Earlier this year, there was a big news story around BRCA genes, which if mutated/faulty increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
Movie star Angelina Jolie carried the BRCA1 gene. Because of this, her doctors estimated she had an 87% risk of breast cancer. Consequently she had undergone a double mastectomy, which would lower her risk to around 5%. She shared her story to raise awareness for others in a similar position.
The story resonated with me and my family in a big way.
My grandmother and my mother were both diagnosed with breast cancer, in fact, my mother sadly passed away in February this year. My son had thyroid cancer and I was diagnosed myself with thyroid cancer in March 2001, and just two months later cancer dealt another blow.
I was 41, and recuperating after having my thyroid removed when my husband Chris found the lump in my right breast. I immediately made an appointment with my doctor. I was obviously very worried and so was very grateful when the hospital referral appointment came through quickly. I remember the mammogram and biopsy so well. The biopsy (which was incredibly painful) took place on the Friday. By Monday I was told I had grade two aggressive cancer and because of the position of the lump, I would have to have a mastectomy.
Chris was with me at the time of the results. We were both absolutely devastated and I burst into tears in the clinic room. My world had turned upside down in one fell swoop and I didn't know which way to turn. Chris was such a calming influence, he was so comforting and somehow found the right words to say to soothe me.
I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy as well as the mastectomy. One of the scariest times was getting used to wearing the prosthesis. I felt scared the first time I saw one, and to handle one just freaked me out! However, if I thought wearing one prosthesis was a challenge to get used to, I didn't realise that in time I would eventually have to get used to wearing two prosthesies.
Due to the two cancers I had suffered it was decided I should have genetic testing to find out if I carried a faulty BRCA gene.
It was at this time that I became aware of Breast Cancer Care and the fantastic work the charity does. To know that support and assistance was at the end of the phone and to be able to research the website was so comforting. It made me realise there is such an abundance of expertise that I could draw on to answer my questions and guide me through.
The test results showed that I did carry a faulty gene. The two genes that are most often found in hereditary breast cancer are called BRCA1 and BRCA2 and it turns out I had BRCA2. Only 5% of all breast cancers are caused by faulty breast cancer genes, so it's really rare.
This prompted yet another traumatic time in my life, as I then had to decide whether or not to have my other breast removed or live with the high risk.
It didn't take me long to come to my decision. I decided to go ahead with the second mastectomy. I felt it was not worth the risk to go on in life and have the thought looming over my head of whether the breast cancer might return. I also decided to have my ovaries removed as having the BRCA2 gene also increased my risk of ovarian cancer.
I felt extremely unfeminine afterwards. Nearly all my womanly parts had been taken away. I found it extremely hard getting used to my new body and image, especially when shopping for clothes. Stringy tops, deep v-necklines were a no-no as I felt so self-conscious about the way I looked. At the time it seemed to me that all I saw were images of women on the television and in magazines looking so beautiful and happy, with all their curves in all the right places. And there I was, scars all over the place and a very flat chest. I couldn't understand how on earth my husband could still love me the way I looked - but he did. I know that now, but it was so difficult to come to terms with what had happened.
I took part in Breast Cancer Care's fashion show on 2 October, which gave me an incredible opportunity to prove to myself that even though my body has changed dramatically, I can still wear clothes that show off my figure, even when wearing two prostheses. I'm still on cloud nine! I am proud of this body and I want to show it off. At least when I'm 80 I will still have gravity-defying boobs!
Because of these experiences, the rest of my immediate family - my mother, sister, daughter and son - also needed to be tested. My sister Jane also had a double mastectomy and this year, my daughter Cathryn, 26, found out she also has the gene. Although this was upsetting for all of us, she now has the knowledge and support to make a difficult decision. She knows that having grown up with cancer in the family, she has support from us, and from Breast Cancer Care.
To have a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating and life-changing, however it has actually made me think more positively about life. I have now been in remission for 12 years. Breast cancer did happen to me - but I got through it. It will always be a huge chapter in my life but the main thing is now that I am healthy, happy and looking forward to the rest of my days. Bring it on!!!
To find out more information about breast cancer and family history, check out Breast Cancer Care's information here. Or ring the charity's Helpline: 0808 800 6000