Breast cancer lesson number 32: Dust off your satchel, you’re going back to class!

With the volume of tests, examinations and terms to commit to memory on a daily basis, you could be forgiven for thinking you signed up to a course – not a course of treatments – on diagnosis day! Cancer, do you really need your own curriculum? And, do we all have to be graded?

Breast cancer is the biggest module you’ll ever take – and not one any of us would wish to retake or even fail. For starters, it has its own language. You may not have to get the grammar – and you’ll be forgiven for misplaced capitalization – but once ‘benign’ becomes ‘malignant’, it’s best to reach for the dictionary – and fast.


First there are words that cancer has deemed appropriate to rename. I think armpit is a fairly straightforward word, but cancer thinks it should be something a bit more technical. Enter ‘axilla’! Having been acquainted with my lymph nodes for the first time, it didn’t take long to work out that they are also referred to as lymph glands or axillary nodes (when under the armpit). Why opt for one term, when three will do! And, did you know, far from just having a boob job with tummy tuck and node removal, I actually had a mastectomy with removal of the areola followed by a deep inferior epigastric perforator flap with axillary clearance? Put like that, I am exhausted just saying it, let alone recovering from it!

But, that’s not all. Once you get over the fact things have three names and that once you become familiar with your armpit, it becomes something else, stage 2 of the cancer curriculum gets thrown in. And, by stage 2, I mean acronyms. Navigate the CT, choose between the WLE and the MX and then you get to find out your ER status and whether or not you are HER2 positive (all of which is discussed at length at an MDM). That’s before you get inducted in the language of chemo (FEC, FEC-T, CMF and AC anyone?). My absolute favourite so far: FISH. Don’t be fooled into thinking it has scales and eyes. FISH actually means ‘Florescence in situ hybridization’, which is a way of measuring HER2 levels in cancer cells. Not tasty, and certainly wouldn’t go well with lemon.

Armed with my Breast Cancer Care glossary (thank you so much for creating this superb revision guide), I am transported back to the days of French A-level revision (although without the lovely nightly walks with my parents throwing around vocab). I have always liked vocab tests and like to think of myself as a cancer codebreaker. But, when it feels like you’re being home-tutored in a class of one, and you want more than anything to pass with flying colours, the pressure really is on!

Breast cancer has its very own secret after-school club. And, if you know your MDM from your MX and your DX, then you’re in (whether you like it or not). You often won’t be able to spot a breast cancer patient, but just know that there are people all over the world with new boobs (or adjusted ones) all trying to revise harder than they ever have before.

This time, it’s not about getting top grades (nobody wants a high grade cancer). It’s not about getting a certificate and a gold star (although I wouldn’t say no). This time, the reward is life – something definitely worth dusting off the satchel for!