Secondary breast cancer: my story so far

| 14 April 2014

In my last blog post I wrote about the soul-sucking fear that follows a breast cancer diagnosis.

To continue this theme of fun and light-heartedness, I thought I’d tell you about how my cancer reared its ugly head and my treatment so far. Woeful reading, but if you stick with me you’ll be rewarded at the end by another photo from the children’s vegetable art category at my local horticultural show. I’m good to you, I really am.

For me the whole cancer palaver started just before Christmas 2011 when I woke in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in my left breast. On checking in the morning I noticed that the nipple had gone completely flat.

I was concerned but not unduly alarmed, as I dimly remembered hearing somewhere that breast cancer lumps never hurt. I’ve forgotten where that particular piece of misinformation came from but it was probably the same source that sets the going rate for tooth fairies and claims babies are found under gooseberry bushes.

Anyway, it wasn’t just old wives’ tales that stopped me from panicking. There’s no history of breast cancer in my family, and I didn’t actually have a lump, or so I thought, and I’d been meticulous in checking myself once a month.

All this misplaced confidence went out of the window just a few days later in the GP surgery. Within seconds of examining me, she found a lump. I’d always thought breast cancer would take the form of a pea-like lump in the main part of the breast or armpit, and maybe that is the case for some people. But my lump was a long narrowish affair, so high up on my chest that I had assumed, anatomy not being my strong suit, that it was just part of my collar bone.

On discovering the Cocktail Sausage of Doom (as the lump became known in our house) wheels were set in motion, and within a very short time I found myself in the local hospital’s breast clinic surrounded by medical staff with serious faces, long needles and varying standards of bedside manner.

The following week I was told I had cancer. Then two weeks later, after a CT scan, I learned that the cancer had spread to my lungs and I had secondary or metastatic breast cancer.

The full medical description is metastatic invasive ductal carcinoma of the breast with multiple pulmonary metastases grade three oestrogen ++ HER2 +++. My own description is much shorter, and involves only four letter words. I think I’ll leave that to your imagination.

On diagnosis I descended into a period of hellish anxiety. I don’t have any pictures of me at this stage, but I do have a photograph of my cat in a particularly bad mood, which sort of sums up how I felt.

A couple of weeks later, my treatment started. I was to have chemotherapy (also known as swamp juice), and then depending on how I was doing, a mastectomy and radiotherapy.

I had four cycles of epirubicin and cyclophosphamide (EC) followed by six cycles of docetaxel (taxotere). I was horrified by the idea of chemotherapy at first, but once it was underway I found it – to use the phrase popular on the Breast Cancer Care Forum – to be ‘doable’. Exhausting but doable.

There were three big upsides to swamp juice for me: the helpfulness and all round niceness of the chemo nurses; a barrage of anti-sickness meds which meant I never once had serious nausea; and the vast selection of celebrity gossip magazines available on the chemo unit. I’m far too snooty to actually buy these magazines, but will happily devour them cover to cover if given the opportunity. By the end of seven months of chemotherapy I was ready to go on Mastermind with celebrity gossip as my specialist subject.

Five months after chemo finished, with my disease apparently stable, I had a mastectomy and axillary clearance. I believe there is some debate among oncologists as to the benefit of surgery for women with secondary breast cancer. However both my oncologist and breast surgeon thought it was the best route for me, and I was more than happy to wave goodbye to the loathsome Cocktail Sausage of Doom.

The surgery and my recovery went well. I had a course of radiotherapy and was hoping for a good, long time on just Herceptin and tamoxifen. However the hope that I could stick my head in the sand and live in denial was short lived, as a few weeks later I noticed that I was becoming increasingly breathless. A CT scan confirmed that the metastases in my lungs were growing.

There followed a period of what I will politely call ‘confusion’. This is another story altogether, and all I will do now is stress the importance of being your own advocate and fighting your corner if you have any misgivings about your treatment.

Anyway, once this unpleasant interlude was over I started on a chemo trial for T-DM1. This is a targeted therapy administered intravenously every three weeks, which sends the swamp juice directly to the breast cancer cells. At the time of writing I have had fifteen cycles of T-DM1 with fairly minimal side effects. I have CT scans every 12 weeks and so far the scans have revealed either shrinkage or stability. My next CT scan is in May by which time I will of course be a bag of nerves. I will no doubt whinge about it here. You have been warned.

So now you are up to date with the wonder that is me. If you’ve got this far you most definitely deserve a reward. Here you are – a photo from Shrewsbury Flower Show of a shark made out of a melon.


I’ve got lots more of these photos so please come back next time!

You can read more from Della on her own blog

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