To mark the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, SARAH FOSTER talks to two women about their experience of the disease and the support group that’s helped keep them going.
With the wind in her hair and a smile on her face, Mel Thompson looks at home as she takes her position at the helm of a yacht.
She’d always wanted to get back out on the water after years away from sailing and now the mum-of-two was skimming over the Solent at an exhilarating speed.
For Mel, learning to sail again has been something of a saviour – but she knows it’s probably an activity she would have continued to put off if it hadn’t been for the life-changing events of the past year.
In February, Mel was diagnosed with breast cancer and just two months later she was going through the ordeal of a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. The 42-year-old is due to finish chemotherapy this month and will have a course of radiotherapy just before Christmas.
Around 50,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed every year but survival rates have continued to increase due to earlier detection, more targeted treatments and better awareness.
Throughout October, people like Mel will continue to spread the message about breast cancer in a bid to raise awareness of the disease and the importance of seeking help.
Although Mel is a few years younger than the average woman diagnosed with breast cancer, she considers herself lucky that treatment has been quick and the prognosis is good.
‘At first I wanted to cry all the time and sit in a corner,’ says Mel, from North End, Portsmouth.
‘But then I started to feel better informed and realised I couldn’t fix it, I had to be patient and wait. I’m not great at that but gradually I’ve got better at it and getting on with other things has been a saviour for me.’
Mel was just six weeks into a new job when she was told she had breast cancer. She’d first noticed a bruise and a slight swelling on the side of her left breast and when it didn’t go away she’d gone to see her GP.
A mammogram, ultrasound and then a biopsy revealed the worst – despite convincing herself that everything would be okay, she did have breast cancer.
‘I was cross and angry for a while,’ she explains.
‘I don’t smoke, I try and eat healthily, I exercise, I’d never been fitter, I thought “What is going on?”
‘I was really cross and angry at everything for a short period of time but I’m over that now.
‘Now I feel that it’s just my crazy cells have gone awry.
‘As time has gone on I’ve found it easier. I thought I was going to be ill all the time with chemotherapy but you’re not generally.’
Husband Roy and their sons Mason, 17, and 14-year-old Jack also had to get their heads round what was happening.
But Mel found vital support from Portsmouth Breast Friends, a group made up of women who have also been treated for the disease (see panel).
And a trip to the Macmillan Centre at Queen Alexandra Hospital put her in touch with Sail 4 Cancer which has opened up an exciting new chapter in her life.
After loving the chance to learn how to sail, Mel has now signed up to take part in the adventure of a lifetime, as next November she’ll help skipper a 40ft yacht across the Atlantic from Gran Canaria to St Lucia.
The three-week crossing will be a real challenge but Mel knows it’s not something she would have signed up to do if it hadn’t been for what she’s been through recently.
‘I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, it wouldn’t have entered my head,’ she says.
‘I would be getting on with work, plodding along, planning holidays and concentrating on my new job.
‘I wouldn’t have been doing anything as dramatic as this. I always thought I’d do something like when I retired, but that’s 20 years away, why wait?
‘I’ve got a lovely husband, my children are getting older, I just wanted to do something for me, to prove that I can still do stuff.’
With the end of treatment in sight, Mel’s optimistic about the future. She’s planning to go back to work in the new year, is looking forward to her hair growing back and is excited about doing more sailing.
As she looks back on what the last few months have been like she’s adamant that no-one should put off seeking help if they spot a lump or other symptom of breast cancer: ‘It is scary but the sooner you do something about it the better,’ she adds.
‘If you’re worried you’ve got to do something. The doctors are there to look after you and they are brilliant.’
‘EVEN AFTER CANCER, LIFE IS THERE TO BE LIVED’
When Annie Fitzpatrick discovered a long-forgotten letter in a drawer she acted on impulse.
The letter invited her to attend a routine mammogram and though some time had passed since she’d put it away and thought no more about it, Annie picked up the phone and asked if she could still have an appointment.
It was the best decision she’d ever made because although she was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer, finding it meant dealing with it, and Annie’s still here to tell the tale.
That was November 1998 and after a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the 81-year-old has been cancer-free ever since.
‘I’ve never thought about it coming back,’ says Annie, from Southsea.
‘I don’t know why but I suppose positive thinking helps and I never went through as much as some people do with it.’
When Portsmouth Breast Friends was launched in 2001, Annie was one of its first members. She’s stayed faithful to the group ever since because she values the friendship and support she’s found there.
‘Still going strong and with lots of members old and new, we are a cheerful bunch, there is no doom and gloom,’ says Annie.
‘We have varying speakers from time to time, theatre trips and outings.
‘This all helps our new ladies see and enjoy that even after cancer there is life to be lived.
SUPPORT GROUP IS HERE TO HELP
Portsmouth Breast Friends was set up in 2001 in response to a request from the breast cancer medical team at QA.
The women who formed the support group were all going through treatment at the time but their regular meetings gave them a chance to share their experiences, laugh about life and forge friendships.
Last year the group celebrated its 10th anniversary and shows no signs of slowing down.
The group meets on the first Tuesday of every month in the Macmillan centre at QA and those who feel well enough and want to can help raise funds for equipment.
More than anything, it’s a chance for people to talk about anything that’s worrying them.
And the group has also run popular workshop sessions designed to help demystify chemotherapy and offer support for what the future might bring.
Mel Thompson is the group’s latest member and has already found the support on offer helpful.
‘It’s very social, they do a lot of fundraising and have people in for talks,’ she adds.
‘They even paid for me to have a little pedicure and manicure session. They’re a mine of information.’
To find out more about Portsmouth Breast Friends log on to portsmouthbreastfriends.org.uk
n For information about symptoms, support and treatment log on to breastcancercare.org.uk