When Vicky Fenn was told her breast cancer had spread to her spine, she knew a long life wasn’t on the cards, so she used her final months to help others.
Vicky, who lived in Essex, set out to lower the age of breast screening to 25 so other women in similar positions might one day be saved.
The mum-of-one died on 18 April 2018 aged 38, but her legacy lives on in the form of a petition which received over 27,000 signatures at the time of writing. “I want everyone to have a better chance of survival; not only for themselves, but for their children, parents, siblings, friends,” Vicky wrote on the petition page before she passed away.
“Cancer does not discriminate, it doesn’t care how old or fit you are or whether you’re male or female, so why are mandatory mammograms only available for women [aged] 50+?”
Vicky was 36 when she discovered a lump on her breast. In a double blow to the family it happened around the first anniversary of her partner’s death - Bob had died aged 55 of heart disease.
Following tests, the mum-of-one was told the cancer was curable and she embarked on a round of chemotherapy, however six months later doctors revealed the cancer had spread to her bones - and there was nothing they could do.
Faced with the prospect of leaving her 8-year-old daughter Roxy an orphan, it was an inexplicably difficult time for Vicky. Yet rather than think of the worst, she focused on what she could do there and then to make a positive change.
In the UK women must be 50 or over to undergo routine breast screening. However prior to her death Vicky said she knew of a “huge amount of women and men” who had been diagnosed with breast cancer between the ages of 23 and 40 - most of whom became terminally ill and were faced with leaving their kids behind.
As someone who was also diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age, Vicky started campaigning to lower the age of breast screening on the NHS to 25 - the same age as cervical screening in England.
“She was incredibly bubbly and positive,” James Fenn, Vicky’s cousin, told HuffPost UK. “Even through her diagnosis, although she was shocked and upset, she was adamant that she was going to fight.”
There are around 54,900 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year. While breast cancer is much more common in older women, recent statistics have shown that breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women under 50 in England and Wales.
Breast cancers in younger women are more likely to be faster growing, be higher grade and be hormone-receptor negative, which can mean the cancer is more aggressive, according to Breast Cancer Now. Yet screening is only offered to women aged 50 and over.
In response to Vicky’s petition, the Department of Health and Social Care said it was “sorry to hear of her diagnosis,” but added: “For women under the age of 50, there is evidence that breast screening is less effective, as younger women have less fatty, denser breast tissue.” Expanding further, Alana Blair, Health Information Manager at Breast Cancer Now, said this means mammograms can be less effective.
She did add however that in the future there might be ‘risk stratified screening’ where screening is offered to women depending on their individual risk due to their genetic, lifestyle and biological factors. “While this is an exciting approach that may enable us to identify younger women at increased risk of breast cancer who would benefit from regular screening, we are still some way from being able to introduce it.”
A spokesperson for charity CoppaFeel! added: “Even if new measures were introduced such as screening for younger women, we still believe the most important way to detect breast cancer early is to empower young people to get to know what is normal for them and start checking their boobs/pecs on a regular basis.”
Despite this, Vicky’s family are still desperately trying to continue her work. In order to have the issue considered by Parliament, the petition will need 100,000 signatures. “It was something she fought so hard for,” said James. “It would be a shame for it to die out now. It could well become an important legacy.”
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