This year, around 1.7 million women across the world will be told they have breast cancer - that's three women every minute. One of those 1.7m women has worked at GLAMOUR UK for 14 years. Meet Grace Wasyluk, 38, Associate Publisher of GLAMOUR. Just before Christmas she was given the news no woman wants to hear: “You have breast cancer”. Grace, who is married with two children under the age of five, is sharing her journey exclusively with GLAMOUR. From the devastation of discovering she had cancer to her chemotherapy journey, via all the things she wished people had told her, she is sharing a different part of her journey in all its candid detail.
WEEK ONE: THE BEGINNING
It’s the 7th December 2017 and I'm meant to be writing my Christmas card list, sorting the food delivery and battling the hordes in Hamleys. Instead, my husband, Remy, and I are sat behind a mahogany desk with a breast cancer nurse holding my hand whilst my surgeon delivers the news that we all wanted to avoid. I have breast cancer. The C Word. The big C.
It's not like I had never been exposed to cancer; I was 22 when my father died at 60 from melanoma, my auntie lost her life to breast cancer and my mum had a breast lumpectomy six years ago. Smear tests had always been taken diligently since abnormal cells were once found and I am extremely body aware, yet there I was in December 2017 in the height of the exciting run-up to Christmas, grappling with a diagnosis of my own.
So, let’s rewind to where it all began. I had breast-fed my daughter until January 2017, yet in May 2017, I noticed what felt like blocked milk ducts so I trotted off to the GP and she agreed that there was some nodular lumps but nothing to be concerned about. I went for an ultrasound nonetheless (mamograms are not standard issue to anyone under 50) and was told everything was fine. Busy with two children, returning to work, holidays and general life meant I just put it to the back of my mind as I had been given the all clear, yet in November 2017 I noticed the nodular area increasing in size and becoming tender.
A few weeks later, ahead of a dinner with my friends for which I’d treated myself to a new backless dress, I’d looked in the mirror before leaving the house and thought “I don't look bad for a 38-year-old who’s had two kids”. Whilst sat at dinner, I learnt that a mutual friend had just started treatment for stage 3 breast cancer after ignoring a lump. That was it, by 9am on Monday morning, I’d made an appointment to see a breast surgeon.
Naively and optimistically I went on my own expecting a quick examination and an all clear conclusion. Two hours after meeting my wonderful surgeon, I’d undergone two mammograms, an ultrasound and a core biopsy. I felt sore, bewildered and nervous, so I called my husband, Remy, to keep him informed but I couldn't really express my feelings from a busy waiting room. The three areas of tissue extracted from the biopsy would be sent to the pathology labs and I was asked to return in two days for the results.
I walked to the tube, trying to rationalise that all would be fine. I kept thinking to myself “I'm 38, I've got two young children, I've always been healthy, I don't smoke, I'm a good person, I work hard, I'm kind to people, I have all my life ahead of me”. My husband was equally as positive so the next 48 hours were spent as normally as possible and avoiding the internet - the only time I felt like ignorance was bliss.
Just a few short hours later, Remy and I were in front of the surgeon being told what no one wants to hear: I have Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and Invasive ductal breast cancer, later revealed to be HER2 positive, ER Positive right sided breast cancer.
Initially, there were tears, but then my usual coping mechanism kicked in and there were lots of questions and list writing. At that point it was determined that, as with the majority of breast cancers, it was hormone (ER) positive and if a further biopsy showed that it had not spread to my lymph nodes then I would undergo surgery.
As my breasts were small, it was determined I would undergo a double masectomy with reconstruction. Given my age and family history, I decided there was no point leaving the other one in exposing me to the risk of potentially getting it again in 10 years time. Also, given that my reconstruction would be with implants, it would give a favourable aesthetic result to conduct a bi-lateral masectomy. During surgery they would remove the sentinel lymph node, test it for cancer cells and should it be negative, my lymph nodes would be saved.
If not, a judgement would be taken on how many of the 20 to remove. Once this had happened, if all the cancer had been contained, I may be able to avoid full body treatment (chemotherapy or radiotherapy) and just have hormone therapy for 5-10 years. Ok, bang. Booklets packed with information were given to me and it’s at this point that you truly appreciate the amazing work conducted by Breast Cancer Care, Macmillan and other cancer charities.
My next steps involved an MRI scan to determine how large the tumour area is, additional pathology tests on other tumour markers (what the cancer feeds on and how to treat it), a fine needle biopsy on the lymph node, an appointment with the plastic surgeon to discuss the reconstruction and the BRCA 1 test to see if I could pass on the gene to my children. Well, at least I had enough on my to-do list!
While it was, of course, so much to take in with a whole other vocabulary to learn and a huge shift in my life plan, Remy and I tried to remain positive. Strangely, I felt quite calm about all these tests; they had to happen and it meant that the more information we had, the better. I treated myself to fish and chips and a glass of vino afterwards and awaited the results.
By mid-December, I had ticked off everything on my to-do list and my final stop was at the plastic surgeon. My delightful surgeon patiently went through the surgery and the different implant shapes available. There were a 100 questions going through my head: “How do they stay in place? Will I have any feeling in my breasts? Can I keep my nipples? What size shall I go?”. “You may as well go a bit bigger.....", my husband hilariously interjects. Despite the serious nature of it all, you have to laugh at a man's thought process.
Stupidly, I had spent the last week getting my head around the news and telling friends and family that it wasn’t “that bad”. I should have known that I couldn't plan everything when cancer is involved; there’s always a curveball and a rollercoaster to ride. That rollercoaster took Remy and I back behind the mahogany desk, where I discover that not only is my cancer hormone positive, but it is also HER2 positive. This has the potential to be aggressive and, given my age, we cannot risk one microscopic cell of the invasive cancer reaching any of my vital organs, as treating secondary cancer is much harder than primary cancer. The MRI scan also showed the area to be larger than first thought at 2.5cm. The good news? It doesn't appear to be in the lymph nodes.
This altered the approach, given the HER2 diagnosis, they now think that all body treatment (chemotherapy and immunotherapy) needs to happen first and then surgery.
Leah, my nurse, kindly offered more leaflets. This time, one word jumped off the page: Chemotherapy. It's that word itself that causes the most fear, the one I really wanted to avoid, the one that really cements you as a cancer patient, the one that makes you feel ill and lose your hair. It’s the one you can't hide from.
There is palpable shift in mood from both Remy and I. The seriousness of the situation now kicks in and it's apparent that it won't just be a bit of surgery and recovery but we will be facing the battle against cancer like so many other people. Fish, chips and vino are off the menu tonight. I feel positively sick.
For more information on breast cancer, visit Breast Cancer Care.
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