Getting breast cancer when you have a young family to look after brings with it a whole set of problems – from raising children to dating. HANNAH DAVIES reports
THE laughs can be heard from down the corridor as I arrive to interview Lesley Conlin and Deborah Herron.
It’s not surprising two articulate, intelligent women should find plenty to talk about, but their experience of breast cancer is what really draws them together.
They met at Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women’s Forum which Deborah, who has just finished her cancer treatment, attended and where Lesley, who has just celebrated five years clear of the disease, was a volunteer.
Lesley, 41, a civil servant at Longbenton, North Tyneside, says: “As a young woman you have got your whole life ahead of you and the worry is that it is going to come back.
“It is always this little thing on your shoulder.”
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2005, aged 36, after finding a lump.
She had always checked herself so as soon as it appeared she knew it was there. When the lump got bigger, she knew she needed to get it checked out.
Lesley had chemotherapy, a mastectomy and then radiotherapy.
Breaking the news of her illness to her daughters Kirsty, then 13, and Natasha, then 10, was one of the hardest parts of her diagnosis.
She says: “I told them separately, but it was hard as I couldn’t give them any definitive answers.
“The first thing they want to know was ‘Are you going to die?’ ”
And there were other problems too. Lesley says: “The little one didn’t want me to pick her up from school until my hair grew back, but when her friends decided it was all right she was fine.”
Breast Cancer Care’s message- boards were a great source of comfort to Lesley.
She says: “Just talking to other women online of the same age who were going through the same things was very helpful.”
During the course of her cancer treatment, Lesley’s marriage fell apart – and that led to issues when it came to re-entering the dating scene.
She says: “My marriage split up just after the treatment. I think it would have gone anyway and if I’m honest then it probably lasted longer because of the cancer.
“I met my new partner while my hair was just starting to grow back.”
That man, Kevin Lamb, was very supportive.
She laughs as she recalls: “A few months afterwards he told me, ‘The moment you took your wig off and hung it on the side of the bed, that’s when I fell in love with you’.”
Her own experiences and the support she got from Breast Cancer Care made her volunteer for the Younger Women’s Forum, who meet in the region regularly. Lesley says: “I wanted to give something back and it seemed the best way to do it.”
Deborah, 39, is a teacher at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside. Her husband Lee, is 35.
She says: “I was picking my little boy up during Christmas 2009 and I felt something strange.
“He was two-years-old at the time I felt a lump. Then I noticed that my breast didn’t sit properly. I went on a two-week referral to a one-stop clinic on March 19.”
Deborah, of Rowlands Gill, Gateshead, was diagnosed with a grade two cancer. It had spread to her lymph nodes and she has had to have all of them taken out of the affected arm.
“I have to be very careful that I get no infections in it,” she says.
As well as a breast reduction and having the lymph nodes taken out, Deborah had chemotherapy and a kind of radiotherapy directed specifically at the affected area because the cancer was too close to her heart to have general radiotherapy.
She is also taking Herceptin.
Deborah has two children, Isobel, five, and Jack, three.
Her employers and her husband’s were both good in giving time off while she underwent treatment.
Again, letting the children know what was happening brought its problems.
Deborah says: “Jack was totally oblivious although he did at one point say, ‘Where has my mummy gone?’
“It was trickier with Isobel and we did a lot of talking about mum having cancer. And she knew I was going to have strong medicine which would make my hair fall out.
“But she got used to it and now she’s got no problems.”
“I know that for the rest of my life cancer could come back, so the good thing about having young children is they constantly change and you change with them.
“After the treatment I’m back to being a mum again and I’m only going back to work part-time because my priorities are different.”
Adjusting to her situation was one of the reasons Deborah got in touch with Breast Cancer Care.
She explains: “Being a younger woman you have issues like career, how you look, and bringing up children to cope with.
“I knew life was going to be hard so I wanted to speak to people in the same situation as me. There were all these women in their 20s, early 30s and 40s sharing experiences, talking about their families and their futures, but still being women.
“There comes a point where you don’t want to talk to your family any more. You don’t want to put them through any more.
“But I can say these things to the people I met through the Younger Women’s Forum.”
BREAST Cancer Care will stage a 5-Mile Challenge in Newcastle on March 20 and the charity is calling for people to sign up to walk, jog or run the course.
The route starts and finishes in Exhibition Park and the charity is aiming to raise £100,000 to help support the 46,000 people in the UK who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
Visit www.breastcancer care.org.uk/5mile and quote Newcastle6 when you register to be entered into a free prize draw.
Being a younger woman you have issues like career, how you look, and bringing up children to cope with