Former Express and Echo columnist Catherine Fraser has become the first client of new Exeter business Thermalogica to be diagnosed with breast cancer purely because of its scans. Aged 46, she has agreed to go public with her story in the hope more women will come for scans.
It seems strange to writing about being a success story because of a diagnosis of breast cancer – but thanks to the early detection of changes happening in my breasts through thermal imaging, I have become Thermalogica’s first “win”.
Thermalogica recently opened in Exeter, and offers thermography to detect physiological changes (shown up as heat activity) in the body and is run by Terri Bainbridge and Lisa Portman.
My connection with Terri goes back a couple of years, when, as a writer for this paper, I did the first interview with her about her own struggle with breast cancer which was happening at the same time as she and her husband, Sam, received the devastating diagnosis that their four-year-old daughter, Billie, had an inoperable brain tumour.
Terri was a friend of a friend and while the family’s first instinct – understandably – was to not do an article and to try and raise the money to send her to America for pioneering treatment themselves, I knew that if we could get the story out there, people would take this family to their hearts.
And did they! After the Echo’s interview was published, the story was picked up by other local and then national media and the Billie Butterfly Fund took wing and soon raised enough money for her treatment, even getting people like comedian Peter Kay involved.
There was, sadly, to be no happy ending for Billie, who died almost a year after her diagnosis, but Terri, a self-confessed “research geek” continued to battle for more information on cancer, its early diagnosis and ways to combat it.
So when she sent a Facebook invitation to her friends offering us a special opening offer on a scan, I jumped at the chance. In my forties, I am still some distance from the age to be invited for mammograms by the NHS and as I had been going through some cyclical lumpiness and pain over the preceding couple of months – all part of the winding down process, I thought – I signed up.
The first thermogram came back showing some heightened thermal activity, which the doctors said could be normal fibrocystic changes, but recommended a repeat in three months. The notes which accompanied that repeat thermogram suggested I made a doctor’s appointment for clinical evaluation.
My GP could feel nothing out of the ordinary, but referred me to the breast clinic at the RD&E to be sure. Government guidelines mean you get seen within two weeks, so I turned up expecting to be checked over and sent home: there is no history of breast cancer in the family, I had no hard, pea-sized lumps – surely it was just a routine appointment.
A couple of hours later, when I was having a biopsy in the ultrasound department after a mammogram, it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t routine. I quizzed the radiologist on what he was looking at on the screen. He told me that it wasn’t easy to see exactly what it was, but he “wouldn’t fall off his chair” if the biopsy came back as cancer.
And, indeed, it did. In both breasts, which apparently is quite common in the type of cancer I have, lobular carcinoma. This type – and who knew there were so many different ones – accounts for around 10 per cent of all breast cancers and doesn’t present as a hard lump, just more a feeling of thickening tissue, which is difficult to differentiate from normal ageing changes.
At the start of next month (note: Dec) I am going in for a double mastectomy, with reconstruction surgery being done at the same time. The care I am receiving from the RD&E is fantastic: the immediate mastectomy choice was mine – I didn’t fancy six months of chemo beforehand as I don’t want to have to live with my cancer for that time, nor lose my hair in the winter – but I have felt nothing but fully informed and supported in my choices all the way.
I am also in the fortunate position of having an extremely supportive employer in Exeter City FC – I work for the Football in the Community department – and the club have become extremely interested in the work of Thermalogica and the application of thermal imaging in the area of sports injuries.
Thanks to the early detection of my breast cancer, my prognosis is extremely good, but had I waited a few years until I was called for a mammogram, things could have been very different indeed.
I’m not much of a one for hidden meanings and symbolism, but the day I got home from the hospital after making my decision to have the surgery and was brushing my hair at the dressing table, a butterfly landed on the bedroom window sill.
There is a strange sort of symmetry in my original interview with Terri and the position I find myself in today. Although the Billie Butterfly campaign didn’t have the happy ending we all so desperately wanted, that connection I made with Terri which led me to Thermalogica has made my story a positive one. Not to put too fine a point on it, it has saved my life – which is a success story in anyone’s book.