At just 33 years old, mum-of-two Helen Marshall was diagnosed with breast cancer. This is her story of fear, love, hope and survival…
It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And chances are, you know someone who has had their world turned upside down by this evil disease. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in Singapore today: around 1,300 new cases are diagnosed every year, with the highest rate of occurrence happening in ladies between 40 and 69 years old.
It’s a cruel reality that affects far too many. We’ve been speaking to breast cancer survivor, mum-of-two, Helen Marshall, who was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer when she was just 33 years old. This is Helen’s story…
A breast cancer survival story
How it all began
My journey began in May 2016 after a routine pap smear and breast check. My breasts have always been on the smaller side and fairly lumpy, so when my GP felt a lumpy area during my check, I thought nothing of it. As a precaution, I was advised to get an ultrasound and mammogram, which I had done a couple of days later.
To be honest, during those early days I didn’t give it another thought. I returned to my GP after the tests and was informed that – again as a precaution – I should be referred to a breast surgeon. I just needed to get some biopsies done on two different areas of my breast where the professionals wanted to take a better look. At this point, I was mostly just frustrated. I would need to take more time off of work to drag myself to the breast surgeon’s office. And although I knew it needed to be done, I was convinced it was all a fuss over nothing.
The day I met the breast surgeon, the only thing I could think of was how she looked like a scary school principal! I was barely listening while she told me there were two areas in my right breast that they were going to biopsy. Mostly I just took in “I don’t think there is anything to be too concerned about.” Apparently, the mass they wanted to look at more closely was one that couldn’t even be felt through physical checks and had been picked up on the ultrasound.
Fast forward another two days and I was hauled into a sterile room to have the procedure done. I look back now and can’t believe how blasé I was. I hadn’t brought anyone with me as I had completely dismissed the need for support. Hindsight is a marvellous thing! The doctor used an ultrasound to guide a needle into the numbed area and then he inserted a hollow needle to perform the core biopsy. The whole set-up did jolt me into a sense of apprehension and I think that’s the moment I started to feel more anxious and less sure of the outcome… I left that doctor’s office feeling sore, bruised and way too alone.
I had to go back to the surgery a couple of days later to pick up the results. The bravado was still in place so I packed my partner, Anthony, off to work as usual and off I went. All the way there I was repeating in my head, “It’s fine, there’s nothing wrong, I am perfectly healthy”. I had no idea that it was actually going to be the worst, scariest day of my life.
At just 33 years old, and as a mother of two beautiful boys, I sat in the doctor’s office for the news. “Helen, we have your results and the area that we biopsied at the 10 o’clock position in your breast is benign. Unfortunately, the small mass at the 12 o’clock position has come back as being cancerous.”
The room spun, I started crying and I just couldn’t stop. I was so silly not to have had someone there with me, as most of what was said after that is a blur. There were words like ‘surgery’, ‘operation’ and ‘treatment options’ bandied about, but none of it sank in. I left the room with a date on a piece of paper with instructions for my surgery which would happen the following week. I barely remember handing over my credit card, but I do remember the look of pity on the receptionist’s face. When I called Anthony, all I could say was “I need you to come home.” Of course, he knew.
In all of this though, the hardest part of all was telling my children. They were just eight and ten years old at the time. To have to explain to them, with Anthony’s support (thank you, Anthony!) that I would be having surgery because I had cancer was, well, excruciating. From that point on, my two scared boys were in constant panic, convinced that I was going to die. No amount of reassurance changed that for them for a long time.
At this point, in the blur of appointments, scans and blood tests, no one really knew how bad the cancer was. We didn’t know if it had spread, how big it really was or even if I needed to have chemotherapy. And at no point had I asked the experts “Am I going to die?”
The day of the surgery arrived. I had decided to keep my breast and have a lumpectomy as well as some lymph nodes removed so they could be tested for any signs of the cancer spreading.
Surgery not only went well, but I woke up to find out that there was good news. The cancer had NOT spread! The mass was a Stage 1, Grade 2 hormone-positive cancer. In a nutshell, this was a great result. I was also assured that the cancer had been entirely removed and that they had also left clear margins around it to make sure it was 100% gone.
The next steps
Surgery down: 25 sessions of radiotherapy to go! Mentally and physically, I think this was the hardest part of my treatment. My body felt battered and exhausted. But despite feeling like I had been run over by a bus (a big one), I knew I had to keep going. It helped that I am one of the most stubborn people you will ever meet… possibly a little too stubborn. I refused to just lay around feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I continued working throughout the sessions.
The treatment fit in around family and my job. I must confess, it did take its toll. I was travelling back and forth to the hospital four times a week and it was a struggle for sure. But I was terrified that if I did stop juggling, everything would come crashing down on me.
The treatment put not only a strain on me, but also on my family and personal life. I was bone-tired ALL the time and I had this notion that I HAD to keep it all together. There could be no chinks in my armour. I felt more alone than I have ever felt, which feels strange to admit as I was never actually alone.
Anthony also struggled. He was scared and worried for me, and I don’t really think he knew what he should do or could do to help. But he did the best thing he could have done: he hugged me when I needed to cry and gave me some tough love when I needed to stop the crying.
It’s been tough since diagnosis and treatment. Once the radiotherapy finished I tried a couple of different hormone treatments. They acted in a way to deprive any lingering breast cancer cells of the hormones they need to grow. I’ve recently decided to stop them so that I can start to feel normal again. Like me again. My doctor is supportive of this decision and to date, my scans and checkups all look clear. Life continues forever altered, but definitely with an extra appreciation for everything I have. I’m one of the lucky ones, and I will always be so, so thankful for that.
Breast cancer awareness
Checking your breasts regularly should be as much a part of your routine as clipping your nails: early detection is EVERYTHING!
Get into the pink… we’ve got this ladies!
[This interview was first published on 19 October 2018.]