‘Cancer has made me want to enjoy the here and now’

Catherine Vander-Cammen
Catherine Vander-Cammen
Polly and Jimmy Richards with sons, from left, Dylan aged five,  Sonnie, two, and Alfie five weeks               Pictures: Habibur Rahman (171134-042)

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When Catherine Vander-Cammen discovered a small change to her body in the shower, she had no idea how significant it would become.

The 62-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer and has since had both of her breasts removed.

I just want to enjoy the here and now. I don’t want to think too much about what happened

Two years on and she is enjoying her life again. Now she is hoping to raise awareness and warn other women that an inverted nipple can be a sign of breast cancer.

It’s been quite a journey for Catherine, from Oriel Road in Hilsea, since she first noticed something wasn’t right.

‘I saw something weird with my nipple when I was in the shower,’ she says.

‘I thought it was strange because it was going inwards rather than out. I didn’t think anything of it and then I saw it again, so I booked an appointment with my GP.

‘I asked to see a female doctor. She sent me for a mammogram and I had a biopsy. They had noticed something unusual so they took some more tests.’

It was on Catherine’s birthday that she found out she had breast cancer.

‘I had an appointment with the doctor. She said it’s been confirmed as cancer.

‘I was shocked. I didn’t expect it. There is no history of cancer in my family so it was a massive shock.

‘But I didn’t feel like crying. I just felt numb.’

Catherine, who has a son with husband Alan Fauville, was given a few options. But she decided to have a mastectomy, as she was told that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes too.

It was a quick process and in May 2014, less than a month after Catherine was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went in for the operation and had her right breast removed.

Fortunately, Catherine didn’t suffer too much pain after the operation. Just two days later, she was able to return home and begin the recovery process.

She was visited for 11 days by a district nurse who checked on her as she had a drain fitted to collect excess fluid.

And Catherine says she has nothing but praise for the NHS staff who cared for her throughout her treatment.

‘I can only praise them. I really think I was lucky to find people who I could relate to,’ she says.

‘I felt comfortable about asking questions.

‘When you are diagnosed with cancer you feel like you are losing control of your life. But because of the people I was with, I felt that I was able to regain a sense of control.

‘I was able to discuss my options and discuss my treatment.

‘It has been a long process with a lot of follow-up appointments. I don’t think people realise that.

‘As far as I am concerned, my experience of the NHS has been so positive. I had the best care team and my key worker has been a rock for me.

‘If there was anything I was worried about or scared about, I knew I could go and meet her and have a good cry.’

Catherine began chemotherapy just six weeks after her operation. But it left her feeling very ill and a number of times she was rushed to A&E suffering from severe sickness.

By November, she had decided to end the treatment.

‘I didn’t finish the course because it was making me very ill,’ she adds.

‘It wasn’t straightforward. My doctor said to me that I knew my body and I needed to think about it carefully.’

Around a year later, Catherine took the brave decision to have her left breast removed as well, to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.

‘I discussed it with the breast care nurses and I decided it would be a good option for me,’ she says.

Rather than have any reconstructive surgery, she is simply left with scars.

She says: ‘I had really nice breasts. So I really thought about it carefully and I discussed it with my husband as well because it’s not just up to me. ‘We’ve been married for 40 years.

‘I looked into reconstruction, but I decided that as it was an operation and there were risks involved, it wasn’t an option for me.

‘The breast is part of you, but it’s not who I am. If you look at me, you would never know that I don’t have any breasts.

‘When I look at myself in the mirror, I look at my bare chest and I think yes, I have got scars but I am a survivor.

‘I look at it from a positive angle. I lost a breast but I also lost cancer cells. So for me, it’s about winning rather than losing.’

Having breast cancer has changed Catherine’s life. She used to live a busy life, working full-time as a social worker which she had done for 35 years.

Now she has gone back to work part-time.

She has changed the way she lives her life as she has to be careful with simple tasks like daily housework because she can’t lift heavy things.

‘It’s affected me in a big way,’ she says.

‘For two years I wasn’t able to do anything. Now I try as much as possible to manage the pain and do relaxation methods.

‘I have to be very careful and I check my scars every day.

You can still have cancer cells in the body. That’s the problem with the diagnosis of cancer.

‘You think you have got rid of it but it can develop in another part of the body.

‘I am trying to lead a healthy lifestyle. I don’t drink or smoke. I eat healthily and I cook from scratch.

‘It has given me an opportunity to do a lot of thinking and a lot of reflecting. It’s not an easy path.

‘Although I have got a very supportive family and fantastic friends, it still felt a very lonely path. You are facing it on your own. You are the person dealing with it.

‘It can feel very lonely at times. When I first got the diagnosis it was so scary that I didn’t know where to start.

‘But having cancer has changed the way I look at things.

‘Things that were important before are no longer important. I am calmer than before. I don’t want to get stressed as I used to.

‘I just want to enjoy the here and now. I don’t want to think too much about what happened.

‘I want to enjoy life a little bit more now. I want to spend time with my family.’