World Cancer Day V2-01

World Cancer Day: The Importance of Screening

Today (Friday 4 February) marks World Cancer Day. A day annually observed to raise awareness of cancer and to encourage its prevention, detection and treatment.

On the blog today, Karen Bell, a Senior Business Analyst here at the NHS Business Services Authority, shares her personal cancer story and the importance of screening.

Back in 2012, my CCG was involved in a trial that involved inviting people for their breast screening appointments who were younger than the normal invite age (from 47 instead of 51).

As part of this trial, I was invited to attend my first breast screening appointment earlier than usual and I went along without giving it much thought. I had always known screening was important in the early prevention of cancer but in my case, I was experiencing no symptoms and wasn’t expecting much to come from it, rather than the safety to get checked ‘just in case’.

A week after my mammogram, I received a letter to attend the Breast Clinic at my local hospital the following week, which again I didn’t give much thought to, and expected as part of the routine appointment. However, when I arrived they showed me on an ultrasound the anomalies on both breasts which were concerning them, and said that they would like to do a biopsy on the areas. Still happy in my thought that it would come to nothing, I had the biopsies taken and was asked to come back in 2 hours’ time when they would have some further results. 

Many cups of tea and laps around the hospital later I returned to the clinic and was invited into the room by a Macmillan Cancer Nurse (it still didn’t register) where the Consultant said that cancer had been found in my right breast. Inside I was crumbling but I kept it together enough to try make sense of what was happening. I went off with the Macmillan Nurse, where they explained the plan of action, being that I would have a lumpectomy, where they would also remove some lymph nodes to check for spread, followed by a course of radiation (which at least meant no chemotherapy). 

I left the hospital with my mind in panic. I wanted to let my family know what was happening (we are all close so I would never have got away with not telling them) and it would allow me to ask for their support if needed. Telling my daughter was one of the worst things I had to do, she was 24 but I can still picture her face now.

I had the lumpectomy and lymph node removal in August 2012, the operation went well, physically I was fine but mentally I was struggling. I was worried about going back to the clinic after the operation because that would be when I’d find out the stage and size of what they had removed, and the bigger concern of whether they’d tell me it was worse than they’d thought. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case and instead it had been determined as ‘Stage 2A’, which meant that the lump was between 2 and 5cm but no cancer was found in my lymph nodes, which was a big relief. They advised that they had removed the cancer and got a good margin of healthy tissue around it which made them confident they had got all the cancer. I think the term is No Evidence of Disease.

Following on from this, I had 10 sessions of radiotherapy which meant going to the hospital every day for 10 days which tired me out more than the operation itself, and recovery was much longer! In addition, I needed to have a five-year course of hormone suppressants. The first hormone suppressant I took made me feel the worst I had felt throughout the whole time, including while I was waiting for the surgery. I did feel a huge benefit of changing this to another, which eased some of the side effects and fortunately towards the end of 5 years it got better. I was still having some minor hot flushes and night sweats, but I continued knowing it was better to take them than not. 

Then came the anxiety of the annual check-up (for the first 5 years I was screened annually) to make sure that everything was still okay.  I still have wobbles when I have symptoms that may indicate either a recurrence or even another cancer but I always get things checked out quickly to put my mind at ease.

Thankfully, fast forward 9 years and all screening has shown no evidence of the disease and I now get screened every 3 years.  Due to the time since there was last evidence of the disease, I am deemed cancer-free, hollow in my right breast that I never felt the need to get reconstructed but a small price to pay.

It was suggested that without screening my cancer may have gone unnoticed and may have spread, maybe until it was too late for treatment, so attending my breast screening appointment was the best thing I had ever done.

Regular breast screening is important because it can help find breast cancer when they are too small to see or feel, or when you are experiencing no symptoms which was the case for me.

This is why today, on World Cancer Day, I’d like to share my story to encourage people to attend their screening appointments. Especially during COVID or the hustle and bustle of our busy, daily lives, people have put off going for checks/follow-up appointments, but please always find the time to go along. It is so important, and it can save your life.