Last year Emma, 49, was holding down two jobs, hosting a family from Ukraine, and travelling to rock festivals in her down time.
All that changed 12 months ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer – twice - and lost her mum to stomach cancer.
Oncologists told Emma she had a “special case” when revealing she had two cancers together – a different type in each breast at stages 2 and 3 – last October.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Emma is warning women to be aware of any difference to their breasts, however slight, and to regularly check their breasts after her GP initially diagnosed her with eczema.
She also wants to say thank you to our partner Tenovus Cancer Care for the support she received at “just the right time” when feeling desperately sick, losing hope, and dealing with the heartbreak of her mum’s passing.
The local authority manager from Conwy said her breast cancer diagnosis had been life-changing: “A year last August, I was working a full and a part time job, as well as hosting a Ukrainian family. I was fit, seemingly healthy, and walking my dog Angus three times a day.
“We’d just been on amazing family holiday. We are “old rockers” and love going to festivals, but in a matter of weeks my life was turned upside down. I would never have imagined having breast cancer, let alone having it twice at the same time!”
Emma’s situation was to become more traumatising when her mum was diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer just weeks later.
“Mum passed away last December six weeks after being diagnosed. She’d been having acid reflux, and we didn’t think it was any more serious than that. That was to be a traumatising extra shock on top of my diagnosis, and totally unforeseen.
Mum and I were close, we lived nearby, but I’ve been unable to grieve. There’s not been any time too. I’ve been feeling so ill, in an out of hospital, and I’ve also had to care for my dad who has been ill himself. It’s just been getting through the day and non-stop.”
Emma originally went to her GP with a slight discharge from her right nipple and dry skin around the surrounding breast area.
“I had initially been treated for eczema, and prescribed cream, but it soon became obvious it wasn’t that.
I went back to the GP and had a breast check, both my breasts, and the doctor felt a lump on my left breast - the opposite one to where I had the symptoms. What followed has been an emotional rollercoaster of a year I’m still trying to process.”
The GP referred Emma to the breast cancer clinic at Ysbyty Gwynedd, Bangor, and she was seen within a week.
The mum-of-one then received a diagnosis she’d never have imagined, a statistically rare phenomenon.
“I had stage 2 cancer in my right breast, and stage 3 in my left. One cancer was driven by estrogen and other by protein. The tumour in my left breast was 5cm and growing. It was hard to take in, and my life was about to change forever.”
Emma said she had rarely checked her breasts before diagnosis: “I’ve always had lumpy breasts before, so it was quite hard to tell but I didn’t regularly check them. I was too young for a mammogram.
My alarm bell, what made me make a GP appointment, was the discharge from my right nipple and the dry skin around it. I had no idea there was a lump on left breast though, and that it was at stage 3!”
I’m glad I made an appointment when I did - if I hadn’t, I’m not sure what the outcome would be.”
Emma was treated with medication – a drug called TCHP – and started chemotherapy immediately to shrink the tumour.
“I was so ill with the chemo. I ended up in hospital three times. The treatment had wiped out all my white blood cells, and I had urine infections.
Just before the fourth round I went for genetic testing. The results revealed I had the BRCA 2 cancer alternation and was also HER-2 positive, meaning cancer tends to spread faster than being HER2 negative, but more likely to respond to treatment with drugs that target HER2 protein.
The oncologist looked at the effect chemo was having on my body along with the BRCA2 cancer gene and decided to bring forward the surgery. The chemo was stopped for the time being.”
Emma had a double Mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery in March. The chemo, which had made her so ill, had shrunk the tumour down to10mm. The signs were encouraging.
“The doctors are saying the cancer hasn’t spread to my lymph nodes, but I bear the scars of the surgery, physically and mentally.
I have lost both nipples. I look nothing like I looked. I lost my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and my confidence. I feel I’m in an older person’s body.”
Saying that, the surgeons did an excellent job, and I am grateful. It was the best outcome for me.
I am still on chemo, but there are still days I feel like I’m dying and can’t get through the day. I also worry about the future as it’s statistically more likely my cancer with return.”
Emma turned to Tenovus Cancer Care following a referral from her health board, talking to two nurses from our qualified team regularly and undertaking six free sessions with a counsellor from their professional service.
“Tenovus have been amazing. They have been regular contact and supported me at my lowest.
When I was struggling with my chemo, the first-time round, one of the nurses called me at just the right time. They listened with care and compassion. The thing is with cancer you can’t always talk to family. My husband Neil has been amazing, my rock, but it’s good to talk to someone who isn’t so emotionally invested and has medical knowledge alongside empathy to give.
I could tell them (the nurses) about my ailments, and they gave me welcome advice, helping me with my confidence, and being encouraging. The counsellor I spoke to also helped and was professional.”
Emma said she’d recommend Tenovus Cancer Care to anyone affected and struggling with cancer.
“Doctors are so overwhelmed with workload today you don’t feel you can phone them over everything, you don’t want to add to their pressures, that is how I felt anyway. But Tenovus have made me feel I SHOULD phone them, and it was so reassuring. It’s a truly personalised service – they know you - and you don’t have to start afresh every time. You feel more than an NHS number.”
By having the BRCA gene there is an increased chance of Emma’s cancer returning, meaning more chemo than normal, and more weekly trips to hospital.
Still undergoing chemo, and still finding it tough, Emma is unable to return to work.
Feeling like her life has been put on hold, she is focused on healing and caring for her dad. She also says she is working hard on raising her self-esteem which has taken a knock following the surgery.
However, Emma is looking for a future free of cancer as she works on a five-year recovery plan. She is also looking forward to celebrating her 50th birthday in true “rock chick” style.
“I love walking my dog, Angus. That gives me joy. I’m also an old rocker and a regular festival goer. My daughter, Mali, recently bought me tickets for the Download Festival in Donnington Park, that’s next June, and I’m aiming for that.
“It would be great to feel me again, living life to the full, and having fun the other side of 50 free of cancer.”
If you have been affected by any of the content of this article, visit Tenovus Cancer Care’s website below to find out more information on the support and services they offer.
If you want to make a difference to others like Emma, you can play make a smile lottery to support Tenovus Cancer Care for £1 per week!