It felt like my whole world was falling apart.
That’s how Karen Gregory-Reader says she felt when diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
The 54-year-old from Elmhurst Road in Fareham has had a hectic and stressful year after she was given the devastating news last August.
But now, having had a mastectomy, she is fighting back against cancer this October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and wants to raise awareness about the disease to help as many people as possible to defeat it.
The figures are frightening. Each year, nearly 60,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, according to charity Breast Cancer Care.
It’s the most common cancer in women in the UK and one in eight will develop it in their lifetime. Although around 12,000 people die from breast cancer each year, 85 per cent survive beyond five years.
So, how did Karen find out she had cancer?
‘I was handing a cup of tea to my husband and I brushed across what felt like a lump on my breast,’ she says. ‘I made an appointment and saw my doctor a couple of days later.
‘I did ask for a quick appointment as I knew that I should get it checked as a matter of urgency – but I wasn’t panicking at that point.’
They referred Karen to QA and she had an ultrasound where she was told there was a strong chance it was cancerous.
‘I was devastated,’ she says. ‘I was taken aback. I went into shock. You think it’s the end of the world and that’s it.
‘You don’t think you can go on any longer but then you realise that there are people around you who have either been through it or have supported people going through it.
‘My first thought was to just get rid of my breast.
‘The surgeon ran through the options because they said it wasn’t large and so they felt that I would be a candidate for a lumpectomy. They told me to take a few days to think about it because it was a big step to have the breast removed if I didn’t have to. So I decided to give it a few days so I could talk to my husband about it.’
Karen had an MRI scan and doctors found another lump close to the original one. Although it wasn’t clear at that point whether or not it was cancerous, Karen knew what she wanted to do.
‘I’d been told I was at stage two which in the grand scheme of things is manageable. But as soon as I found out there was a second lump on my breast, I wanted to get rid of it.
‘I wanted it all to go away. It sounds drastic but when you’re in that situation, it’s not drastic at all. All you think of is self-preservation.
‘The surgeons ran me through the procedure and offered me options on the reconstruction. They couldn’t have been more thorough in telling me what my options were. They were fantastic.’
So less than two months after her diagnosis, Karen had her left breast removed on September 25 last year and had the reconstruction straight after. ‘It all went as it should,’ she says.
She had chemotherapy for six months just as a precaution.
‘It affected my immunity as you would expect,’ she adds.
‘Compared to some people you speak to, my treatment was reasonable. It’s tiring so I wasn’t able to work because I do travel a lot for my job. It was tough but the support helped so much.’
Now, Karen is in recovery. She returned to work in May, in her role as a sales training consultant.
As part of her treatment, Karen has been receiving support from the Breast Cancer Haven in Titchfield, which offers services for breast cancer suffers including nutritional advice, acupuncture, reflexology and counselling.
‘They have been great because they have offered me lots of therapy and support,’ she adds. ‘You need to have things to look forward to because it is a journey and it isn’t the nicest one. You can rely on people who know how you feel and can offer you the support that you need. There is so much information.
‘You don’t realise until it happens how little you know and how that makes it so much more scary when you first find out that you have cancer. But anyone who has it has to take that support to get through it.’
Now, Karen is hoping to make more people aware of what symptoms to look out for.
‘Awareness is vital because breast cancer is common – and it doesn’t just happen to women but to men as well.’
So what advice would Karen give to others?
‘Make sure you talk to people,’ she says. ‘Ask questions. People are there to help you so don’t be afraid. Let yourself be positive because there is so much that they can do.
‘It’s your journey and you won’t be the same as everybody else but make sure you don’t hide from it. Talk to people about it because it really helps.
‘If somebody had ever said to me “how would you react if you were told you had breast cancer” I would have said that I would fall to bits, but I didn’t and that’s because of the people around me. The staff give you every ounce of information. They don’t allow you to hide from it. That’s a good thing. Let your family and friends help you. I couldn’t have done it on my own. I found out who my real friends were. They were brilliant. We would go out for lunch.
‘I made sure that I had something nice to do every day even if it was just going out for a cup of coffee or going to someone’s house. Let people be nice to you because they want to.’
And it was during her treatment that Karen discovered what great support she had from her family and friends.
‘The love of your family just makes you feel like you can get through it,’ she adds. ‘I couldn’t have got through it without the support that is out there.’
The warning signs
A lump in the breast.
A change in the size or shape of the breast.
Dimpling of the skin or thickening in the breast tissue.
A nipple that’s turned in (inverted)
A rash (like eczema) on the nipple.
Discharge from the nipple.
Swelling or a lump in the armpit.
Breast Cancer Haven
The centre celebrates its first birthday tomorrow.
During the past year, it has supported 264 people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
It offers a personalised programme of emotional and physical therapy to help counteract the side effects of breast cancer.
Each visitor can expect to receive up to 10 free hours of therapy time and in addition. They also receive two hours of specialist nursing time at the beginning and end of their tailored programme.
Family members and close friends of people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer can also have up to four hours of free counselling.