Carol Hill was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine screening appointment. After recovering from her illness, Carol discovered that she carried a genetic fault that meant she had a high risk of developing the disease. As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she has shared her experience to help Yorkshire Cancer Research raise awareness of the importance of early diagnosis and genetic testing.
Carol Hill tells anyone who will listen that they must attend cancer screening appointments when invited.
The 70-year-old from Horbury, near Wakefield, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago following a routine screening appointment.
The x-ray image from the mammogram showed an area of concern in her breast and she was called back for a biopsy, a procedure that involves taking a small sample of tissue so it can be examined for cancerous cells.
Thanks to the mammogram, Carol’s cancer was found at an early stage and she was able to have a lumpectomy, a type of breast-conserving surgery where just the lump is removed. She also had one lymph node removed to check that the cancer hadn’t spread.
Had the tumour been found later, Carol may have needed more invasive surgery or treatments with harsh side effects.
Carol said: “I’d been recalled following a mammogram before, but it was just fatty tissue. This time I kept trying to tell myself it was just fatty tissue again, but for some reason I had a feeling it was more.
“My partner Martin came with me to the hospital. The doctor had the x-ray up on the screen and she said ‘it’s breast cancer’. Hearing those words was awful. I shed a tear and Martin held my hand.
“I didn’t know what would happen next and that was really hard. I also had to tell my three daughters that I had cancer.”
Carol was worried about the operation, but it all went to plan and a small scar remains the only evidence of her surgery.
To ensure that no cancer cells had been left behind, Carol underwent a three-week course of radiotherapy. She travelled to St James’s University Hospital, Leeds, five days a week for her treatment.
“Martin came with me, which was nice, and we made a day of it. We’d have lunch together in Leeds. A lot of people receiving treatment were on their own, which must be very lonely,” Carol said.
While receiving treatment, Carol mentioned that her mum had breast cancer. In fact, 13 members of her immediate family had suffered or died from different types of the disease, including her grandparents, three aunts, three siblings and a cousin.
An appointment was made for Carol to see the family history team at the hospital and a blood sample was taken to see if she had a genetic mutation called BRCA that increased her risk of developing cancer.
BRCA genes are known as ‘tumour suppressor genes’. They repair damage in cells and prevent them from growing and multiplying too quickly. If these genes don’t work properly cancer can develop.
Women with BRCA gene mutations are significantly more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer than women without the mutations. BRCA mutations can also affect men. Both men and women with BRCA mutations have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer and melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, while men have an increased risk of prostate cancer.
“I had to wait nearly five months for the result,” Carol said. “That was horrendous. When I found out I did have the mutation, I think it devastated me more than being diagnosed with breast cancer because I knew I might have passed it on to my children and grandchildren and they might also have a high chance of getting cancer.
“I was advised to tell everybody that might be affected, including my brothers, sister and cousins. I’ve passed on as much information as possible and I’m now keen to learn as much as I can about the BRCA mutation.”
Carol’s oldest daughter Tracy, 50, has not yet been tested for the mutation. Her youngest daughter, Vicki, 45, tested negative. However, her second daughter, Dawn, 48, tested positive and has decided to have preventative surgery to reduce her risk of developing cancer. Dawn has three sons who are currently waiting to be tested.
Carol is currently on a waiting list to have her ovaries removed to reduce her risk of developing ovarian cancer.
She said: “Ovarian cancer is known as the silent killer because you don’t tend to get any obvious symptoms until it’s reached a late stage. After talking to my girls, I realised prevention is better than the cure. If I get my ovaries removed then my risk is significantly reduced.
“I’m considering having a double mastectomy too, but I’m not sure if I wanted to put myself through such major surgery at my age. There’s always a fear that the cancer might come back. If I get them removed, I know there’s a good chance it won’t.
“There’s a lot to be said for how treatment has progressed over the years. One of my mum’s sisters was just 36 when she died. She didn’t have a chance. She had breast cancer and ovarian cancer and left a young family, but that was 60 years ago. Knowledge is power – we now have the power to reduce our risk of cancer and ensure that if we do have cancer, we have the best possible chance of survival.”
Carol’s radiotherapy treatment was successful and she now needs to attend annual mammograms to check that the cancer hasn’t returned. She is also taking a hormonal therapy drug called anastrozole, which helps prevent the cancer coming back.
Carol recently joined Mid Yorkshire Breast Cancer Support, which meets at Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield, every second Thursday of the month.
“I’ve felt isolated a lot of the time because it’s my body and I’ve had to make the decisions,” Carol admits. “I’ve tried to be positive throughout this. I’ve got a loving family. We’re very close, but I find it hard to break down in front of them.
“When I’m on my own I do sometimes get upset. That’s one of the reasons why I joined the support group. We’re all in the same position and it’s easier to share our experiences and talk about the things we’re finding hard. It’s really helped me.”
While she waits for surgery, Carol has returned to enjoying retired life with Martin, who she met 12 years ago. They read lots of books, go walking together and enjoy holidays and day trips. With 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren between them, there’s never a dull moment.
Carol added: “We’ve got to get the message across to everyone – both women and men - that if you notice any kind of abnormality or change in your body, you have to go and get it checked. I also want to encourage everyone to go for mammograms and smears. They’re there to help.
“I had no symptoms. I am very, very lucky that my cancer was diagnosed through screening. I think you’ve just got to be positive and put your trust in the doctors and nurses. Once I knew I had breast cancer, I also knew something was going to be done about it. I look back now and can’t believe I’ve come through it. If I can help just one person by sharing my experience, that will be a bonus.”
Symptoms of breast cancer include:
• A change in how your nipple looks
• A change in the size or shape of your breast
• A lump or area of thickened tissue in your breast
• A lump or swelling in your arm pit
• A rash on or around your nipple
• Dimpling on the skin of your breast
• Discharge from your nipple
Breast pain is not usually a symptom of breast cancer.
• Breast screening can help detect breast cancers early, when they might be too small to feel or see.
• It involves an x-ray test called a mammogram, which is carried out at special clinics or mobile breast screening units by a female member of staff.
• Your breasts will be x-rayed one at a time.
• Women aged 50 to 70 (47 to 73 in some areas), who are registered with a GP, should be sent an invitation for breast screening every 3 years.
Nikki Brady, Senior PR Officer, Yorkshire Cancer Research. Tel: 01423 877228. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to Editors
- Harrogate-based Yorkshire Cancer Research was founded in 1925 and is the largest independent regional cancer charity in England (Registered Charity 516898). We are not part of a national charity.
- We are committed to reducing the devastating impact of cancer on the lives of people living in Yorkshire.
- Our mission is to work in partnership, fund research and support initiatives that will help people in Yorkshire avoid, survive and cope with cancer.
- Current statistics show that 575 people are diagnosed with cancer in Yorkshire every week. Incidence and mortality rates are higher than the England average due to social deprivation, post-industrialisation and lifestyle choices but also availability of healthcare services and difficulties accessing early diagnostics, clinical trials and the latest treatments.
- We aim to:
- Be the leading authority on cancer in Yorkshire, understanding the problems and priorities in the region and sharing knowledge with partners.
- Raise awareness of cancer and how to prevent it by working in local communities, schools and colleges, sports clubs and with other health-related organisations.
- Promote screening programmes and fund research that can improve the diagnosis of cancer so we can detect and treat it at the earliest opportunity.
- Invest in innovative research projects at every stage of a cancer patient's journey.
- Campaign for fair and equal access to the very best healthcare services and a greater share of the money spent nationally on research.
- For further information, please visit www.yorkshirecancerresearch.org.uk or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.