Cancer crash course

I felt a strange sense of relief after my diagnosis. It wasn't the answer I wanted but it was an answer nonetheless. I read on forums that the waiting was the toughest part and I am inclined to agree. It is hard to fight an unknown enemy but,now, my foe had a name. It was DCIS and I was about to google the hell out of it.

Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, DCIS, is a non-invasive cancer that has not yet developed the ability to spread. In my case it appeared to be contained to my left breast but that would need to be confirmed. 

I was at times reassured by what I read and at times alarmed. It seemed for every woman who had "just" DCIS there was another who was subsequently found to have invasive cancer.

My parents stayed at our house for a couple of nights. Sometimes you just need your mum no matter how old you get. This was one of those times.

One good thing to come out of all the stress and turmoil was that I discovered that I am marrying a gem of a man. I never really got the phrase "stand up" guy until then. When the chips were down, he shone. I decided in that time that, at our wedding, I would break with tradition and give a bride's speech. He is the unsung hero of the piece and I can never thank him enough for his strength, love and support. I cannot imagine what this must be like for women going through it alone and I thank my lucky stars every day that I don't have to.

A few days post diagnosis I was back at the hospital leaping Cagney and Lacey style from the car, racing to the lift, dashing across the road and arriving, gasping for breath, at the reception on the 3rd floor of the Linda McCartney Centre. Late again.

Today we had a meeting with Jean. This wasn't a 'women in gowns' day so David was allowed through with me. We were led into a room that held two blue sofas facing each other, a low wall of cupboards and a sink. My eye was caught by a hook on the wall from which hung a selection of bras and swimsuits. A mannequin in the corner was sporting a black one-piece swimming costume with a pink diagonal stripe. This hospital really needed a new buyer I thought. Perhaps they could ask Stella McCartney to design a line of post surgery lingerie. That would be a nice touch.

David and I took a seat on one of the blue couches. It was one of those crazy couches you keep sinking in to until your feet are off the floor and you have to use your core stomach muscles to retain a sitting position. Jean, clearly used to the couches, perched at the very edge of the one opposite. She asked how I had been. "Up and down but mostly okay" I replied. 

She explained again about DCIS and what my treatment options would be. If it was confirmed that I had 5cm of DCIS then I would need a mastectomy. She explained what the procedure would involve. I already knew. I had armed myself with so much information that she asked if I was in the medical profession. I told her I wasn't but felt that I could be such was the extent of my new found knowledge. I knew that my sentinel node would be removed, tested for cancer and if any were found, the surgeon would remove the rest of my armpit nodes. I knew that the process to identify the sentinel node was to inject me with blue dye. It was likely that I would have a blue face when I came back from the theatre. I would know immediately after surgery if cancerous cells had been found in the sentinel node. 

She asked if I had thought about reconstruction. I told her I wanted immediate reconstruction as I didn't think I could bear looking down at my chest and seeing nothing. 

I was given leaflets on the various types of reconstruction including one whereby the implant is supported by pigskin. Yep pigskin. I would be like a mythical creature. Half-woman half-pig. I was still marvelling at the miracle that is modern medicine when Jean produced a post surgery bra from one of the low cupboards. It was a perfectly acceptable bra if one were, say, going to play squash or do some light aerobics. The bra upset me more than anything else. More than being turned into a smurf by the blue dye, more than being held together by Babe. The thought that my drawers full of glamorous, colourful, pretty, sexy lingerie would have to be replaced by functional, drab underwear such as this was almost too much to bear. God forbid they have matching pants in the next cupboard I thought.

Jean put my bra into a plain, grey bag where it remains to this day and I sourced something much more wearable (

My decision to have reconstruction surgery at the same time as the mastectomy meant I would have a different surgeon to the one I had met previously so Jean arranged an appointment.

A few days later we were back at the LM Centre waiting to meet the surgeon who would be performing my operation. He was a consummate professional who I took to straight away. He was clearly well regarded and I felt safe in his hands. I sat on the bed as he examined my left breast then he wheeled his chair to sit directly in front of me and studied my chest with his head cocked to one side. Awkward I though as the seconds ticked by. It really is very strange indeed to be half naked in front of complete strangers. I try not to make eye contact with anyone other than David and pretend it's happening to someone else.

"Do you always sit like that?" the surgeon asks

"Erm..yes" I shift myself slightly and sit up straighter. I do sit like this, I think, but not normally half naked and not normally with someone i've just met sat 6 inches from my boobs.

"It's a shame" he is saying "the right breast is lower. We could have got a perfect result if it was the other way round"

"You see?" he is saying to a colleague"the right breast sits lower than the left"

His colleague nods and mumbles something in agreement.

Lord, take me now, I think but he's not done yet..

"What size are you?" he asks "32B?"

Now he's gone too far. I'm officially offended.

"I'm 34B" I say 

"I was 36C when I was pregnant" I add in a pointless attempt to post some big numbers

"Do you want to go any bigger?" he asks

Is he trying to wind me up, i think

"No, i'm happy as I am" I reply

Or I was before I came in here.

I am relieved when I can put my uneven bee stings back inside the gown.

He tells me he is not prepared to operate until the abscess is gone as it will increase the chances of infection. He changes my anti-biotics to some kick-ass drugs that may "make my wee red" (It does. It's very pretty). He also warns me that they may make me nauseous (It does. It's not pretty)

Trust policy dictates that any operation must take place within a month of initial diagnosis but he assures me that, although we will go over by a few days, it is importamt we fight the infection first. I agree because I can do nothing else. I am powerless in all this. I have placed all my trust in this man's hands but i feel ok with that. Despite his piss-poor boob sizing skills I think he is the man for the job.

He also wants to be sure that mastectomy is the right choice for me so is referring me for a stereotactic biopsy (samples taken using a mammogram machine for guidance). He wants more samples taken from 2 areas of the lump to check if DCIS runs all the way across it.

I say ok but I hate this. I hate that any one of these tests may show cancer. I hate that I have to wait until the abscess is gone before he will operate. I fear that the DCIS will somehow develop the ability to spread and that every day we wait we are giving it more time to do just that. 

My biopsy is scheduled for Monday 16th September.

Once again we go home and wait.




Latest comments

20.12 | 20:45

Hi Dave,
Thanks for the kind words.
I did indeed work in North Cyprus back in the day - Turkbet?

18.12 | 11:06

Hi Donna, remarkable, uplifting and inspiring read.
Did you ever work in North Cyprus around 10 years ago?

15.10 | 17:15

Hi Donna, you are so inspiring. I have just had my 2nd mastectomy 8 days ago out of choice, first one was 5 months earlier as small cancer found.well done you

30.09 | 15:12

well done for finishing EPI!

I can't send a longer response on here but would like to share my experience of CMF at or the forum on macmillan.