Breast cancer really is all around us. It’s always in the news, and has left a shadow on my family. My mother had it, as did two of her sisters. I’ve had so many girlfriends who have had it. I lost a friend to breast cancer 18 months ago, and before that a close colleague died from it, after surviving six years, having previously been given the all-clear. I’ve always been aware of it – who isn’t? – and always checked my breasts regularly.
Which is why I wanted to be part of the effort to defeat the disease. On Tuesday the NHS announced that anastrozole, which was formerly used for the treatment of breast cancer, would now be used for the prevention of breast cancer in women who had a family history of the disease. I was on the anastrozole trial, starting in 2007.
I will never forget the day my mum showed me the lump in her breast. It was the day of my daughter’s christening. It was going to be a huge party at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff – the world and his wife were coming and we were in my mum’s kitchen before the ceremony, all dressed up, sorting ourselves out.
Suddenly Mum, who was then 72, turned to me and said, “Can I show you something?” It was obviously really worrying her, she’d been working herself up and just needed to do something about it. The lump looked like a teabag hanging down on the side of her left breast. It was huge. I said, “Oh, Mum. I don’t know what it is but you need to go to the doctor.”
My mum’s sister Thelma was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 50. She had a mastectomy, but the treatment then was pretty brutal. I was 20 and I remember going to see her afterwards. She died in a hospice within a year and my mum was devastated.
Fifteen years later, in 1985, Mum was diagnosed with it, too. She went to her GP the day after the christening and was referred pretty quickly. The shock of the cancer, along with the treatment, really changed her. Mum had a mastectomy and radiotherapy, which scarred her lungs. She didn’t cope well and even though she didn’t die from the cancer, it marked her rapid decline.
Until then, she’d always been the life and soul – she was good fun, she had a great sense of humour and was very cuddly. Now she was frightened, she saw it as a death sentence. After cancer, Mum was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and she died when she was 81. After this, I learnt that her other sister, Gwyneth, who died at the age of 80, was also treated for breast cancer, though I don’t know if it caused her death.
After Mum’s diagnosis, I went a bit loopy. For a while I used to have a mammogram every year, paying privately, until a GP friend told me it was probably causing more stress and thus doing more harm than good.
I also went to see a consultant about genetic testing – I have a sister and a daughter, so carrying the breast cancer gene would have implications for them too. He listened well, but didn’t think the test was necessary.