When farm worker and market trader Rachael Ross, 48, found two lumps in her left breast just before the pandemic, she was hoping for the best.
After having her breasts checked by her local doctor and going for a mammogram and ultrasound at a hospital, Rachael was reassured that they were just cysts and she was cancer-free.
She was booked in for a follow-up appointment six months later, to make sure they hadn’t grown, and sent on her way.
Then the pandemic hit, and Rachael, from East Lothian, Scotland, didn’t end up being called in for the check-up.
A busy worker, Rachael didn’t bat an eyelid. In fact, she didn’t think about it much until August 2021, when she found a third lump in her breast.
After a trip to a new doctor, the mum-of-two was then referred her to a different consultant.
Rachael was ordered to have a mammogram, ultrasound and breast biopsies and, when the results came in, her worst fears were confirmed: the cysts had been cancerous all along.
She was diagnosed with Stage Two Invasive Lobular breast cancer, hormone positive HER2-, meaning that the cancer was fed by oestrogen but not as aggressive as HER2+ Lobular breast cancer.
Thankfully, the cancer was still curable, but it meant that Rachael would have to undergo a mastectomy and have treatment that would plunge her into chemical menopause.
‘Chemical menopause sucks,’ she said.
‘There is so much everywhere right now on menopause, celebrities like Davina McCall and Penny Lancaster, doctors on This Morning all championing Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and its benefits and for women not to suffer in silence and it really is fantastic.
‘But for women like me who have had hormone positive breast cancer and who are on drugs to lower oestrogen even further, who are also suffering it can feel like we don’t matter.’
Unfortunately, Rachael can’t take HRT as it could cause the cancer to come back, and she’s struggled with the side effects of other medications.
‘I was having a terrible time with side effects on the first medication I was prescribed,’ she said.
‘I sat in front of an oncologist last year and he completely dismissed my symptoms, sent me away with a cystitis prescription.’
Rachael adds that she’s ‘cried a lot of tears in the hospital car park’, but it wasn’t until she ‘completely broke in front of a GP that she stepped in’ to change her medication.
Some of the symptoms she experiences include hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, muscle, joint and bone pain, skin and hair changes and sexual issues.
The lifesaving drugs she needs (including zoledronic acid infusions every six months to help prevent bone loss) also come with side effects that add to her discomfort.
While having a mastectomy was extremely difficult for Rachael, she says it has actually made her feel more grateful for her body and her life than she was before she was diagnosed.
She said: ‘I wish I’d have appreciated my body more before. We focus on the most trivial things about our appearance when really those little worries were absolutely nothing.
‘Sometimes my confidence gets knocked, especially in summer when you see more cleavages on show. But I feel better and happier now.
‘I’d think nothing of making future plans, now I feel I have to do more or I haven’t achieved enough.’
Rachael even started an Instagram page to post inspiring and supportive content detailing her journey after mastectomy and how she has been coping with her sudden menopause.
‘It was on Instagram that I found the most positivity and hope,’ she said.
‘Women, some younger than myself, who had or were going through breast cancer and who had had mastectomies documenting their lives, scars and struggles while also being brave beyond words and hugely inspiring.’
Despite the fact she’s taken it in her stride, Rachael has been through a lot of trauma, all of which she believes could have been avoided if her cancer was caught sooner.
‘An earlier diagnosis would still have been better than walking around with cancer for an extra 18-months,’ she explained.
‘I’ve insisted on a yearly MRI for my right breast as mammograms don’t work well for me (mammograms don’t always work for women with dense breast tissue and lobular breast cancer rarely shows up on a mammogram).
‘But unless I get any other symptoms I don’t qualify for any other scans so I’m just left to wonder, worry and hope for the best.
‘Cancer takes away your peace of mind.’
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