Helen Perry: My Story
I wanted to take this opportunity to evaluate the negatives and the positives, yes there are some, of having breast cancer. I was diagnosed in February 2019 when I was 30 years old. My treatment program included 6 rounds of chemo, a single mastectomy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy.
I will start with the negatives, ignore the obvious ones like chemo sucks and I don’t want to die! My first issue was getting referred from the GP to the breast care centre. It has surprised me how often this is an issue. In my experience the first doctor thought I had a bruise on breast and asked me to come back in 2/3 weeks if it didn’t improve. When I asked how I was meant to have bruised my breast he said maybe from a toddler headbutting my breast. Even when I explained I didn’t have children he said he was 99% sure it was a bruise! That was high odds to argue with, so I booked in an appointment 3 weeks later and made sure it was a female doctor. I had a large mass in my breast and over the next 3 weeks I started to experience pain in my breast & under my armpit. This next consultation lasted approx. 3 minutes. After a quick examination she said she couldn’t feel anything & when I pointed it out, she just said it was a hardening of my breast tissue. When I asked what I should do about the pain she advised me to take some evening primrose oil. At this point I had had enough and asked to be referred which she then agreed to. When I went to the Breast care centre, they gave me an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy and told me that day I had cancer. I was expecting a cyst but no, I had a whole 8cm tumour going on.
I have to say through my whole treatment I couldn’t fault the hospital. Their care was amazing and always felt there was someone at the end of the phone to help. The only downfall was when it came to the decision of reconstruction. I knew from the day they told me I had to have a mastectomy that I would want the other breast removed too. This was something a voiced at many consultations, so they were aware. As I was nearing the end of my treatment at my routine check in meetings with the nurse, we had discussed this, and she told me I would need to be assessed to ensure I am ‘of sound mind’ before this could be considered. I found this concept rather strange as you could be offered a false breast, part of your tummy or back could be taken to make a breast and have your other boob operated on to create symmetry, all without an appointment with a psychiatrist. Why was it so frowned upon to go flat? Well, it turns out to be a mix of whether there is funding in place, how the doctors view an audit which seemed to have been carried out years ago and holds very little relevance and it is up to the individual surgeon. So, I played the game had my assessment with a lovely nurse who signed me off as perfectly sane and confirmed I understood my choices. Even then though my surgeon who had agreed to do the surgery wrote in one of my letters that ‘Helen thinks this will make her feel better, but I think it will make her feel worse’. Bloody charming! I have had the operation and have never felt more comfortable in my own skin.
My final negative is the lasting effects of cancer. I hate it when people turn round and say, ‘at least your all better now’. They are not in my head stressing about each and every pain thinking the cancer is back. Also, the treatment is so harsh that somethings will never go back to how they were you just have to live with a new normal. It’s nearly 2 years since I had my radiotherapy and I still have pain in my ribs and chest area. I still suffer with nose bleeds a lot which was brought on from the chemo. Don’t get me started on the menopausal symptoms I get from the hormone treatment! Although there is no evidence of cancer in me, it lives rent free in my head every day. Some days it’s louder than others but always there.
Let’s have some positives now. I am the sort of person who always needs to find the positives in a rubbish situation. Through chemo the smallest of tasks were a big achievement, taking a shower, making something to eat, actually eating it etc. Since finishing chemo I have really pushed myself to go outside my comfort zone. About 2 weeks after my last chemo I climbed the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District. I moan, whinged and nearly died but I did it! This inspired me to do my biggest adventure, in April 2021 I walked the entire South West Coast Path. It was 630 miles covered in 58 days and I raised a lot of money for Flat Friends UK. I had the most fantastic time; it was tough and pushed me to do things I never thought I was capable of. It was by far my best adventure and can’t wait to do something similar again.
Cancer is to blame for lots of crappy times but it gave me and my fantastic husband time to re-evaluate our lives. I quit my stressful job as a Finance manager within days of my diagnosis, a job that without this I would have found very difficult to leave. It gave me the freedom of time and with that my husband and I finished decorating our house. Rented it out and moved in with my parents to build our next dream, our campervan. We have kitted out our van with everything we need, we have found ourselves a little bit of work online and live in our van full time. It really is the most liberating thing. We are forever planning the next adventure but also using this free time to help others. We have helped friends move house, helped with a few DIY projects and supported our families a lot. It’s been rewarding to be there supporting friends and family when they are in need. It’s far too easy to get caught up with working and never having the spare time.
My final blessing from cancer is the friendships that have grown from it. Many of my friends have young kids and usually meet in the week when I was working. Since having this time I have built bonds that will last forever with both my friends and their children. Whilst walking the South West Coast Path I met several beautiful ladies from the Flat Friends support group. It was therapeutic to hear all their stories and meeting such inspirational women. The support from strangers on groups such as Flat Friends can be a lifeline when you are having some darker days. My husband and I have also grown so close, I feel like I could confide in him with anything. He has been my rock and I hate that he has had to go through this too. I know I am a different person nowadays and he wholeheartedly accepts me and loves me for me.
Cancer sucks, sorry to anyone who has to go through it, anyone who doesn’t survive it, families who have to come to terms with it. It could happen to anyone of us, so live your life in the present as you never know what the future holds.
In Spring 2021, Helen walked all 630 miles of the South West Coast path in aid of Flat Friends UK! Helen set herself the target of raising £250…she smashed that total raising £2,800! Including Gift Aid this rose to £3,287 for Flat Friends which enable us to support even more women Living Flat after mastectomy, and those facing that decisions.