Meet amazing mum and CoppaFeel ‘Boobette’ Shelley. Shelley was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 33 years old. Here, she shares with us her empowering and moving story; of mastectomy, chemotherapy, her journey of recovery and her new role as a Boobette!
How did you discover you had breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2014 at the age of 33 after finding a lump whilst showering.
I thought it would be nothing too serious as I’d had a previous benign lump (called a fibroadenoma) in my early twenties and been told they were quite common in young women, so I guessed it would be the same thing again. My husband urged me to get it checked anyway just to be sure and I’m so thankful that he did!
What was your first thought when you heard the news?
I was referred by my GP to the hospital breast screening unit and they did ultrasound, mammogram and biopsies of my right breast and armpit. I think I knew then before the results came back that it was something to be concerned about, however I tried to remain positive even on the day of my results appointment. We sat in the room and 3 people walked in then I heard the words everyone dreads… “I’m sorry, but it is cancer”.
I felt numb. I heard all these words flying around me, but couldn’t take any of them in.
How did the diagnosis impact your family? And family life?
My children were aged 4 and 2 at the time so we tried our best to keep to our normal routine at first and with them being so young, it was a little easier I think to hide our feelings as they didn’t understand what any of it meant. We found an amazing book called ‘Mummy’s Lump’ which explained how I would need to spend time in hospital and may need some strong medicines that might make me look different for a little while, but then would hopefully make me better. My husband had to pass the news on to family and friends, that was the first time I had seen him cry.
What treatment did you have? And how did it make you feel?
I had a lumpectomy, but when the histology reports from the surgery came back, my surgeon said the lump was bigger than they first thought and he wasn’t happy that they’d achieved clear margins around it so he told me I should have a mastectomy with reconstruction.
I had to decide what kind of reconstruction to have and consider whether I wanted to use some of my back muscle or use some of my tummy, not a decision I ever thought I’d have to make. As I’d had 2 previous Caesarean section births, my core was already really weak so I didn’t want that made worse still and I opted to use part of my Latissimus Dorsi muscle.
After the second round of surgery, I then had a few weeks to recover before starting further treatments which were to be 6 rounds of chemotherapy, 18 injections of Herceptin and then a hormone medication called Tamoxifen (which I’m still on now) as my type of breast cancer was Oestrogen positive.
I found chemo the hardest part I think. I lost all of my hair (except for my leg hairs – what is that all about?!) and it affected me quite a lot, not just from a vanity aspect, but I didn’t want people looking at me and pitying me. I was worried about taking the children to nursery/school and how they would be with it. My daughter, who had turned 3 by this point, would stroke my bald head and call me her cute little baby. My son, then aged 5, asked me to wear my wig so that people didn’t make fun of me and refused to have Calpol one time when he was poorly because he didn’t want his hair to fall out. That kind of thing was really difficult, knowing how I was affecting their little lives too.
What was your recovery like?
Recovery from the main surgery was difficult, I had been operated on at the front and back for the reconstruction and had drains coming out of both areas so sitting or lying comfortably was impossible and I had to shuffle around carrying a little tote bag with the drains – not the most flattering of looks and felt like I’d aged double my 33 years!
Recovery from the treatment – still ongoing I would have to say. The Tamoxifen causes menopausal side effects so even though I am premenopausal (so far), I still get symptoms of it – oh joy!
I have learnt to manage some of them the best ways I can, but like anyone, I have good days and bad days both physically and emotionally.
What did your support network look like? How did they help you?
I feel very lucky that I had, and still have, such amazing people around me.
My husband has just been my absolute rock over the years, even on my darkest days when I haven’t felt very loveable, he has reminded me constantly how much I’m loved and picked me right up. Our family and friends were all there for us, helping out with childcare, lifts, chores and listening ears. I also joined a few support groups of women going through the same thing, these were pretty invaluable to me as they understood more than anyone else can. It’s like a club that no one wants to be part of, but if you do find yourself there, you also find the most incredible people.
What stage are you at in your recovery and how do you feel?
Lots of people use different terminology and even for me, it can be confusing. At the moment, I am 8.5 years post diagnosis with no evidence of disease. I’m not sure that the fear or worry of reoccurrence will ever not be there, however I refuse to let that part of my brain take over so I celebrate the little things, I embrace life in the best ways I can and try to stay positive.
Has your breast cancer diagnosis transformed your life or the way you live it?
In soooo many ways! As mentioned above, I think it’s important to celebrate the little things and grab life with both hands, I no longer take anything for granted and feel grateful (most of the time!) for all I have. I appreciate people more, their kindness, their thoughts and their time.
Going through diagnosis and treatment, I found the lack of control quite difficult. It was all out of my hands so now that I can, I plan! I plan to my hearts content, I say yes to adventures and new experiences. I love travel and live music and comedy so even when we’re unsure or think we can’t afford it, I bring out the “Life is short, just buy the ticket!”
I know you are an ambassador for CoppaFeel! How did you become involved with them?
I found out about the charity, CoppaFeel!, shortly after starting treatment and I read all about their mission to prevent the late detection of breast cancer, raising awareness in younger people about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and the importance of checking their boobs/pecs, knowing their bodies and knowing what to do if any changes happen. I knew that I wanted to be involved with this in some way to use my story in a positive way. I signed up to become a volunteer – a boobette as we are more widely known, and even though I dislike public speaking and have always had a lack of confidence, I have spent the last 8 years reminding thousands of people to check their chests!
The boobette programme aims to educate and raise awareness all over the UK by visiting schools, workplaces, community groups etc and I know that many lives have been saved from early detection and treatment.
I’ve done presentations, events and festivals talking boobs, I’ve even taken part in a trip to Spain to skinny dip with 100 other women all being supportive of one another! I did my first (and probably not last) trek with them last year to the Scottish Highlands and have met some really great friends through the charity.
If you could give a piece of advice to anyone reading this, what would it be?
Check your boobs!! Regularly. Get to know your body so that you will know if anything changes and get it checked out.
Also know that everyones are different. We all have wonky melons – some are just wonkier than others! (buy the fab tshirt to remind you!)
HOW TO CHECK YOUR MELONS