Breast cancer hit my radar back in 2005 when Kylie Minogue was diagnosed and I thought:

“Wow, if she can get it, anyone can, even me.” After feeling my breasts and thinking they felt a bit lumpy, I made an appointment with the doctor to check if this was normal. She gave me a thorough examination and said everything was fine. Call me a hypochondriac, but I wanted a bit more proof than that, so the doctor indulged me and an ultrasound was scheduled. This showed I had a couple of cysts in my left breast, but again I was told this was perfectly fine and sent on my way.

However, six years later, I found a small lump in my left breast and went back to the doctor who again said that doesn’t feel like anything to worry about, but come back in a month if it’s still there.

Christmas came and went with a nagging worry in the back of my mind, but I tried not to think about it.

The lump didn’t go away, so back I went to the doctor who then sent me to the RD&E where the breast cancer specialist also said the lump didn’t feel suspicious, but he’d send me for a mammogram just to be sure.

I was also given a needle biopsy to test the tissue.

I honestly thought I was wasting everyone’s time, so when a letter arrived asking me to return to the RD&E to get my results I called up and asked just to be told over the phone.

After an awkward silence and then being told I had to come in, I still didn’t twig, so I did the weekly shop and went to the appointment on my own.

Being told you have cancer is one of the most terrifying experiences of your life. You immediately think you’re going to die. I had two beautiful children who might grow up without a mother. When I told my husband, Sam, we both clung to each other and cried.

I was given the choice to have just the lump removed or my whole breast. After breast feeding two kids my boobs weren’t up to much, so I decided to have my whole breast removed just to get rid of it, and asked for the operation as soon as possible.

What I was later told shocked me. After the surgery they examined the removed breast and found that the lump I’d found was sitting on top of a very large tumour the size of a satsuma, which had probably started growing 10 to 15 years previously – in my 20s!

“What?! But I had a mammogram. Why didn’t you see it?”

Dense-Breast-Tissue
On the left is a mammogram of a fatty breast. Since fat is radiolucent it produces a dark background which makes the small, white tumor in the center of the breast relatively easy to see. The mammogram on the right shows a very dense breast. It too has a cancer in roughly the same location but I challenge you to find it. (Photo from a lecture courtesy of Dr. Ellen Warner, Sunnybrook & Women’s College Health Sciences, Toronto, Canada

I didn’t even want to think about what would have happened if I’d only chosen to have the small lump removed.

It turns out I have dense breast tissue. This shows up as white on a mammogram, as do tumours. Check out some of the images on www.areyoudense.org and you’ll see it’s no wonder tumours get missed.

I’m not a freak, more than 60 per cent of women under the age

of 50 have dense breast tissue – one of the reasons mammograms aren’t routinely offered to younger women, they’re only 54 per cent effective in this age group. But 30 per cent of older women have dense breasts too, you don’t just stop having them at age 50 and mammograms are only 78 per cent effective in over-50s.

Do you know what your breast density is? Probably not. But it’s right there on your mammogram and your doctor knows. Why aren’t we being told?

If you have dense breast tissue you should be told and offered additional checks such as an ultrasound. However, by the time a tumour is big enough to be seen on these scans, it’s been growing for more than eight years. But I’d had an ultrasound back in 2005. What could I have done differently?

More research led me to thermal imaging, which is a test of function or physiology rather than anatomy. Thermal imaging can show the activity relating to a growing tumour eight to 10 years before it is big enough to be detected by a mammogram.

If I’d had a thermogram back in 2005 when the ultrasound found the cysts, we’d have probably seen activity relating to a growing tumour rather than a harmless cyst.

Research has proved a test of function and a test of anatomy will detect at least 95 per cent of early stage breast disease.

I couldn’t believe thermal imaging wasn’t more widely available as it’s used a lot in America. There are a couple of clinics in Harley Street, but only about 20 in the whole of the UK, so I retrained and set up my own here in Exeter.

I know so much more about breast cancer now, it’s not scary. Knowledge is power. And you have the power to take charge of your health today.

 

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