Loretta's Story - 'I was diagnosed with incurable metastasised breast cancer'.

02 Aug 2022

My name is Loretta. I was 34 years old when I was diagnosed with incurable metastasised breast cancer. There is no history of breast cancer in my family at all.

I had had a previous brush with cancer. When I was 29 I found a lump in my left breast. After visiting a GP and getting a referral to a breast clinic, I was repeatedly told I was young, they were sure it was nothing, and that I probably just had over-active breast tissue. It was benign. This incident left a mark on me – however, rather than making me more attentive about breast checks, it swayed me in the opposite direction! Like so many other women, I thought I was too young to have breast cancer – a misconception that I have been vocal about since.

I was on holiday in South Africa when my life suddenly turned upside down. I felt a lump high up in my chest – not somewhere you associate with the usual breast cancer symptoms – and very quickly it became intensely painful and grew, seemingly overnight. I made an appointment with my GP for the moment I arrived home.

The following few days after my appointment with my GP were a blur. I was sent for scans, biopsies and a mammogram. I was told the lump was cancerous and given a referral and an appointment – in two days’ time – to a breast surgeon who then referred me to my oncologist. I barely had time to catch my breath and process all the information I was being given.

My treatment team was amazing. They advised me to commence a three-month chemotherapy plan. The cancer I have is highly receptive to medication, so on top of chemo, I also had two different targeted drugs delivered intravenously. I finished chemo in November 2019, but have continued on the targeted drugs as maintenance treatment every three weeks since.

I didn’t feel sick from the chemotherapy, but I did suffer from hair loss, lack of appetite, weight loss. That was the worst of it. I wasn’t fatigued either, something I put down to incorporating exercise and daily movement into my recovery plan.

Exercise was and is an essential part of my treatment. I do lots of yoga & Pilates, walk whenever I can, and stay as active as possible.

When I look back at the time of my diagnosis I can’t believe how crazy it was. Yet, strangely, my diagnosis came at a time when I was best suited to handle it. Everything else in my life was happy and calm – I was working hard; I have a great group of friends and a wonderful family. I felt that as I was in such a good place this challenge became my focus and I didn’t have to worry about anything else.

There’s no denying though that cancer changes your outlook. It makes you reflect on your life and how you’re living it. At the time of my diagnosis, I was a workaholic and my identity was deeply intertwined with my profession. Being forced to step away from work due to my illness opened me up to look at the bigger picture and take the time to look around me.

Saying that, having to step away from my work and my responsibilities was really difficult for me. Suddenly I had time on my hands. It was hard not to turn to Dr Google and over-analyse and research everything. I fought to find the perfect balance between dealing with the information I had and doing a deep-dive into research. I must admit that one day I did Google – I was still learning what metastasised meant. I found myself in a fit of tears and had to call a friend for support.

Thankfully, my younger sister works in breast cancer research. She is now the one in charge of my research and explaining – in simple terms – what my diagnosis and treatment entails. I know that I can send her a text at any time for an explanation or reassurance.

My entire family are, and have been, a tower of strength, as have my group of friends. They threw me an end-of-chemo surprise party to celebrate with me. My oncology team have been a phenomenal support too.

At the start of this year my oncologist decided that my tumour had reduced in size enough and could be safely removed. It was a simple surgery, which involved removing my nipple to access and remove the lump, before reattaching the nipple. The lumpectomy was then followed by radiation.

This time my recovery has been slightly different. After chemo, my energy levels bounced back quickly. This time, radiation made me very tired. It was really difficult to deal with a lack of energy, but thankfully I have bounced back quickly.

My partner has been a source of strength. We got together almost a year after I had finished chemo, but have known each other for years. It has been an intense time: diagnosis, treatment, lumpectomy… not to mention lockdown! It’s been a big challenge for him, but he has stepped up and managed it amazingly.

Right now I am living with cancer. Any other term makes people feel uncomfortable and I don’t want my diagnosis to change the way people treat me. The goal was to reduce my tumour so that it could be removed. Now that’s been done – plus having some pre-cancerous cells removed – the intention is to keep any cancer growth stable.

Today, when I look in the mirror, I don’t just see the faint outline from my lumpectomy. I see is what I’ve been through, what I live with. I have a positive relationship with my body. The hardest part on this journey for me was when I had all the bandages after the operation. There were no drains but a pump attached to the bandages which were used to form an ideal healing environment. I became frustrated with that appendage. I found it harder to deal with how I was looking when the bandages were on then I do now, post -operation and radiation.

When I was first diagnosed, my GP talked to me about reaching out to different support groups. I held back from getting involved though: it made my cancer too ‘real.’ Instead I followed various groups on social media and watched from a distance. At the start of the year, Pink Hope was looking for a graphic designer, so I donated my skills and time. Volunteering my ‘work self’, meant I was able to engage with Pink Hope initially from a place I’ve always been comfortable with.

I’ve met some lovely women through Pink Hope. Being able to talk to someone without going into the nitty-gritty – medical menopause, treatment plans – is a relief.

The shoot for the Pink Hope campaign was fantastic. Being at the shoot with other women who have been on a similar journey felt amazing, the fun and banter and non-focus on what we’ve all been through was a comfort. There was an unspoken understanding in the room amongst us all.

When I first found Pink Hope I immediately felt the warmth and the support of all the women. Everyone has their story, their diagnosis and their struggles. Wherever you are in your journey, you can find someone who has been through what you’re going through; they’ll reassure you and give you some real advice on what to expect. And in turn, I’m hoping that I will be able to do that to the women who are following me on a similar path.

There’s no way of predicting my life expectancy. Right now, I’m doing really well and they’ve completely gotten the tumour. Eventually though my body will stop responding to my current treatment, and we will need to look other options – and who knows what will be available to me when that happens, thanks to the tireless efforts of medical researchers.

When I try to look into the future, I see it as a bit of an obstacle, so I tend to avoid doing so. I am going to Japan in January which is the furthest I’ve allowed myself to look for now. Looking too far into the future can send me down a rabbit hole of sadness. And that’s not me at all. I’ve been chosen as ‘Fearless’, to represent Pink Hope as a warrior and someone who faces life head on. The colour of the lipstick suits me really well – physically and personally. I’ll be wearing it a lot and encouraging my friends, colleagues and family to wear it too.

I wouldn’t consider myself fearless, but I do use fearlessness as an attitude and a coping mechanism – especially during the past three years. It’s what I’ve used it in the past and will continue using it as I go forward.