Jess is our most recent addition to Team Donna May London and works alongside Lara in distribution and customer services. She will also be looking after our growing network of wholesale clients and is a very welcome addition to our lovely team.
When we discovered Jess's Breast Cancer experience, we instantly knew we wanted her share her story with our community.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so over the coming weeks we are running a series of blog posts sharing 5 women's breast cancer experiences in the hope that we gain a greater understanding of how we can help someone who has been diagnosed with this daunting disease.
At what age were you diagnosed? How was your cancer detected? Did you experience changes in your breasts or was it a routine check that brought about the diagnosis?
I was 36 when I found a lump in my left breast which, quite honestly, seemed to appear overnight. I had checked my breasts for changes, but probably not as routinely as I should. I was young, healthy, and it doesn’t run in my family, so it really wasn’t on my radar as something to be concerned about. When I found the lump my GP promptly referred me to the breast clinic. I had a mammogram and biopsy on the same day at the breast clinic and the lovely Doctor and Nurse prepared me for the news to be bad that day. I got the phone call a few days later confirming is was cancer. Once the full pathology report had been done, and we new what kind of breast cancer it was (in my case an oestrogen receptive one), the doctors met and made a treatment plan for me. While I was of course aware of breast cancer, I was pretty ignorant about all the different kinds of breast cancer, and the different treatments developed for each one. The first diagnosis was pretty traumatic, but I found, and so have many others, that this was actually the worst bit. I would advise anyone going through this to only look at websites such as NHS, Macmillan, Breast Cancer Now etc. Google is NOT your friend right now so avoid this if you can!
How soon after your diagnosis did you share the news with your family and friends?
I let people know pretty immediately. It’s hard to tell those who love and care about you, but I also wanted people to spread the word – the last thing I wanted was to be making small talk at the school gates with people who didn’t know. Everyone will react very differently, but for me I just wanted it out there and known so that I didn’t need to keep repeating it.
Telling my children was harder. They were 3 and 6 at the time, and we wanted to do our best to make cancer just an illness and not scary word. There are 2 childrens books I would highly recommend and helped enormously; Mummy’s Lump by Gillian Forrest, and Nowhere Hair by Sue Glader.
What treatment did you receive and over how long?
It began with a mastectomy, followed by auxiliary node clearance 2 weeks later. This is where they remove your lymph nodes on one side, in my case this was because they found cancer in 3 nodes in the first surgery. This was followed by 6 months of chemo, and then 6 weeks of radio therapy. I then had a medically induced menopause due to it being a hormone receptive breast cancer, and the following year opted to have my ovaries removed. A year after that I opted to have my remaining breast removed and both breasts reconstructed using my inner thighs (I knew having chunky thighs would come in handy one day!) I take Exemestane which prevents me from creating any more oestrogen and will likely be on some kind of hormone medication for a few more years yet. Seeing it written down like this, it sounds bloody awful! But I feel I should point out that I had some amazing times in between, or even during some of these treatments! I went to Iceland a few weeks after I had my ovaries were removed and got to enjoy the blue lagoon and a glimps of the Northern Lights. I taught my son to ride his bike, have climbed trees with my daughter, we brought and renovated our first home! So I would say that the treatments were a part of the last 3 years – but they weren’t all the last 3 years were!
What side effects did you endure? Can you talk us through any coping strategies you put in place?
I would say fatigue was the main one. I was pretty lucky that most of the others were fairly minor, such as an unpleasant taste from chemo – but boiled sweets helped with that easily. For the fatigue I think it helps to try to get a little fresh air and move at least a little every day. But also be kind to yourself. You don’t have to always be this model of bravery. There were plenty of days I went back to bed and indulged in Netflix!
Where did you get your strength from?
My family. I had to keep going, because my children needed me to.
What was your biggest personal challenge throughout your treatment?
I think the fear factor was pretty hard – what will happen, will it all work? But also looking like a different person, and just feeling mutilated! Looking back, I think I coped with this by sort of disengaging from my body, and just focussing on finishing and the next step.
Did you have a support network around you?
I had an amazing support network. My husband was really just wonderful, my parents came to stay with us A LOT, my entire family, near and far, were just there for me – on the phone if not in person. I’m lucky to live in a supportive community with a lot of local friends who were all desperate to help. It also brought me closer to friends who had become more distant over the years due to distance and time, so a lot of lovely things came out of it.
There are lots of great support groups out there, where you can meet with people going through similar things, and I can see the appeal of this – particularly if it’s hard to voice your fears to those who love you. It didn’t really appeal to me, but I do think it can play a really important support role for a lot of people going through it.
What kind of things did you do to distract you during your treatment - both in hospital and at home?
Netflix and more Netflix! It saved my sanity! I found it hard to concentrate on reading, and there were times it all felt very scary and uncertain, so to have a box set to absorb myself in was an absolute godsend!
Time outside connecting to nature was also incredibly healing, and if I felt up to it, a walk with a friend always lifted the spirits.
As a friend or family member of a Breast Cancer sufferer - what is the no.1 most important thing that they can do for you?
Just be there in any way you can, whether that’s by text, a phone call, or popping by. They might just want someone to sit and have a cuppa and talk about anything BUT cancer (it can get quite tedious and boring!), or they might want someone to have a good cry or howl with! If you are able to offer practical help then try to do it in a way that makes it easy for them to accept. So instead of saying “would you like me to cook you a meal” to which most people feel compelled to reply, “no don’t worry”. Instead say “I’d like to cook you a meal, what do you think you and the kids would enjoy?”. Or “I’d like to take you to a chemo appointment if that’s ok, which day is good for you?” It might sound like a silly little thing, but it can be so hard to ask for help when you know it’s putting others out, so it really does make a big difference when phrased this way.
Equally - what is the no.1 thing that they should NOT do or say?
The language around cancer is a real bugbear of mine. There is a lot of talk of battles being fought, lost or won – like people have a choice of how their bodies react to a disease. There is a lot of talk of bravery and being inspirational. Really, I feel, it’s all down to luck. I was really unlucky that my body developed breast cancer. But I was pretty lucky that the type I got is a common one and there are lots of treatments developed for it. Even more lucky I live somewhere with free access to that treatment. I would say I was also pretty lucky my body was quite resilient to it all. It wasn’t because I chose any of it – I can take no credit for how my body responded, any more than I can take blame for getting the cancer in the first place. So I really would love to see a change in this use of language!
How did your appearance change during treatment?
Well I was missing a left breast for a couple of years, but wore a prosthetic so I guess that wouldn’t be noticeable to most. I lost all my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes during chemo and the steroids I took for sickness made me quite bloated. It was over winter which made it easy to just wear a hat, and there are so many tips out there for using makeup which can help if you want to look more like yourself. To be honest, most days I just wore a hat and my main tactic was to avoid mirrors and not think about it too much!
Has your diagnosis affected you on a long term psychological level?
I think it would be weird if it hadn’t! I think I worry less about the small stuff now, care less what others think. I do sometimes get anxious and worry about it coming back, but then I think that no-one knows their future any more than I do, so what’s the point in worrying about it!
Where are you now in your recovery?
It’s been just over 3 years since my diagnosis. I have a couple more tweaks to make to finish my reconstruction, and I will continue with my hormone treatment. I am well, working on getting fitter and trying to eat less cake, much like most people!
What is the biggest piece of advice you would give anyone facing cancer right now?
It can be overwhelming and daunting but try not to let it take over your life. There will be days when you feel glum and despairing and that’s ok too. Be kind to yourself, let others help you. But remember to keep on living life too, because even during treatment you can find joy in a rainbow, enjoy laughter with friends, and wonder at the changing seasons x
Donna May London will be donating a lump sum from all profits made from the sale of anything PINK on our website to the wonderful charity Look Good, Feel Better which is the only cancer support charity helping to boost the physical and emotional wellbeing of people undergoing cancer treatment.
Donna is also running a series of intimate makeup masterclasses throughout October in connection with LGFB as part of their Look Good Feel Fabulous month with all monies raised going directly to this incredibly worthwhile charity (tickets cost £20)