Throughout the latter months of 2019, and with an even bigger drive in 2020, I’d been working on my fitness: working out regularly and eating better. As a result, I’d been gradually losing weight and noticed with this that my breasts weren’t as firm as before.
I remember pressing the skin around my breasts and my fingers landed on a lump, close to my armpit. Although it felt small, it was big enough to cause some concern in my mind. I rang my mum almost immediately. She tried to reassure me and said it could be nothing, but that a doctor’s appointment was a good idea just to be safe.
I fought the urge to ignore it and hope it would go away, and took my mum’s advice. At my initial appointment, the doctor examined the lump and said she thought it was nothing to worry about. She reeled off a long name of what she thought had caused the lump, and I of course hadn’t heard of it, so I asked for a better explanation.
This is when she consulted Google. She reiterated what she thought the lump may be, but said a referral to hospital could be an option – it was up to me. I wasn’t confident in her diagnosis, and I felt she wasn’t either, so I asked for the referral.
Come April, I went for a scan which resulted in the response being that the doctors didn’t think it looked “quite right”. A biopsy followed the scan, at which point I was told the results would be delivered over the phone: we were in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and about a month into the national lockdown so understandably they didn’t want people coming into the hospital unnecessarily.
I’d been given a telephone appointment for 1pm to discuss the results of the biopsy, so when I got a call one hour earlier than the agreed timeslot asking me to come in for a mammogram, I had a slight suspicion this meant bad news. From being told earlier that results would be delivered on the phone, to then not only being asked to come in but to also bring an additional person along with me, only exacerbated that initial unnerving gut feeling.
I remember so clearly saying at the time to my boyfriend Jack, “this doesn’t look like good news, I think I have breast cancer.” Jack is a recurring theme in my story, he was a great support system throughout everything, even from the very beginning. His response to me sharing that concern was direct, saying he didn’t want to give me any sense of false hope because he had the same bad feeling too.
It was breast cancer. I went into the Southmead Breast Cancer Unit where they confirmed this to me. Jack was there too. They began to explain they didn’t have too much data on the type of cancer I had, because it was so rare for someone my age. As I’m sure so many who have received bad news may relate, my response was a little out of the ordinary. I laughed. I remember Jack staring at me with a face that was half ‘I’m worried about you’ and half ‘why are you laughing, you absolute weirdo!’
Following my period of laughter, I transitioned into ‘robotic’ mode quite quickly. I just wanted to understand the next steps as clearly as I could. I had an MRI which showed that thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread. It felt like the first bit of ‘good’ news.
Because of the pandemic, I had to tell both my parents about my diagnosis over the phone. My mum lives in North Wales and my Dad was living in France – being so far away and hearing over the phone that your youngest daughter has cancer must have been horrific.
I was still compartmentalising, trying to continue as ‘normal’ as possible, and maybe not fully processing what was happening either. I carried on working for a few weeks, but because I work in education it became obvious that going into work was unsafe for me.
I was also house sharing with three others so shielding in that house wouldn’t have been possible, so Jack and I went to a family holiday home in Anglesey over the summer to isolate before my treatment.
Upon returning to Bristol in August, I had two weeks of almost daily radiotherapy at the Haematology and Oncology Hospital, and then started taking medication. I had been so focused on all of my next steps throughout the process, that once the radiotherapy had finished, I found myself really struggling with my mental health.
Pre-diagnosis, my life had always been 100 miles an hour, and any mental health issues that surfaced were quickly swept under the carpet as I distracted myself with friends and activities. With the treatment, needing to isolate and being in and out of lockdowns and tiers, my lifestyle went from always moving to nothing. I was forced to stop and really think about everything, whether I wanted to or not!
I struggled with the idea that after treatment, everyone thinks it’s over and done with. I suppose it’s different if you’ve had chemotherapy as physically it’s more obvious to people. I didn’t have chemo, and even in myself I thought I didn’t have the right to continue feeling unwell, that I had to be tough and didn’t ‘deserve’ help.
If it had been someone else in my situation, I’d tell them not to underestimate what they’re going through, and to give themselves a break. I’d remind them to ask for the support that they deserve.
The treatment continues to have an impact on so many aspects of my life. I wanted to go travelling in 2021, then focus on my career and start having children by the time I was 30.
The medication I’m on has other ideas. It temporarily shuts down my ovaries and has essentially pushed me into an early temporary menopause. It has taken the job I love out from under me, as I was told I couldn’t go back to work and needed to focus on recovering.
Despite all this, I refused to allow cancer to take over my life, and although I loved my earlier life plan, it wasn’t set in stone and this has given me the opportunity to adapt.
Steph after finishing her treatment
Treatment and medication left me with aches, pains and countless hot flushes when I’m working out. I’ve learned to listen to my body, so I exercise in the morning when I have the most energy. My saving grace throughout this year has been moving my body. It’s helped my mental health more than I could have imagined.
My experience has sparked my desire to start a fitness business to help other people who are recovering from illnesses, and that has given me something to focus on again. Teenage Cancer Trust’s Youth Support Coordinator, Hannah, has put me in touch with some people who can help with my business ideas.
I was so nearly misdiagnosed, and if I hadn’t pushed for that referral, my story could have looked very different. My message to others is: please get to know your body so you can recognise when something has changed, and don’t be nervous to speak up if you feel you’re not being given the medical care you deserve.
I’m grateful for the voice in my head that urged me to get that referral, and I’m grateful for where I am now. I’m getting stronger physically and mentally every day and I feel incredibly hopeful for the future where I’ll be supporting other women on their own journeys to becoming stronger, healthier and more confident.