Margaret was a nurse for 40 years and is a former Mayor of Barnsley. She was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, aged 44. This is her story:
It was just an ache, you know. Not what you would call a pain. And there was no lump. Just this persistent, nagging ache in my breast. I have always believed that we all know our own body better than anyone else and we should listen to what it is telling us. And if something doesn’t feel right, then you shouldn’t just ignore it, hoping it will go away. Tell somebody. Get it checked.
That’s what I did. I would rather go to the doctor even if it meant being thought a bit fussy and be told there’s nothing wrong than not go and be left with the consequences somewhere down the line.
So, I was referred to a radiologist for a consultation before Christmas in 1996. He said I was fine but to come back after the holidays if I still was worried. The ache was still there. It hadn’t gone away. I suspected something was not right. So I decided to go back in the February and on the 6th – I will always remember the date – I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I had a grade two tumour which was in my lymph gland. It was at the back of my breast and wouldn’t have been detected if I hadn’t pushed for the examination. When I was diagnosed I had the same reaction that I imagine most people would have. What did the future hold? Would I see my kids grow up? What would they do without me? At the time they were teenagers but they still needed their mum. You can’t rehearse for receiving this kind of news. You think your life is trundling along normally then ‘BANG’ something like this comes along and tosses everything into the air.
I was a nurse in the NHS for 40 years working in the haematology clinic which meant I was dealing with patients who had cancer and leukaemia. So I knew more than most people about what the diagnosis entailed and I guess whether that was a good or a bad thing depends on your personality. Some people don’t want to know; others want every detail. I guess because of my job I had no choice.
Because of my background I was very involved in my treatment and any choices to be made. I had my chemo and radiotherapy together so it was all done in six months rather than having the treatments separately which takes longer and is more common. I just wanted them over and done with so I could focus on the future. I also took Tamoxifen for 16 years instead of the usual five, until I was 60 in fact.
Everyone’s cancer story is their own. No one else owns it. That’s why I would never say to someone with cancer than I know how they feel because nobody know how another person really feels. Of course there are tears. Of course there are worries and fears. But I want people to know that you can survive cancer. We are learning more every single day about how to prevent, detect and treat cancer.
Here I am 20 years after being diagnosed and now with seven grandchildren and with one son living in Istanbul. He travels a lot and I often go with him. If I hadn’t pushed for that initial examination and then gone back again when I still wasn’t happy, who knows if I would have had this time with them, watched them growing up, shared their lives?
In 2010 I was made Mayor of Barnsley and I used my position to introduce some local cancer awareness days. I also opened a state-of-the-art radiotherapy machine and a new dedicated patient information centre at Weston Park Hospital where I was treated myself. It was truly amazing and enormously uplifting to see how treatments and technology have progressed in the time since I was diagnosed.
When I was first told about my cancer, I asked my mum if she minded if I looked into her family history as I’d never really been involved with her side of the family. I had two daughters and I thought it was important for their sakes to know if there was any history of breast cancer there.
I ended up finding my mum a sister she never knew she had which just proves that life is always full of surprises, some good and some less so. But that’s life.
So, what do I think my own cancer story means to anybody else? Well, I am living proof that a cancer diagnosis does not automatically mean the end. Here I am, 20 years on from that sobering day in February, 1996 having achieved so much over the following two decades.
But the really important message I want to give is this; get to know your own body, learn to understand what it’s telling you and if you think it’s telling you that something is wrong then get it checked. Even if it means you are thought to be a bit fussy or a bit pushy. Your life is more important than that.
- Last updated: 14/10/2016
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