“I’ll never know what the outcome might have been if I hadn’t gone to the doctors when I did.”
In August 2018, Sandra Parrington was preparing for the holiday of a lifetime. In September, she would travel to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
Sandra, from Embsay, had been planning the trip for a whole year, and she couldn’t wait to take on the challenge with her friends.
Before jetting off, she wanted to tie up loose ends and make sure everything was in order, including her health.
“I felt a little lump in my left breast and noticed a funny taste in my mouth. I decided to go to see dentist and doctor and get myself sorted out before I went, then I’d know everything was done,” Sandra, 47, explained.
“I didn’t think anything was wrong. I’d had a lump before but it turned out to be nothing, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Sandra visited her dentist and they told her she was fine. But when she went to see her GP they referred her to Airedale Hospital for further tests. An appointment was booked within two weeks. She had a physical examination and an ultrasound, and doctors then took a small sample of tissue from her breast to check for signs of cancer.
Sandra said: “I had to wait at the hospital for the results of the test. Eventually I was taken into a little room with the doctor and a breast cancer nurse. That’s when they told me the lump was cancerous.
“I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe it. When I left the hospital I just sat in my car and cried. I didn’t know what to do.”
Sandra, who is a holiday administrator, decided to drive to work. Once there she broke the news to her boss. She then went to see her best friend, and eventually went to see her partner, Lee, to tell him what had happened.
“I was worried about getting the words out. It was such a shock for everybody,” Sandra says. “I was most worried about telling my mum and dad. My dad had just finished treatment for prostate cancer. It all felt so surreal.”
Sandra’s tumour had been found at an early stage. It was very small, but doctors told her it was ‘grade 3’, which meant it was fast-growing.
The medical team decided to take the lump out straight away. On 10th October Sandra had an operation called a lumpectomy to remove the area of the cancer and some surrounding tissue. She went into hospital at 7am and was able to go home at teatime.
“I had been meant to fly out to Tanzania on 25th September but obviously I had to cancel it,” Sandra said. “The other three girls went. It was all planned, and I didn’t want them to sacrifice the trip for me. They rang me when they were half way up Kilimanjaro, and I was so happy to hear from them. I’d just had the operation and knew I was fine. I was glad they’d gone.
“I healed really well after surgery. I was told it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, which was a huge relief. I was given the option to have both breasts removed instead of the lumpectomy, but because I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, I didn’t feel like I needed it.”
Sandra had two weeks off work while she recovered from the surgery. At the beginning of November, she began a course of chemotherapy. A line was inserted into a vein in her arm to carry the drugs into her body for the duration of her treatment. She had to cover it when she had a shower, and wasn’t able to swim while it was inserted.
“Starting chemo brought it all back home to me. It suddenly felt real. I got upset that day but my friend sat with me and told me I would get through it,” Sandra said. “I wasn’t looking forward to having the line inserted, but it was alright in the end.”
Sandra received six sessions of chemotherapy at three week intervals. She also had to inject drugs into her stomach for seven days after each session to boost her immune system.
She tried wearing type of hat called a ‘cold cap’ which can help to prevent hair loss by cooling the scalp and reducing blood flow to the area. Unfortunately the cap didn’t work, and Sandra ended up losing her hair, but was able to find a wig she was happy with.
“Losing my hair was the worst part of treatment. There’s nothing you can do to stop it and I felt I’d lost control,” she says. “I had it cut into a bob before I started treatment but when it started falling out, I eventually had it all shaved off. That was a pivotal point for me.
Having no hair made me feel like a cancer patient. I looked ill, even though I felt fine physically. Prior to that I felt strong.
“I’d gone to look at wigs before I started treatment and I’d had one saved for me just in case. I was worried that people would be looking at me, and wondered what they would think. It took a lot of getting used to.”
Apart from losing her hair, Sandra only suffered minor side effects, such as a bad taste in her mouth and brittle nails. She took two days off work for each appointment, but otherwise carried on life as normal.
She continued to go to the gym, and in December she took part in the Skipton Santa Fun Run. This event raises money for local charities including Yorkshire Cancer Research.
“I was lucky not to feel ill. I just had to be a bit careful when I was exercising. I enjoy it, and it wasn’t something I wanted to give up,” Sandra explained. “I think it does make you feel better, even if you just get out for a walk. I also drank plenty of water.”
After finishing chemotherapy, Sandra began radiotherapy sessions at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds. She received 20 sessions over four weeks.
“The appointments were at tea time so I’d work in the mornings until early afternoon and then I’d either drive myself or my partner or friends would drive me,” Sandra said. “My skin turned flaky in the area where the treatment was concentrated. It was like a heavy sunburn, but there were no other side effects.”
Sandra finished her treatment on 3rd May, and celebrated by ringing the Leeds radiotherapy department’s silver bell.
She said: “It brought a smile to my face. I’m not an extrovert person and I was a bit shy of doing it, but I’d seen other people doing it and I decided I wanted to mark the end of everything I’d been through.”
Later that month, Sandra completed a third of the Pennine Way – a 268 mile historic national trail - with a group of friends. They are planning to cover the whole route over three years.
She also took part in the Coniston Challenge in September, which combines hiking, running, cycling and kayaking in one event.
Sandra recently returned to hospital for a six-month scan to check the cancer hadn’t returned. Due to the type of cancer she had, Sandra was also tested to check if she carried an inherited change in her DNA called the BRCA gene mutation. This can increase the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. The test came back negative.
“I feel lucky that I’ve got through it,” Sandra says. “I haven’t dwelled on anything. I’ve kept busy and carried on as normal and that approach has worked well for me. I think my dad inspired me really. I’d seen what he’d been through and thought if he can get through it then so can I. Now it’s over, it seems like the time has gone by very quickly.
“Sometimes I think to myself I could have had a lot worse outcome. I might not have gone to the doctors so soon if I hadn’t been going on holiday. Now I’m really keen to encourage other people to get checked out and go for screening. I want to tell them not to be scared of going and not to put it off. The sooner it’s found the better. I hope that by sharing my story, I can show people that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.”
About Yorkshire Cancer Research
• 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.
• Current statistics show that 594 people are diagnosed with cancer in Yorkshire every week.
• Our mission is for 2,000 more people to survive cancer every year in Yorkshire.
• There are lots of cancer problems across the region that need to be tackled on a local level. We work in partnership with researchers, clinicians, the NHS, public health bodies and other charities to fund innovative work in four key areas: prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and clinical trials.
• For more information, please visit www.yorkshirecancerresearch.org.uk or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
Nikki Brady, Senior PR Officer, Yorkshire Cancer Research. Tel: 01423 877228. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org