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The day my life changed - Breast cancer made me realise there's more to life than teaching

On Wednesday, September 10, 2008 I realised the changes to my left breast were not normal. For a couple of months I had some itchy discomfort around the nipple area and had just thought it was down to hormonal changes, or weight gain, and that I needed a bigger bra.

My mother and grandmother had breast cancer so I consulted my self-checking leaflet and promptly booked an appointment with a GP. She confirmed that I had thickening near the nipple plus two lumps that I had not noticed. Hopeful that the cancer had been caught early enough, I was referred for more tests and scans.

I knew things were not good when my consultant arranged to see me on a day he wasn't due in. The lumps proved to be just cysts, but a biopsy was taken of the area behind the nipple and three days later I was told I had breast cancer. There was doubt about whether another area of the breast was also affected, so I had the weekend to consider my options. As I lay in bed that night knowing I had cancer, the decision was easy: to opt for a mastectomy, the most that I could do for myself to stop it spreading. I had lost a friend to cancer two months earlier and another had terminal cancer. Neither had mastectomies, whereas two other ladies I knew had mastectomies and survived - my role models!

The mastectomy and removal of the sentinel lymph nodes on September 23 went smoothly - general anaesthetic and eating lunch a couple of hours later, back home the next day - but my arm movement was limited. The tests confirmed I had grade one invasive ductal cancer, which had spread within the breast, but there were traces in only one out of the 15 lymph nodes removed, so there was no need for any radiotherapy or chemotherapy. I was very lucky.

Several months later, after lots of anxiety and underlying unhappiness about how I felt about myself, I decided to see a reconstructive surgeon to discuss the options available. It was just to test the water, really. But, impressed by the surgeon, I researched my options and met some inspirational ladies, who had been through different reconstructive techniques. Having discussed the options with my family, I opted to have a reconstruction in November. This was a six-hour operation, taking tissue from my tummy and reconnecting the blood vessels to the chest wall. There was a risk of failure but it was very successful.

The three to six-month recovery time was better than 30 years or so of feeling glum about myself. Being able to shop for clothes again without worrying about my lack of cleavage or what others might have noticed has made such a big difference to my morale.

I knew that my immediate family's love and support would get me through this difficult time and I had to be strong for them. Coping with, and understanding, other people's own fears and emotions has been part of the learning curve, and several friends have said that they have appreciated my openness about what can still be a taboo subject.

I have maintained my professional persona in the classroom, but I have realised that a good work-life balance seems more crucial now. Health and well-being are more important than the pressures of teaching. I find it easier to put things in perspective - overall I feel a lot calmer and wiser. I also feel more compassionate towards friends, family, pupils and colleagues generally.

I have learnt to trust the experts, and be guided by their comments when making decisions. Be open to all the options and do not close doors too early on. For me, the phrase: "Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it's called the present" just about sums it up.

As told to Hollie Norman. Do you have an experience to share? Email

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