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Secondary breast cancer wasn't on Michelle's radar

Secondary breast cancer is when breast cancer cells spread from the primary (first) cancer in the breast to other parts of the body. But secondary breast cancer wasn’t on Michelle's radar after her inital treatment. She was more worried about primary breast cancer coming back.

A selife of Michelle wearing a hat

Can you tell us about yourself?

I’m 55 and I’ve worked for the NHS since 1996. I’m an ocularist, meaning I make and fit artificial eyes for people who’ve lost them through illness or trauma.

I love music, nothing that new - more 70s to 90s. And days with friends and family are important to me.

How were you diagnosed with primary breast cancer?

In 2018, I saw my GP about a lump in my left breast but he dismissed it as menopausal changes. The next year, I spotted an inverted nipple on the same side and saw a GP again. Straight away, they referred me to the Nightingale at Wythenshawe Hospital. After mammograms, an ultrasound and biopsies, I was unfortunately diagnosed with stage 3 primary breast cancer in May 2019.

I opted for a left mastectomy without immediate reconstruction to recover before my wedding. Unfortunately, I got an infection and was in hospital until days before. In autumn, I started chemotherapy at The Christie (NHS Trust), then radiotherapy, finishing my treatment just days before lockdown.

Michelle on her wedding day

Did the hospital tell you anything about secondary breast cancer?

Secondary breast cancer wasn’t part of any huge discussion. It was more that I should get in touch if I noticed changes. And every 6 months, I was monitored with CT scans, blood tests and yearly mammograms.

I educated myself by delving a little into secondary breast cancer and its symptoms. But at the time, I think I was more worried about primary breast cancer recurrence.

Can you tell us about your secondary breast cancer diagnosis?

In April 2023, I had a routine CT scan and bloods at The Christie then an MRI. Unfortunately, in May 2023, literally 4 years to the day of my primary breast cancer diagnosis, I got the devastating news that I had secondary breast cancer with metastasis in my liver.

I was in utter disbelief - I was feeling well and hadn’t noticed any changes. I’d been a bit tired, but I put that down to being busy. Normally at an oncology review, the doctor would say, ‘I’m pleased to tell you that…’ But this time, it started with ‘I’m sorry to say that…’ After this line, I lost it and cried hysterically.

A selfie of Michelle wearing sunglasses

How do you feel about your diagnosis, a few months later?

At first, I was too depressed and anxious to work - I took just over 2 months off. And I’m still coming to terms with it.

But the diagnosis has completely changed my outlook on life. It’s hard to stop my fears about the future. But I’ve been massively supported by family, friends, nurses, and Maggie’s (cancer centre) in Manchester. And I try to stay positive. I give thanks for every day and the memories I’ve made for me and my loved ones.

My treatment gives me a lot of fatigue, making working very difficult. I don’t want to expand all my energy at work, with no reserves left, so we’re trying to work something out.

What would your advice be to someone else in your position? 

Don’t be afraid to do your research to raise your awareness of secondary breast cancer. And stick to reliable sources like Breast Cancer Now.

Keep vigilant and raise any concerns with your oncologist and breast cancer nurse. And make sure you keep your appointments. This picked up my secondary breast cancer within 6 months of a previously clear scan.

Right now, 61,000 people are living with secondary breast cancer in the UK.

Learn the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer, so you know what to look for.  

Learn the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer

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