‘I’ve had breast cancer twice’

Emma Duncan, 33, has been diagnosed with breast cancer twice in the past four years, once in each breast.

Her first treatment was a lumpectomy with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her second treatment included a full mastectomy, removing both breasts, followed by reconstructive plastic surgery.

“I asked my GP if there was any screening programme they could put me into when I was 25 because my mother had died from breast cancer when she was 32. They referred me to the Royal Victoria Infirmary and I used to come once a year just for a check-up.

“A few years later I was in the bath and I noticed a lump under my left armpit. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I was quite worried at first. I went to see my GP the next day and he suspected that it might just be a cyst as I was only 28 at the time. But because of my family history, he referred me to a specialist.

“At the hospital, I had an ultrasound, a mammogram and a needle biopsy. When I returned a week later for the results, they confirmed that I did have breast cancer and that I would need to come in for lumpectomy surgery 10 days later.

“I had chemotherapy for six months after my first diagnosis, followed by five weeks of radiotherapy. It was really hard. All my hair fell out and it made me feel so ill.

“My husband Graham was great and tried to support me as best he could throughout it. My sister-in-law was never off the phone and my best friend Claire was lovely.

“My sister handled it in a very different way. She had watched my mum become very poorly, and then her older sister was diagnosed. She found it hard to deal with and she just couldn’t handle coming to see me. She later admitted being terrified that it might be her next.

“The second time I was diagnosed, I had a bigger operation: a double mastectomy. The decision to have a mastectomy was quite easy to make. For me, it was the only decision having had cancer twice.

“The reality after the event was very different. With the reconstructive surgery as well, I knew it would be a long recovery, but I don’t think anything prepared me for just how long. I cried every single day because I was so uncomfortable.

“I was referred to a psychologist who told me I wasn’t going mad. Anybody who had been through what I had would be expected to have a few tearful days. Things settled down, then it was just a case of trying to get back to normal.

“Looking back at everything, I wouldn’t have changed my decision at all. It was definitely for the best.

“I now have check-ups every six months with my oncologist, breast surgeons and at the family clinic. I see my plastic surgeon, my geneticist and have an ultrasound once a year, plus a blood test every four months as part of the ovarian screening programme. The Macmillan breast care nurses ring me up every once in a while to keep me up to date and to check that I’m all right. I’m very well looked after.

“Now I just want to stay cancer-free. I’ve done as much as I possibly can to prevent it from coming back or getting a new cancer. I didn’t quite make it after my first diagnosis, but I’d like to get through the next five years without the cancer returning.

“My advice to other women would be to speak to your breast care nurse or go on the Cancer Research UK or Breast Cancer Care websites. There are so many recognised sources of information. The internet is full of horror stories, so make sure you get as much information as you can from reputable sources.”

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