I give you… my SHIIIT SAAANNDWICH. (Now please check your boobs).

{This is an edit of the email I sent to friends and family to let them know about my Breast Cancer diagnosis in March 2019. I didn’t have email addresses for everyone and this felt like the simplest way to get the message out}

Subject: Shit sarnies and tits.

Dear lovely people in our lives

We could say I am writing with some shit news, but in truth it’s shitty news with lots of good bits, and, most importantly, with lots to learn from it which is partly why I am emailing you. I’m writing this as if I were having a conversation with you, because that would be ideal, but time seems to be running away from me, so an email will have to do for now at least. I really wish I had more time and headspace to do this differently. Please know that you’re all in my mind as I write.

A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hold your horses, everything’s going to be fine. I have a ‘diagnostically good’ tumour, which means, without going into all the details, it’s treatable.  I am actually happy to talk about said details, but that’s not really why I am writing, so I’ll come back to specifics in a bit.

I’m writing for two reasons. Of course, there’s something big going on in our lives and I can’t move through life pretending otherwise. I think you’d like to know.  I want you to know. And, importantly, how it’s going to impact our lives over the coming weeks and months. It will explain, for some of you, why I’ve been a bit ‘iffy’ on the friendship front these last few weeks, or just plain daft on life’s details.

In truth, it’s also because, you know what? I think we need our friends right now. Distractions. Jokes. The odd text. Life affirming loveliness as we crack on with life and  treatment and nail this fucker, which we will.

Secondly, and this is really a big driver, because this all came as a massive shock and I hope my experience will encourage you to touch yourself up in quite a major way, monthly, nay twice monthly, hence forth. Properly. For shizzle, because what I found was not really a conventional lump by any stretch, and what I found was already an invasive ductal cancer (that is, it started in the milk duct, then quietly spread to the breast tissue) that had managed to grow, largely unnoticed, to a not insignificant 4+ cms, right under my nose, even though I was ACTIVELY CHECKING and have small breasts which should apparently make it easier to notice. It scares me to think about where we’d be if I’d left it longer (best not to peak around those doors, my new mantra is to stay firmly in the present), and I’ve been preoccupied with the idea that there are people like me walking through life, perfectly healthy, perhaps with a horrible thing. I want to call every single one of my friends, neighbours, relatives, shout from the roof tops and say, “check your boobs, check your wife’s boobs, check your neighbours’ boobs, CHECK!! But maybe ask your mother in law first!”.

I don’t really meet the risk criteria for breast cancer. I am under 45. In 2018 I ran two half marathons, did a shed load of running and downward dogs in between, maintained a healthy weight, had a pretty cracking diet, and a shit-tonne of lovely therapy leading to plummeting anxiety levels and lower stress. I’ve always prided myself on my rock-solid immune system, built in the dust of Western Australia,  rarely succumbing even to even the humble cold. We’d even embarked on a whole ‘kill midweek wine o’clock’ agenda with nearly 4.5 months off alcohol over the course of the year and lots of moderation in between. I was eating FERMENTED FOODS PEOPLE.

This is not an excuse to blow my own trumpet, but to say, I really thought that all the good things I was doing would somehow protect me from the bad stuff, in spite of all the binge drinking and fagging in the past.

And here’s another thing. I feel absolutely fantastic. I felt no pain. No tiredness. Post diagnosis, I’ve been on really long runs (head clearing wonderfulness) so this deadly thing inside me has had no noticeable impact so far.


The point of all this is to say, stay vigilant my lovely women friends. Tune in to your body and understand it’s peculiarities. Know your boobs. Go to the GP with the slightest niggle. Challenge them if they send you away. Women under 50 in the UK don’t get an annual mammogram but increasingly women under 50 are being diagnosed which suggests we ARE at risk. Perhaps I am an anomaly. But anomalies are still humans. Either me, you, your friend, your wife.

RIGHT, let me tell you about lefty and what I noticed because this will help. And also, of the people I’ve managed to tell, there’s a pattern. “What?! HOW?! WHEN?!”, so I’ll talk you through it, as if you were right here with a cup of tea, the way it ought to be.

Influenced by great charities like CoppaFeel, and perhaps because of the early deaths of my parents, and that slight mid-life-crisey feeling which set in around 40 and drove ‘healthy Shiv’, I was actively checking my breasts and have been doing so for some time. I checked in a few ways.. I sort of did ‘piano fingers’ across them, I pressed down, or I dragged my open palm down and up each side, pressing in to feel for a lump. I felt around the nipples and in my arm pits. If I did piano fingers, both sides felt the same.. And then I started to notice two things.

First, I had noticed a small dent in my left breast. I had read that a change in shape was something to watch out for and I kept an eye on it. It just didn’t seem enough to go in for. And I had also started to wonder about a slight thickening of tissue on the left hand side of my left breast. No clearly defined lump. And it was different at different times of the month. I wasn’t worried because it felt largely like the other side. There’d be months where I’d say, “oh, no, it’s gone, it’s fine now, that was hormonal’. I’d come to learn that differences between breasts were normal, but I’d also learned that sometimes that’s the easiest way to spot an abnormality and to watch for bigger changes. I am not sure how long I was keeping an eye on things for.. But I got to the point where there was a noticeable difference between lefty and righty.  That slight thickening on the left under side felt a lot more like a ridge if I raised my arm over my head when I checked, and for me, that really was the clincher. Was the dent more obvious?. I think so. Hard to say.  The breast didn’t feel any bigger, wasn’t painful, sometimes it felt different to the other side, sometimes I thought it was in my head.

In the end I just resolved to get it checked out, all the while thinking I was probably Little Miss Paranoid with an Early Death Complex. I booked an appointment with the GP week after returning from Australia. I had an appointment first thing the next morning after making that call, and was referred by the GP.  Strangely reassuring to know I wasn’t mad, but, oh shit.

Two weeks later, Tom and I were in the breast clinic and I was examined by a Breast Surgeon. A blur of tests later and we were as good as told I had cancer, but I needed to wait for the biopsy results (that was a really shit week, but a week I will always remember because of Georgia and Johnny’s party where we forgot our dark secret for a night and danced our socks off)

So what’s next?  On Tuesday 19th March (I know! Next week!! Fuck sticks! Hence the email) I am going to hospital for a mastectomy-reconstruction. This means, boob off, boob on in a oner (I know! Crazy!).  I am having a mastectomy because I have small breasts. Small breasts means less wiggle room. If I had a wonderful big rack of lovely-jubbly, a lumpectomy might have been possible. Who cares. I will not be sorry to see it go. I am no longer emotionally attached to lefty. Bye Bye booby. We’re so done.

I will have my breast reconstructed from my own tissue from my abdomen – some skin and muscle –  the best option when only having one breast off for a more natural result, and meets my desire for one operation.  It is however, a more intense surgery – up to 8 hours on the slab, 5-7 days in hospital, 6 weeks off driving, and three months to full recovery i.e. to normal baseline. Based on how my skin heals, and how I bounced back from both c-sections, and current fitness levels, however, we all anticipate earlier recovery. We also know that once I’m out of hospital, I will be able to do the basics like make a cup of tea, snacks etc. I don’t think I will be able to make lemon drizzle cake though. Just thought I’d throw that out there there.

I don’t know anything more about further treatment and won’t know until after surgery.

To reiterate, I have a diagnostically good,  treatable cancer and feel immense gratitude that we caught things when we did. It’s hard NOT to worry about cancer, but there’s an awful lot to be glad about right now, not least an incredible team at the hospital. I met my plastic surgeon last week and am pleased to report that she has a 0% fail rate on my particular surgery type and describes herself as a bit OCD, which is all you want to hear from your surgeon.

Jeepers, I’m on three pages with this email so I need to STOP WRITING but, before I go, I wanted to tell you the parting words of the surgeon who initially examined me, the same surgeon who delivered the official diagnosis a week later with my biopsy results.  She said, “ If there’s one thing I want you take away from all this it’s this; WELL DONE for coming in. So many women would have left this. WELL DONE”.

So, dear lovely ones, men and women, check yourself regularly and follow your instincts. Act, don’t think. Hold your loved ones close. Dance in your pants, swim naked and text us stupid cat videos as and when.  It’s all about the laughs now.

All my  love,