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Sat 14 Oct 2023

First ever mammogram “saved my life”

Blog written by Anna Mathias

The autumn of 2022 was a busy one for me. September saw a school inspection - I’m a deputy head of a large Welsh-language primary school – and that was followed by preparations for moving out of the home I’d lived in for twenty years.

I had been called for my first mammogram in September.  It was overdue as I was already 52, but I had no concerns or worries. In fact, as I’m small-chested, I had always joked I’d be furious if I ever got breast cancer as my boobs were too small! 

The mammogram itself was more painful than I’d expected but was over with quickly and the person who carried it out was friendly and reassuring. I went back to work and totally forgot about it. I was healthy, I didn’t drink or smoke, and led an active life.

The nurse had told me not to worry if I was called back as ‘first-timers’ are more likely to be as mammograms look for changes in the breast tissue and there’s no previous scans to compare them with.

When I was called back, it seemed more of an inconvenience than something to be concerned about. I went on my own as I was so totally certain that it would all be fine. Filling in a form I was handed when I arrived at the Breast Centre, I ticked the ‘Calm’ box rather than ‘Anxious’ option.

About an hour later, I was standing outside, shellshocked. I’d had a biopsy on a “lump” the consultant could feel and see on a scan. They had told me to return in a week.  

Despite this, I still couldn’t believe that I might have cancer. Surely, I’d feel at least a l bit ill? But I felt totally fine, so the whole thing seemed surreal.

When I returned, this time with my husband, we were told that I had a 2cm tumour inside my right breast. I would need a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, followed by hormone treatment. It was cancer.

Chemotherapy was also a possibility, depending on the results of one test that hadn’t yet come back. Having to tell my children, family, and friends was the hardest part of it for me. The word ‘cancer’ is scary, and people immediately think you’re going to die. I would often be the one reassuring people that everything was going to be okay, rather than the other way around.

I was lucky I didn’t have to wait long for my surgery. I realise this can be a bit of a postcode lottery and feel lucky to have had an amazing surgeon who was so positive about my prognosis that all my worries and fears disappeared.  

Unfortunately, when I returned for my post op consultation, I was told I needed a course of chemotherapy because of the type of cancer I had.

This was the lowest point of my cancer ‘journey’ so far, and the idea of having treatment that would make me ill was daunting to say the least.

Also, and this might seem vain to some, the realisation I would lose my hair was difficult. Up to this point, I still looked like me, but losing my hair would make me look like a person with cancer. Being told not to worry, as it would grow back, might be said with good intention but totally misses the point. There is nothing worse than looking in the mirror and not recognising the person looking back. Nothing!

Although losing my hair was awful, I did find that taking control of it helped. I would recommend anyone facing hair loss to find a good wig shop before treatment begins, so that a wig can be matched to your natural hair colour, and so you can try out assorted styles while still feeling well.

I also cut my hair short as I found this was a good step in preparing myself for what was to come. When my hair did start falling out, my son shaved it all and this was much easier than having to wake up every morning to a pillow full of hair!

I would also recommend joining a workshop run by the cancer charity, Look Good Feel Better as I picked up lots of tips about wig care and how to use scarves and head ties.

I never got used to looking at myself in the mirror when I had no hair, but I did find that, over time, I learnt to live with it. There are also some benefits to losing your hair including not having to shave my legs for months!

Throughout my treatment, I had regular calls from a Tenovus Cancer Care nurse.

Although I didn’t need support with anything specific, such as claiming benefits I was entitled to, it was reassuring to chat with someone who understood what I was going through and give advice.

It’s now been a few months since I finished the ‘big’ treatments (chemo and radiotherapy). I still have 3-weekly injections, which will last for 12 months, and I’ll be taking hormone treatment for the next five years as well as annual mammograms.

I’m about to return to work and have even joined the local gym as I know I’m now at increased risk of osteoporosis. My life is slowly getting back to normal, or a new normal, as once you are diagnosed with cancer, I don’t think your life is ever the same again.

Although I obviously don’t feel lucky to have had breast cancer, I do feel extremely lucky to have had it now. With the type of breast cancer I had, I would have had an extremely low survival rate in the past.

Due to huge advancements in cancer treatment over the past few years, my prognosis today is excellent. I will always remember my surgeon saying that with the treatment available, my chance of recurrence is around 1% - that’s a statistic I’m more than happy to live with. 

If I had one wish going forward, it would be that every woman, regardless of age, is taught how to self-check regularly.

I would also urge anyone who is called for a mammogram to make sure that they make the effort to go. I was surprised to read many women don’t turn up for routine screening.  It might be an inconvenience, it might even be uncomfortable for a fleeting moment, but it could also save your life. That for me is an easy win, and I’ll be forever grateful I went for that first mammogram, which literally did save my life!

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free Support Line is there for you. Just call 0808 808 1010