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  • Julie Muller

Return Of The Big C....

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Four years ago, a routine mammogram detected a small group of cancerous tissue in my left breast. A short time after its discovery I was given a lumpectomy followed by six weeks of daily radiotherapy. Following, and during, the treatment I did all that I could to keep healthy and every year, my mammogram was normal – until this year.

Another routine mammogram triggered concerns and I was summoned to an appointment at Princess Diana Hospital in Bromsgrove where my breast was examined in much more detail. A sophisticated mammogram was used to produce a 3D image of my left breast and two small chunks of tissue were extracted for analysis. In addition, ultrasound was used to help to locate and assess the affected area.

I really hoped that these investigations would merely indicate a benign cancer that would not need further treatment but sadly, this wasn’t to be the case.

They revealed a ball of cancerous cells which were already an inch in diameter, in spite of the fact that no lump was discernible from the outside.

When I spoke to my consultant, Miss Bright Thomas, it became clear that the tissue in my left breast was unstable and prone to these cancerous episodes and so the best course of action was for me to have a full mastectomy. I would also need to have a CT scan to check that the cancer hadn’t spread to any of my other body organs.

There was a part of me that wasn’t surprised by the prognosis and, even less surprised by the suggested treatment.

As a very active person my first thought was – how long before I get my life back? At the moment, I am in the middle of the Couch to 5km programme, I am also swimming three times a week and am enjoying Chi-Chi Fitness and HITT and toning classes at Malvern Active.

More importantly, my environmentally focused website relies on me walking with my two sheepdogs and telling the hidden stories of the countryside and there is still such a wealth of tales to tell that I don’t want to abandon it for any significant length of time.

From speaking to my consultant, I was assured that I could recover from a simple mastectomy in just three weeks, and I could use a prosthetic to preserve my body symmetry.

However, if I wanted, I could have reconstructive surgery at the same time as my mastectomy using my own body tissue, but this could take twelve weeks from which to recover. The operation would involve taking tissue from my tummy and would be conducted at the University Hospital in Coventry.

The day after my consultation, I had a phone call from University Hospital inviting me for a consultation with Ms Skillman who is a reconstructive and cosmetic surgeon and specialises in breast reconstruction.

At first, I was not interested in reconstructive surgery, but Ms Skillman’s secretary encouraged me to at least attend the consultation so that I had all of the facts at my fingertips.

This telephone conversation set me thinking – I am such an outdoor person – I live in singlets and shorts in the summer. I am adventurous and I have an intense passion for life. Maybe a reconstruction would be a good idea - especially if the operation could happen sooner rather than later. This could potentially enable me to be completely physically active again by the start of British Summer Time – the beginning of my most favourite time of the year.

Life has a funny way of presenting opportunities when you need them - At one of my swimming sessions following my diagnosis I met Debra, a lovely lady who runs the Malvern Breast Cancer Support Group and she put me in touch with a lady who had undergone breast reconstruction with Ms Skillman over in Coventry. Talking with Lynda made me see both the pros and cons for the operation. Overall, her experience was extremely positive and she couldn’t praise Miss Skillman enough for how she had been treated both on and off the operating table.

By the time the consultation took place my mind was already made up.

Ms Skillman explained the whole operation to me. All of the tissue in my left breast would be removed, and tissue from my tummy would be relocated within it and plumbed into place using specific blood vessels. The whole procedure would take about eight hours.

She showed me photographs of women who had previously undergone the operation. Some of them had had a simple mastectomy first and waited to have reconstruction later. Others had undergone the two procedures at the same time. For me, I knew that if I wanted reconstructive surgery, I would like to have just one operation especially as the waiting lists for subsequent reconstructive surgery is twelve to eighteen months.

So, I made the decision to have the surgery and we set a date for 29th December.

Things happened very quickly after that decision. I had my pre -op there and then at the University Hospital and my consultant also arranged for me to have my sentinel nodes removed to find out if my cancer has spread in advance of my mastectomy operation. These lymph nodes are those nearest to the site of the cancer and so could contain cancerous cells that have broken off from the tumour and therefore could spread to other body organs.

At the time I didn’t understand that this would mean a further operation under general anaesthetic so when I was asked to go for another pre-op at Worcester Royal Hospital, I didn’t understand its significance and I cancelled it. After all, I already was booked in for a CT scan at Kidderminster on the afternoon of the same day.

The CT scan was a very quick procedure which was conducted in a specialised portacabin at the hospital. It involved me lying on my back, being injected with a special iodine solution and then being rolled through a ring-shaped scanner which fired X-rays through my body . The resulting images would determine if there were additional cancerous growths and would also produce a map of my blood vessels so that Ms Skillman could easily perform my reconstructive surgery.

Once my CT scan was over, I needed to reschedule my pre- op assessment and I was very lucky to obtain another appointment yesterday at Worcester Hospital – All of the essential checks were made, and information collected so that my anaesthetist would know how to look after me during surgery and I was swabbed for both COVID and MRSA.

Now all I have to do is to isolate myself from other people and wait for my operation – and this, for me, is one of the hardest things of all!!

Happy yellow wild daffodils at Dymock Wood in Herefordshire
Springtime daffodils - hope for the future.

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