As Communications Officer for York Against Cancer, Francine Clee regularly meets people living with the condition. Last year she herself was diagnosed and as Breast Cancer Awareness Month gets under way, she shares her story here

CANCER’S something that affects other people, isn’t it? Even working for York Against Cancer, where we see it every day, it’s a condition that can seem remote from your own life.

For me, all that changed in a consulting room at York Hospital at around 11am on Tuesday, October 16 last year.

Three weeks earlier, I’d been for a routine mammogram, part of the NHS screening programme.

A fortnight passed by and driving home one night, I remember thinking that everything must be OK; otherwise, I’d have heard something by now.

Then I opened my front door to find a letter on my doormat and I somehow knew what would be inside it.

“Thank you for attending your breast screening mammograms recently,” it said. “There is an area on your mammogram that needs more detailed tests so a second stage of your routine screening is needed.

“This is not unusual and please remember that most women recalled for further investigation are found to have normal breasts.”

The letter was a reassuring as it could be, but it still felt like a long and worrying wait for my appointment exactly one week later.

Sitting in the Magnolia Centre at York Hospital alongside me and my concerned other half were several other pensive couples.

A nurse explained I would have a physical examination and more mammograms before it was decided whether I would need an ultrasound and possibly a biopsy. She suggested my partner headed off for an hour or so until we knew more.

The examination was normal but the mammogram confirmed my screening – there was a tiny area of thickened tissue, around 7mm.

A doctor found the area with ultrasound. As she took biopsies for definitive testing, she was kind but candid, and she told me this was not a cyst. It was almost certainly cancer.

My mind reeled. How bad was it? Would I die? Would I lose my breast? Would I need radiotherapy? Chemotherapy? Was this the only area of cancer? Could it be a secondary growth from another part of my body?

“I wish there was more than one word for this, but there isn’t, there is just cancer,” said the doctor. “The fact is that this is very small and it is curable. There’s no sign that it has spread to your lymph nodes and a lumpectomy and radiotherapy will be just as effective as a mastectomy would be.”

In the circumstances, this seemed the best news that I could have had. The doctor said cancers discovered during screening had good prognoses. We were taking action to stop this from becoming a danger in the future.

Breast cancers. I was told, are always primary – so the growth had not spread from elsewhere. The biopsy results would show the best way forward for future medications and I would need radiotherapy but probably not chemotherapy.

First, though, I would need surgery – a lumpectomy to take away the cancer and leave a safe, clear margin of healthy tissue.

There’d be an element of plastic surgery to sculpt a normal-looking breast. I know this shouldn’t be a central concern – saving my life was naturally the main thing – but psychologically I found it really important.

My surgeon was skilled and the operation went brilliantly, but my follow-up consultation had a shock in store.

The good news: my lymph nodes were clear of disease, indicating a lower likelihood of it spreading from my breast.

The not-so-good news: the tumour was bigger than it had appeared and inside a mass of low-grade abnormal cells was a small but aggressive carcinoma, ranked grade 3.

Chemotherapy was once again a possibility, but a new genetic test could show exactly how likely my tumour was to return. Based on that, we could decide if I needed more treatment.

Another anxious wait followed, as the test results took around a fortnight. We tried to enjoy Christmas and returned to the Magnolia Centre the day after Boxing Day to find out what lay in store.

Astonishingly, my tumour had no more than a two per cent likelihood of recurrence – I couldn’t believe my luck. I would need only radiotherapy and drugs to block the effects of the oestrogen that tests showed had been feeding my cancer.

Radiotherapy began six days after my 58th birthday – 15 sessions at the Bexley Wing at Jimmy’s. It felt strange to be aboard the minibus offered by York Against Cancer to take patients from York to Leeds and back.

In my job I’d written about how valuable people find this service, but there’s nothing like personal experience to make you realise how vital it really is when you’re feeling vulnerable and facing a long, confusing and, let’s face it, expensive drive to a distant hospital every day for weeks.

I felt so grateful to the people who came up with the minibus idea and the generous supporters who had made it a reality.

Meeting my fellow passengers was another eye-opener. We chatted, laughed and played Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 quiz PopMaster every day as we supported one another through our treatments.

Some of them faced really tough diagnoses, which put a stop to the ‘why me?’ self-pity that can take you over if you stop to think about what is going on in your life.

Radiotherapy can cause fatigue. I myself didn’t feel tired, but the daily grind of travel and waiting for a treatment that lasted possibly 30 seconds was tedious, and by the end I was sore, with a strange, square area of very tanned skin. I was told I would have to be very careful of the sun in future because of the radiation I’d undergone.

I also needed to avoid any injury to my right arm, because lymph node removal can lead to a build-up of lymphatic fluid in nearby tissue, especially if it becomes infected or inflamed for any reason. If it gets bad enough, this swelling, known as lymphoedema, can become disabling.

I’d only had three nodes removed to check if my cancer had spread, and they had all been clear, but it was still better to be careful, to avoid any chance of lymphoedema.

Finally, I’d be on oestrogen-blocking medication for up to ten years, with regular mammograms, but essentially that was it, the end of my treatment.

There’s a bell in the reception area at the radiotherapy department, and on a patient’s last visit, they get the chance to ring it. To general applause, I all but rang it off the wall.

I thought my job had made me relatively knowledgeable about cancer, but my personal experience has brought it home to me.

Some people have it much tougher than others and I would never want to belittle their situations, but cancer covers a wide, wide range of experience and so far, I have been incredibly lucky.

I will always be grateful that the system we pay for and rely on did a great job for me.

Thank God for cancer screening – I believe it saved my life.

The NHS offers screening for a range of conditions.

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