dying so it just became another worry to add to the list.

What treatment did you have? And How did it make you feel?

I had a full mastectomy on the right breast. I was unable to have a reconstruction at the time because it would have been too big of an operation whilst pregnant so the long term plan was to have a delayed reconstruction. The doctors couldn’t guarantee the baby would make it through the operation and that is what caused me the most anxiety. I actually didn’t care too much at all about losing my breast. I just wanted my baby to be ok and to get the cancer out so that I’d be around for both of my children.

What was your recovery like?

My son was three at the time so recovery was pretty tough going, although he was amazing. I had to wear two drains (the size of milk bottles) that were attached to tubes that were stitched into me for two weeks and that was the worst part. Once they were out, I felt that my recovery could really begin. The doctors told me it would be a six week recovery process. I was convinced it wouldn’t take that long but it really did.

What did your support network look like?  How did they help you?

My parents came to stay for the first week. They helped out with my son and my husband mucked in with childcare as much as he could after that. Friends offered to help take care of my son too. His nursery were really supportive and helped out a lot. Our house looked like a florist and lots of people sent care packages and kind words. My friends were a huge support.

What stage are you at in your recovery and how do you feel? 

I have just completed the reconstruction on my right breast and had a preventative mastectomy and reconstruction on the left breast. I am happy I was able to breastfeed my daughter for six months exclusively from my left breast before having this done.

I am almost three weeks post operation so am still very sore but seeing small improvements each day. My initial mastectomy was successful. They removed the cancer with clear margins so I didn’t require radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Most people have 1-2cm of cancer but I had 12cm so I was exceptionally lucky to have caught it in time before it spread to my lymph nodes and the rest of my body.

 I was very grateful the surgeon managed to remove it all successfully as the alternative may have meant inducing an early labour and could have left me unable to breastfeed.

Has your breast cancer diagnosis transformed your life or the way you live it?

Totally. I no longer worry about the little things and I am so much more grateful for everything and everyone in my life. It made me realise how fragile and fleeting life is. And how wonderful it is actually.

If you could give a piece of advice to anyone reading this, what would it be?

To anyone reading this:- check your boobs. Regularly. There’s a movement called Feel It on the First, which encourages self-examination on the first of every month and I think that’s a great way to remember it. Breast cancer is really treatable if caught in time. Don’t leave anything to chance. Always get anything checked out if you are uncertain.

And to those going through a breast cancer diagnosis, one of my very best friends gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget. He said, “it’s all about how you choose to frame your narrative.” For me, that meant tackling each hurdle one at a time. I tried to remain positive and hopeful throughout and I had an unshakable belief in myself that I could and would get through it. This would not define me. It would simply be an obstacle that I would overcome.

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