This weekend we went to visit family. Like many families as Christmas approaches there is that combination of excitement and where there has been loss, a remembrance too. We were visiting my step-daughter whose mother died five years’ ago now. Much of the weekend was spent sharing the stories of their much loved mum and grandma. As always, it reminded me of the time she was robbed of. She had so much more living to do and a much loved family she wanted to do it with.
She had missed a mammogram as she had had another problem with her health and decided to put that one off till a better time. A scenario many of us would recognise. It was when she noticed a change in her nipple and mentioned it to her daughter that she finally realised she needed to have it checked. She didn’t know till then it could be a sign of breast cancer.
Like many women (as our research at Breakthrough Breast Cancer confirms), she wasn’t familiar with the signs of breast cancer beyond a lump. Having also missed a breast screening appointment, it meant that when she did finally seek medical help, the cancer had already spread. Her treatment consequently involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Throughout her treatment she found balancing work an increasing burden and she felt she had to give up a job she had previously enjoyed. This left her much more financially vulnerable but allowed her still to have time and energy for her granddaughters. Every minute of that time with them was precious to her.
After her active treatment was complete she then opted to have a reconstruction of her breast. She had great confidence in her breast surgeon and demonstrated that not only by opting for the surgery but also, in typical style for her, sending him a valentine! The results were excellent and she wasn’t too shy to show that to help anyone facing a similar decision. The team who looked after her often spoke of her positivity and how inspiring that was.
But sadly that’s not the end of this story as suddenly following a spell of abdominal pain was investigated liver metastases were discovered, less than two years from her initial diagnosis. She was very ill very quickly, which was devastating for her and her family.
She and I had some very moving conversations over that time. Our shared experience of breast cancer and of course the family links had given us a unique bond. I know she clung to life as long as she could, she desperately wanted more time to see her beautiful granddaughters grow up, and that she faced her dying with great courage.
It’s hard to believe its five years already. Much has happened in that time, including her daughter and mine doing the Moonwalk in Edinburgh with me. She was much in our minds that night. At one point, trying to encourage her daughter, I said: “What would your mum be saying to you now?” “Have you seen the state of your hair” was her reply and recognising a real truth, we all laughed. But I know she would have been deeply proud, as was her dad as he greeted us at the end.
So five years on I write this blog entry in her memory. Time heals but also this time of year can remind us how much we miss those we love, no matter how long it is.
I am so grateful to be here still and to spend time with her lovely granddaughters.
These experiences have taught me to treasure these times and not take them for granted at all.
Reasons to be cheerful: Research continues to improve so that the outcomes for women like Julia can be different – as a result of our work more lives are being saved. Also there is investment in improving early diagnosis across the UK. Because, let’s not forget, had she been diagnosed earlier she might still be here. So be breast aware, promote Breakthrough’s Touch Look Check (TLC) message wherever you can and encourage those you love to go for breast screening.
Audrey Birt is Director of Breakthrough Breast Cancer