It can be difficult to learn the first few weeks after a cancer diagnosis. When I discovered I’d joined the one in eight women with breast cancer, it was the first time I’d even heard of the type of breast cancer I had.
Unpronounceable medications were constantly bombarding me and I had to clear my calendar for an endless number of appointments. The NHS can be incredibly helpful when needed. I also learned that cancer is not a fatal disease and life continues as normal.
It was shocking to me that society could trivialise how breast cancer affects your looks. Too often women feel like they can just wave goodbye to hair, eyebrows and breasts.
As a health and beauty writer whose career has included testing products and tweakments, I know just how important appearances can be to a woman’s psyche. Yet I’ve been told, ‘it’s only hair’ by more than one entirely well-meaning person who I know would be devastated to find their own locks on their pillow one morning.
Leah Hardy (pictured) explains her desire to act ‘normal’ after being diagnosed with highly aggressive, grade-3 cancer at age 58
I’ve also been told ‘it will grow back’, which is true for the majority of women, but not all.
My entire approach to cancer has been to try to feel, act and look as ‘normal’ as possible throughout. While I do want to live, my physical appearance is an important part of who I am. I will not apologize for trying to control the changes breast cancer causes.
It all started on a sunny September morning when I skipped into my local hospital’s breast clinic. At 58, I was fitter and healthier than I’d been for years. Since February I’d embarked on a midlife makeover. I ate sparingly and exercised almost every day — yoga, Pilates, barre — dropping from a tight 16 to a toned 12. My energy levels were high, and I was able to feel more energetic.
Because I had become so obsessed with going to the gym, the first time I felt tender under my right arm, it was due to constant wearing of a sports bra or pulling muscle. However, when I looked into the mirror, my right breast seemed a good inch higher than the one on the left.
Worst case scenario, I thought, as I quickly made a GP visit, it was possible that I had a cyst. This would allow me to get back to my hectic life of a mom (to two teenage boys), friend, writer, and wife. I even remember hoping, if something was wrong with either breast, it wouldn’t be the right one — it looked so much perkier than the left.
After listening to my symptoms at the hospital, the consultant confirmed that they were normal. However, during my examination, the consultant asked me to lift my arms over my head. His eyes narrowed and he lost his smile. (I discovered later that my right breast was slightly different in appearance and almost tucked inwards.
I knew I was in trouble immediately. Shaking, I called my husband: ‘I’m at the breast clinic. I need you to come now.’
My speed was accelerated to a place where I was offered an ultrasound and a beefed up mammogram.
Leah (pictured) said the cancer had rapidly moved into her lymph nodes, from where it could sneakily slip into the rest of her body
The technicians were kind, but they couldn’t quite meet my eye. After I had been asked to lay down on a sofa, another doctor did four punch biopsies. A nurse also held my hand. It was now clear that I likely had cancer.
I found out that my cyst thought to be a fast-growing, uncomfortable cyst was in fact a grade-3, aggressive cancer. The tumours had grown because my breast cancer cells contained an unusually high amount of the protein HER2 (human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2), which was abnormally high. This is known to be HER2 positive breast carcinoma.
Although no one knows why, HER2 accounts for about 20% of all breast cancer cases. These types were shared by Kylie Minogue (pictured) and Jennifer Saunders (pictured).
It’s hard to imagine a disease that more effectively strips away our identity as women than breast cancer
Many HER2-positive cancers have also receptors for oestrogen and progesterone. Mine didn’t, and this can make the cancer even more aggressive. This is the end result. My right breast had a mass of tumorous cells.
My main tumour measured six centimetres across and had an implant-like effect, giving my breasts a larger, more lifted appearance. It had quickly spread to my lymph nodes and was now able to sneakily enter my rest of the body. As I sat sobbing in his office, my oncologist said, ‘You probably feel this has come out of nowhere, don’t you?’
Incredible was the initial terror and shock. My oncology team assured me that my cancer would be treated but not incurable.
Doctors told Leah she would need eight sessions of chemotherapy involving five drugs, followed by surgery. Picture of Leah with a cold cap
My life was filled with tests and scans. I spent the most miserable week waiting for my results. Every minor pain or ache I felt was an indication of dangerous tumours growing up. My relief was euphoric when I saw the scans. The doctor said that my diagnosis 20 years back was not a good one, but that there had been significant improvements in treatment and he expected me to be healed.
However, I’d need eight sessions of chemotherapy involving five drugs, followed by surgery. Whether I’d have a mastectomy or less invasive surgery depended on how well the chemo worked. Then I’d have radiotherapy and a year of targeted therapies such as Herceptin to block HER2’s effects and encourage the immune system to kill the cancer cells. It was dizzying. Only 28 days after my initial GP appointment I was still stunned and confined to a chemo ward.
I am profoundly grateful for the heroic and tireless care and kindness of the NHS staff at King’s College Hospital in London, but with the focus on the rush to save my life, there have been times when I’ve felt less like a person, and more like a body to be scanned, punctured and filled with chemicals.
What I see is key to who and what it means for me. It is not my fault that I want to control the effects of cancer on my body.
It’s hard to imagine a disease that more effectively strips away our identity as women than breast cancer. Many people have their breasts removed and chemotherapy can take every hair, including our eyebrows, from our bodies. For a minority of unlucky women on chemo drugs called taxanes — and yes, I’m on one of those — this hair loss can even be permanent.
Some women don’t mind losing their hair, but most very much do. Half of all breast cancer patients consider losing their hair the worst side effect of chemotherapy. Many felt it was more painful than losing their breasts. More than a third of women in one study said they thought about stopping treatment due to hair loss and 8 per cent said they’d reject chemo for that reason. Losing their hair caused women to experience depression, shame, anxiety, and loss of confidence.
Young women may lose their fertility due to chemotherapy. Around 80 per cent of women also gain weight during treatment, partly due to being pumped full of steroids to prevent chemo side-effects, partly due to brutal hormonal changes as we stop HRT or take oestrogen-suppressing drugs. A lot of salons don’t feel comfortable treating breast cancer patients, so manicures or facials may be canceled.
Leah believes she has lost 50% of her hair since five of eight chemo treatments. Leah at Future Dreams House
These things might seem like a minor price for being alive. But, it’s not. You wouldn’t be alone. While I reeled from the trauma of my diagnosis, I remember thinking I would happily sacrifice everything to live, saying, ‘You can cut off my legs if you like.’
My consultant knew me better than my own. He was the first to suggest I wear a ‘cold cap’ — a contraption, free on the NHS, designed to chill the scalp during chemotherapy — to try to preserve my hair.
‘You won’t like looking in the mirror and seeing yourself bald,’ he said, perceptively.
The cap works partly by sending hair follicles into suspended animation, so they’re not as vulnerable to the chemo drugs designed to attack fast-dividing cells. My poor hair roots are also protected by the cold, which shrinks my blood vessels.
The scalp cooling process is painful for the first 10 minutes. After that, blissful numbness takes over. The tightening effects of the cold liquid in the cap caused me panic attacks the first time it was on my head. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t prevent hair loss completely.
Although it might appear vanity, having hair allows you to take care of your dog and not be judged by strangers.
After five of my eight chemo sessions, I estimate I’ve lost maybe 50 per cent of my hair, but thanks to scrunch drying and volumising sprays, enough of it remains in a curly bob that I don’t yet feel the need for a wig or scarf.
It might feel like vanity to take care of your hair while you are battling cancer. But, more importantly, this is a sign that you long for privacy and normality. You can work and meet up with friends for coffee or go to the gym, or take the dog to the dog walk without worrying about being judged or asked awkward questions by strangers.
The day before chemo began, between medical appointments I dashed to Tracie Giles, one of London’s best permanent-make-up specialists, for a semi-permanent eyebrow treatment and subtle lash line enhancement. This procedure, which involves injecting natural pigments into the superficial layers of skin using an electric device and a needle was markedly better than my own eyebrows.
Knowing that even total hair-loss wouldn’t leave my face bald as an egg allowed me to start chemo with more confidence.
In the next few months, I’m also going to have to deal with surgery and its aftermath. One time, I was looking online for bras after surgery. The products were so confusing, and I couldn’t understand the concept of the entire thing, I decided to close the web pages.
Leah was invited to Future Dreams House to see the new centre for cancer. Future Dreams House sent out care packages with beauty and food products, as well as food to pandemic victims.
It wasn’t until I was invited to try out a new cancer centre, called Future Dreams House, that I found the holy grail — lingerie that might make you feel pretty even in the face of cancer.
Future Dreams is a charity that supports awareness and research. It focuses on secondary breast cancer. The charity knows that breast cancer can affect all areas of life, including your personal relationships and your career. It also understands how it can have a devastating impact on your body image.
It sent out more than 7,000 care packages to pandemic patients, including beauty and food products, as well as donated over 1,000 bras post-surgery.
It’s new centre, a tall, pink building in London’s King’s Cross opened recently by Liz Hurley (thanks to donations including £500,000 from Estee Lauder Co.), houses the only specialised breast cancer support centre in the UK. The interior is warm and comfortable, and feels luxurious like a hotel and spa.
Here, any woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer can find tailored packages of emotional, physical and practical support of the kind the NHS simply isn’t designed to provide.
Classes include yoga, nutrition and exercise. The new year will feature support sessions in employment counseling and groups for partners. There are also plans to offer future beauty services, such as brow and nible tattoos for widows.
Leah (pictured), who suffered blood clots from chemotherapy in her left arm, stated that Pilates and yoga have helped her through her illness and recovery.
Marcia Mercier (a certified Yoga for Cancer instructor and breast cancer survivor) joins me in an open studio. If you’re undergoing treatment, it can make exercising difficult. It’s hard to know just how hard to push yourself, especially when dealing with complications.
No one at the hospital knew what to allow me to do with my regular yoga class after I had blood clots in both my left and right arms from chemotherapy. Yoga and Pilates helped me through my illness and have kept me sane and strong mentally, physically and emotionally.
Ryan Riley is the founder of Life Kitchen. This cookery school helps patients with cancer reclaim their joy of cooking. While exhaustion and illness can ruin appetites, chemo or radiotherapy can be a hammer on the tastebuds. It’s not unusual for everything to taste of soap or metal. Ryan makes easy food that is full of strong flavours, such as a miso-infused cream topped with frozen berries and delicious.
However, for me, Monica Harrington, a specialist bra fitter, and lingerie coach, is my most powerful example of Future Dreams House’s transformative power.
She is a warm and friendly Cork woman, who hails from Ireland. She gently assists women who have lost their self-confidence due to breast cancer in her beautiful fitting room.
‘My clients can be emotional,’ she says. ‘For example, women often tell me that intimacy is very difficult for them.’
Penny is a smart, intelligent woman in her 50s with a beautiful blonde hair and witty sense of humor. Previously, she’d had a double mastectomy and implants. The implants were removed after cancer returned last year to her breast. She lost all confidence.
Leah stated that her trip to Future Dreams House (pictured), made her feel far more than a patient with chemical reactions.
Monica Gently shows Penny various silky camisoles, satin pyjamas, and a variety of silky pajamas. ‘They are just a little bit sexier, a bit more feminine,’ says Monica. ‘I want to get people out of the breast cancer box and into the kind of things they wore before.’
Penny confesses she is ‘dreading’ an upcoming holiday because she can’t face wearing a swimsuit. Monica coaxes her to wear a one-piece made by Melissa Odabash and designed for Future Dreams. Monica’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.
There’s something incredibly cheering and bonding about drinking tea around a pile of frothy bras and knickers and we soon start sharing anecdotes and hooting about the various indignities of our breast cancer experiences.
Modern medical technology means that more people are living with or after cancer. Cancer Research UK reports that breast cancer survival rates in the UK have doubled over the past 40 years. They went from 41% to 78%. It’s estimated fewer than a quarter of the 50,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK will die with it. Many of us will be left scarred and emotionally traumatized, but still alive. And we don’t just want to survive: we want to live life to the full.
I left with a swollen face, an elegant Melissa Odabash swimsuit and the promise of bra fittings from Monica, as well as post-surgery advice from Marcia. My experience was different from that of a patient who had been exposed to chemicals. It felt like I was more in touch with myself.
- Some names were changed
- Future Dreams is accepting donations at futuredreams. org.uk/future-dreams-house/