Meet super mum and Made by Mammas podcast guest, Jo, who was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2020. She shares with us her inspirational story, from diagnosis, to navigating mastectomy and chemo through Covid times and her upcoming 100km trek across the Sahara with CoppaFeel.
How did you discover you had breast cancer?
I had a ‘feeling’ in my right breast which prompted me to self-examine regularly. After around 6 weeks of prodding, as I wasn’t 100% sure I could feel something, I called my GP who referred me to the breast clinic. Around 12 days later I went to my local hospital and had a mammogram and an ultrasound, where they also did a biopsy. I was told immediately after that I did have a ‘very suspicious lump’; I pushed them to elaborate and was told ‘you have breast cancer’.
What was your first thought when you heard the news?
I was on my own, as this was during Covid and family members couldn’t be with you. Honestly, my first thought was that I was going to die. My second thought was how am I going to drive home as I was crying quite a lot! It was a very lonely experience going to have these scans and then being told you have cancer, on your own.
How did the diagnosis impact your family? And Family Life?
I was diagnosed in August 2020 so it was tough because we were in and out of lockdown for Covid and it meant that me, my husband and 3 children led a pretty isolated life. We were my sister and my nieces’ support bubble, but other than that it was just us. My parents visited once a week and stood on the doorstep chatting, and delivering food that my mum had made to try and do what she could to help. It was hard for all of us but I do think that for my parents, coming to see me every week, looking more and more ill and with less and less hair each time, must have been one of the worst things a parent can go through. And not really being able to hug each other was of course very hard, we are a very close family.
My husband had to hold everything together, looking after the kids who were off school for part of it, plus me, plus working. It was a lot for him, but thank god he’s a very organised person who totally nailed all of it!
We told the kids, who didn’t have any preconceptions of what cancer was, exactly what was happening and when… that to remove the cancer, I’d need to have my right boob removed and then I’d need some medicine that would make me better but would make me feel really poorly while I was having it. It was really important for them to know that the chemo is doing what it needs to and that it’s just a temporary side effect, me feeling unwell because of it.
What treatment did you have? And How did it make you feel?
I had a mastectomy and then chemotherapy. To be honest, I just wanted my breast gone. I had moments of sorrow, of course, but on the whole I just wanted it to be removed. I even asked if they could remove both but was told that wasn’t medically necessary. My breast fed my three babies and I just felt that now I was done with it.
I currently have a temporary reconstruction and am on a waiting list for a permanent reconstruction that will involve part of my tummy being removed and moved to create a new breast. It’s pretty incredible what they can do these days!
Chemotherapy was tough going. The side effects were brutal and it’s not nice to think back on, but I got through it and I’m pleased I was able to have it (I even asked my oncologist for a stronger dose on the last one, because I wanted to be sure we’d got rid of every last cancer cell).
I’m now on 10 years of hormone therapy which come with their own list of unpleasant side effects, including menopausal symptoms and joint pain.
What was your recovery like?
Recovering from the mastectomy was very quick for me. I had no real complications, and it went as well as I could have hoped for. I feel that the chemo really took a lot from me… I still have some side effects of it 18 months later, and it did make me bed bound for around a week after each cycle.
What did your support network look like? How did they help you?
I’m lucky to have a wide circle of friends and family, but this was during Covid times, and it was hard for people to physically be there. I’ve mentioned above how many family helped during this period. But I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a period where I received more parcels! Such lovely, thoughtful gifts that people sent, and cards and even things like a school mum dropping off some herbal tea, were so gratefully received.
My best friends set up a WhatsApp group and every time I went to chemo they would all send me messages that had a theme or some supportive messages or photos of them dressed in t-shirts with messages on. It was the best distraction and the thought they put into it overwhelms me every time I think of it. I’m very lucky!
What stage are you at in your recovery and how do you feel?
I’m almost two years post mastectomy and 18 months post-chemo and I’m doing well. The theory is that the cancer was removed, the chemo cleared up any straggling cancer cells that were lurking around, and that’s that. But the reality isn’t always so straight forward… moving on after cancer is hard. Your body is different and every niggle and worry needs to be checked out and sometimes it’s difficult to make yourself heard. I think about cancer every single day and still regularly have moments that I worry it’s going to come back and that my children won’t remember me, but I generally spend life now feeling incredibly grateful that I’m still here and that medical science meant that my cancer could be cured.
Has your breast cancer diagnosis transformed your life or the way you live it?
Cancer has changed me in my core- there’s a before cancer me and an after cancer me. The before cancer me wasn’t really a worrier and the after-cancer me worries a lot more. I worry frequently about the cancer coming back and I must advocate for myself when I think something needs to be looked at by my breast team. I recently heard the phrase ‘the squeaky door always gets oiled first’ and that really resonated with me, and I’ve applied to all areas of my life now! I’ve always been quite a driven person but now, even more so. I want the nice house and adventurous holidays and cool experiences to make memories with my kids, so I’ll work hard to make those things happen but I also won’t sacrifice my family life for work. I’m constantly trying to balance those two things, but it’s worth it. I struggle to figure out where self-care sits amongst all of this, but I’m working on it and try to find time for yoga or a class at the gym where I can.
I’ve also signed up to do a 100km trek across the Sahara in November to raise money for the breast cancer charity Coppafeel! You can find out more about it here. I’m so nervous as this is waaaay out of my comfort zone, but I’m also looking forward to the challenge.
If you could give a piece of advice to anyone reading this, what would it be?
Check your boobs!
Coppafeel! offers a free monthly text reminder to check your chests and it’s worth signing up to that.