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Jane Eager was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she shares her story.
‘I found the lump that changed my life by complete fluke. Lying, reading a bedtime story to my daughter Hannah, my hand strayed to my left breast and there it was – a definite lump. Not a ‘maybe-it’s-a-lump’ kinda lump, but a lump that makes your heart jolt and your blood run cold. I’d had my first-ever mammogram about two years previously and a gynae check-up six months earlier, so to my mind, I was fairly responsible with regard to women’s health issues. But I booked an immediate mammogram.
‘I can still visualise the lump on the surgeon’s screen: an ominous-looking blob with tentacle-like fingers. A core biopsy – they use a fat needle to extract a thin worm of flesh from the lump – came back negative, yet I didn’t want that lump in my body. With the reassurance of a negative diagnosis, I sauntered unfazed into my lumpectomy surgery.
‘What I wasn’t expecting was the surgeon’s call three days later: they’d found cancer. That day still plays itself out in slow-motion in my mind: numbness, disbelief, tears and a million questions – the first of which was: ‘How had I become a statistic?’ I clearly remember walking across the office to a colleague’s desk, realising with pin-sharp clarity that once I’d said the words ‘I have cancer’, I’d never be able to take them back. Cancer had just become part of my world. There’s no history of cancer in my family. I’ve never smoked, my cholesterol is normal, I’m not overweight and I’m active ... but here’s a brutal cancer truth – cancer happens to anybody, anywhere, anytime.
‘I faced a mastectomy, breast reconstruction and the probability of chemotherapy. The plastic surgeon recommended D.i.e.P flap reconstruction, which entails a skin-sparing mastectomy, then removing belly tissue along with all its blood vessels, reshaping it to fit under the breast skin and moving ribs to reconnect all the blood vessels.
‘Possibly my worst moment was the morning of my surgery. I was standing in front of the surgeon as he drew lines all over my naked white body with a thick black koki. It was freezing cold, I was shaking uncontrollably and I felt defenceless, vulnerable and scared. This is real, I said to myself, this is really real.
‘During surgery, a small trace of cancer was found in my first lymph node, which under normal circumstances meant chemo, hair loss and, by all accounts, a journey to hell and back. But my brilliant oncologist suggested the OncotypeDX test, which genetically analyses your cancer and returns a recurrence risk factor of 0–100. Based on my recurrence score of four, I was spared the awful experience of chemo and a compromised immune system. Instead, I had a five-year script for an anti-cancer drug called tamoxifen. It’s a hormone, so I dove headfirst into menopause and rode the emotional wave that accompanies it – mood swings, night sweats and a diminished sex drive.
‘For me, the surgery was definitely the easy part. They cut out the cancer, and gave me a new boob with the spectacular bonus of a flat stomach. Done! Bodies recover, wounds heal and scars fade, so physically I’m great. The emotional journey has been far harder, and I’m not always sure I can blame it entirely on the drugs. A mastectomy is a hugely traumatic undertaking for any woman, but despite my many scars and long recovery, my new breast looks and feels so natural that never for one moment have I felt my femininity compromised.
‘Today, there’s a new and slightly different me to deal with. Now I consciously choose positivity, I choose levity, I choose delight – and sometimes that’s hard. I do also choose champagne; I have reason to celebrate.’