Supporting women whose lives have been touched by breast cancer

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer


by mm

Getting recalled

I was so convinced that one day I would be diagnosed with breast cancer that I expected to get a phone call from the screening clinic on the very day that I had my mammogram. Born in the mid 1950s, put on the Pill at the age of 15 to control my painful periods, with very few breaks until my husband had the snip in 1990... an enthusiastic user of HRT for the last eight years...I had for many years felt like a ticking time bomb. So when, a few days after my 2009 mammogram, I received a letter from the breast screening clinic informing me that more tests were needed to ‘complete the screening process’, I was not altogether surprised. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t devastated however. Even though the euphemistically phrased letter suggested that most women who are recalled do not have cancer, I was convinced that I was not going to be one of the lucky ones. In fact, I felt as if my whole world had been dealt a massive blow and that life could never be the same again.

I know it is something of a cliché to describe the experience of receiving bad news as a nightmare that you desperately want to wake up from but that is exactly how I felt. It was as if all the joy and optimism had suddenly been drained from my life, and left me with nothing else to think about but dying from cancer. What made things worse was that for several years I had ignored strange pains in my left breast. I’d mentioned them to my GP who had then carried out a breast examination but she had said that she couldn’t feel anything and that it was probably related to my ongoing neck and shoulder problems. Had the mammogram detected advanced breast cancer, I wondered, which could have been treated successfully had it been spotted earlier? Was my body now riddled with cancer? How could I begin to tell my two beautiful daughters, one of whom had just started University and the other about to take up an exciting job in London? What was my husband feeling, having just taken early retirement with plans to enjoy a life free from work?

I had received the recall letter on a Thursday and had to wait until the following Monday for my appointment. It’s hard to describe just how difficult those few days turned out to be. On the Friday, I decided to phone the clinic for more information and was told that they had compared my mammogram to the first one I had in 2006 and had identified some ‘changes’. They told me to try not to worry; that most women were fine. There’s something about being told not to worry that has the opposite effect and over the weekend my stress levels soared to a level I had never experienced before and has subsequently made me feel a lot more empathy for people who suffer from severe anxiety.

When I attended the clinic on the following Monday, one of the radiographers invited me to look at my two mammograms and see that the more recent one revealed a small, oval, white cluster towards the back of the left breast. Another mammogram was carried out that enabled the doctor to take a closer look at the cluster and what he saw suggested that I needed a core needle biopsy. I took some comfort from the possibility that I didn’t have advanced breast cancer but even so I was very shocked and upset. I think there was still a part of me that had been hoping to be told that it was ‘nothing’. Unfortunately the biopsy couldn’t be done until the Wednesday so I went home to face yet more days of agonised waiting and worrying.

The core needle biopsy

Apart from the undignified position I had to adopt to have this procedure carried out, lying on the edge of a trolley (possibly because the cluster was at the very back of my breast), I didn’t find this procedure too uncomfortable or painful. Once the breast is in the correct position, they give you a local anaesthetic before they insert a larger needle designed to remove samples of breast tissue. They took six samples altogether. Each time they do this there is a clicking sound not unlike the noise made by a staple gun. I remember thinking rather naively that perhaps they were getting rid of all the suspicious cells and I wouldn’t need any further treatment.

The wait for the results of the biopsy, due the following Monday, was probably the most difficult time of all for me. Both my daughters came home that weekend, oblivious to what I was going through. My plan was to tell them nothing until I had my results. I am fairly sure that if I had tried to broach the subject with them that weekend with a view to ‘preparing’ them in some way, I would have fallen to pieces and given them the impression that I had only months to live. Looking back, however, I can see that it put me under the most terrible strain. What helped to get me through was watching video clips on my laptop of stand-up comedians Live at the Apollo on Youtube, when I discovered just how funny Bill Bailey is! I also started taking some beta-blockers which my doctor had prescribed after I was involved in a serious car crash a few months previously and although I’m not keen on taking such medications I do believe they took the edge off my severe anxiety.

The Results

Monday morning saw me sitting waiting for my results in the waiting room at the clinic. I had been told that when you walked into the consulting room, you could tell by the number of people in the room whether you had been diagnosed with breast cancer or not. There were four people in the room and as I sat down on the chair the consultant said ‘Bad news, I’m afraid.” I immediately thought that he was about to tell me that I had advanced breast cancer. When he started to describe it as intermediate grade DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), an early form of breast cancer, what had felt like a sledgehammer hitting me in the solar plexis started to dissipate as I tried to absorb what he was saying. So my worst fears hadn’t been realised. In fact, because I had been convinced that I was gravely ill, what he was saying was actually good news. I have to say that I don’t think it’s a good idea for doctors to use the words ‘bad news’ as what is bad news to one person may not be bad news to another and the phrase may have a crushing effect on the other person.

Within a couple of minutes of being told, I was ushered into another room to meet the surgeon who would perform the lumpectomy I now needed. He explained that as the cancer had been caught early, there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be troubled by it again but would need radiotherapy and possibly Tamoxifen after surgery. I left the consultation room feeling incredibly lucky and hugely better than before.