Breast cancer lesson 121: Check those boobies and help stamp out late detection of breast cancer

When I think back to the early days of my diagnosis, there is one thing that makes me shudder. It’s the fact that, even though I could quite clearly feel a lump, I nearly didn’t go to the doctors. I convinced myself the lump was all in my mind. I’m 32. I’m too young to get screened, so how could I possibly get the disease you screen for? Given the lump appeared to double in size between diagnosis and surgery, I know now that this blog might have read a little differently if I hadn’t.

Stage three breast cancer is curable. Stage four breast cancer is treatable, but will never be cured. I don’t know how close I was, but all I know is I will be checking myself from now on and for the rest of my life.

Ask yourself the question. How often do you check yourself (and men, with 400 diagnosed in the UK every year, that means you too)? If the answer is never, read on. If the answer is monthly, then congratulations, but please read on too because you could be quite useful. And, if the answer is somewhere in between, then that’s good, but there is still some work to do.

For those who have been reading this blog and who know me personally, you’ll know that I am trying to make every day count, rather than counting down the days until the end of active treatment. It’s hard, because I don’t know how I am going to feel from one day to the next. But, it is so amazingly rewarding and it gives me a reason to smile every day.

That’s why I won’t be sheltering from the rain this evening, but will be heading out to meet Barnes WI to discuss breast cancer awareness for the charity CoppaFeel. You’ll have heard me talk about CoppaFeel (www.coppafeel.org) and its inspiring founder Kris before, but basically, the aim of the charity is to get people checking their boobs, recognising the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and going to the doctor if they spot anything unusual. It’s a simple message, delivered in a fun way through presentations and giant boob costumes. But it’s a life-saving one too.

Because it’s the WI and because I love baking, I have cooked up a cake in the shape of a CoppaFeel badge. I love this picture, because it reminds me of my own little and large boobies (and is of something edible). Of course, the difference isn’t quite so marked, but you get the picture! I have put buttercream in the victoria sponge, which I know is a sin in some parts. Let’s hope I am forgiven for going off piste with a Mary Berry special.

If you’re keen to ‘cop a feel’, but are not sure how, then here’s a handy guide: http://coppafeel.org/boob-check/. The key thing to remember though is that there is no right or wrong way to check. You just have to get to know your boobs, know what to look for, and check anything that doesn’t feel quite right to you. You’ll know your body better than anyone else, so you’re the best judge when things change.

And, if you think you don’t have time or will easily forget, then why not sign up to the charity’s free text reminder service (after the first text which is charged at standard network rate in the UK). Just text ‘Boobettes’ to 70300 to get started.

If you’re inspired, then check out the latest ‘What normal feels like’ boob campaign (http://coppafeel.org/whatnormalfeelslike/). The idea is to extend the range of words people use to describe their boobs (when asked most people, say ‘big’, ‘little’, ‘medium’ or ‘flat’) and help people get closer to this rather wibbly part of the anatomy. So, have a good feel and then tweet your findings to #WhatNormalFeelsLike. I think of mine as ‘jelly’ and ‘belly’ for obvious reasons.

I’ll never know whether or not checking earlier would have saved my boob from surgery, my veins from chemo and my skin from radiotherapy. But, what I do know is that checking when I did on Christmas Eve saved my life.

So, please, do one thing for me today. Grab your boob and encourage the person next to you to do the same. You might just save a life.

I’m off to encourage a room full of women to do the same. Wish me luck!

Breast cancer lesson number 107: Cherish those who hold you up!

You could be forgiven for thinking that someone with chemically-induced pains, thinning eyebrows and no tastebuds, has every reason to not feel happy – let alone lucky. But right now, sitting here on the sofa I feel like one of the luckiest people alive. That’s got nothing to do with the fact I am far from a bar showing the hotly-anticipated England World Cup game tonight and everything to do with the fact I have spent the day being reminded of just how beautiful this little world of ours really can be.

Ok, so it wasn’t your average supermarket shopping and washing Saturday. I was actually at a CoppaFeel training day for The Boobettes. As those of you who’ve read lesson 104 (click here for a recap) will know, I have started volunteering for charity CoppaFeel to help amazing founder Kris Hallenga (who is living with advanced breast cancer herself) and her small-but-perfectly-formed team in their mission to wipe out the late detection of breast cancer. Today was my official induction and I have to say, I haven’t stopped smiling.

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I thought I’d learn a lot. And I did, which was fantastic. But, what I didn’t anticipate was just how inspired and moved I would be by everyone I met. From mothers and teachers to singers, knitters and writers, this was a meeting of driven, passionate and beautiful people all united by one common cause, and I felt so humbled to be in their company. I came away thinking I would never have met these people if I had never been diagnosed (I am just not cool enough it has to be said). But, I am so so glad I did. Cancer hadn’t made these people beautiful. They were already that way.

As a quick aside, we were asked to name our boobs at the beginning as a way of breaking the ice. Mine are called cupcake (left) and muffin (right). The reason? Well, I love cake, I love baking, I feel my new right boobie is made up of all the amazing cake and chocolate gifts donated to me before surgery and the right continues to outgrow the left due to it remembering its origin (hence the difference in baked products). Just don’t ask me for the recipe! 

My great day didn’t end there. I drove home via a close friend’s birthday and seeing her face as I arrived at the table made me realise just how important it is to make the effort for the people you love. I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t enjoy the pizza or the homemade cakes prepared by her kind friends, but I could enjoy the company (most of which was people I’d never met who welcomed me immediately and didn’t say a word about my funny hat or the tube poking out of my arm) the chat (theatre, cake, more theatre, schools today) and a hug with my wonderful friend.

But, my great day didn’t end there. If we skip over the injection (which I deliberately took before my food so as to treat myself immediately afterwards), I got home to find a beautiful surprise on my doormat. Back at Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together event in May (click here for lesson 87) we were asked to write a postcard to ourselves that would be posted to us after the event. While I found the whole event inspiring, I didn’t write about my experience but about the words of a beautiful young mother I met, who told me a great story about reading to her child throughout treatment. She often read the story We’re all going on a bear hunt and told me the words took on a whole new meaning for her. She said: ‘Cancer is like a bear hunt. You can’t go round it, you can’t go over it, you’ve got to go through it.’ I wrote this down and added: ‘So keep going’. I knew there would be tough times ahead when I wrote it and I thought it would make me smile. It actually did more than that. It reminded me of yet another wonderful and kind person introduced into my life because of this life-changing disease.

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But, my great day didn’t even end there. While making myself dinner I noticed a tupperware box filled with ginger biscotti that a friend had made and sent via Duncan. I am now munching my way through the tub and am delighted to report that I can actually taste them – and they taste wonderful. This box didn’t make me smile because it was filled with tasty goodies (although that certainly helped). This box made me smile because it reminded me that not only have I met beautiful strangers along the way, but people I already knew to be beautiful have become even more so (even though I thought that wasn’t possible). I never thought I would cry over a well-baked biscuit. But I just did!

But, my great day didn’t even end there. I check my phone and find on it a brilliant message from my sister-in-law about a book she had just picked up for her son. It’s called The Okay Book and it’s packed with great messages such as: ‘it’s ok to try new things’ and, amazingly, ‘it’s ok to have no hair’. I couldn’t agree more and I continue to smile at the thoughtfulness of this lovely lady.

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As a self-confessed perfectionist often on a mission to help others, I think I have spent too much time trying to be the best I can be and not enough appreciating just how amazing those around me really are. I feel truly humbled by old, new and hopefully soon-to-be friends (you know who you are)!

So, to all of those people who go out of their way to be kind, thoughtful, generous and basically amazing on a daily basis, I want to say thank you for being you.

I’ve had a wonderful day just by being reminded of how many of you there are!