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My journey through breast cancer

Hedwig Breast Cancer Care

This year is supporting Breast Cancer Care so they can help women through and after breast cancer.  Sharing her experience of breast cancer and the support that Breast Cancer Care provided we chatted to Hedwig Hegtermans, 53, who was diagnosed in 2012…

Tell us a bit about you…

I am Dutch but have lived in the UK for 15 years.  My family are back in Holland but I have many loved ones here.  I enjoy reading, walking and cooking and of course breast cancer did change my outlook on life, as these things do.

When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?

I was diagnosed on 1st November 2012 after my first routine mammogram having turned 50 in the September.  I didn’t feel it so I was very lucky with the timing of the mammogram.  Because of the kind of breast cancer that I had I needed to have a mastectomy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy, then radiotherapy and now I am on hormone blockers which I will probably be on for the next 10 years.  It’s been a journey to say the least, and it still is, but I am lucky to live in a time when these treatments are on offer.  I have energy and am getting used to my new body because it’s obviously changed.

What happened after your diagnosis?

I had my surgery just before Christmas 2012 and I pretty much had to rule out 2013. I felt fantastic on my 50th birthday; healthy and fit, not knowing that I had already developed breast cancer. It was the treatment that made me feel awful and that was some comfort to me as I told myself that it was all temporary.  The hormone treatment is harder than I expected though as it has immediately put me into the menopause.  I started taking them the tablets on a Monday and by the Friday I was having 10 hot flushes a day.  I still have those symptoms and will most likely continue to do so.  I think that enduring legacy of the treatment is something I didn’t really realize would happen when I got the diagnosis. You think you will have the treatment and then be back to normal but the old normal never comes back.  Some people are lucky and have hardly any reaction to hormone blockers, other people are worse than me and have night sweats - everyone reacts differently and no one can tell you how you will react.

What piece of advice would you give someone else who has just been diagnosed?

It’s difficult to say because everybody is different so there’s no right or wrong way to handle it, you need to find what works for you.  However, I think the biggest piece of advice is don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Ask your nurse or contact the Breast Cancer Care Helpline.  Breast Cancer Care made a complete difference to how I dealt with it.  For me, to understand what I was having and why I was offered particular treatments was really helpful.  There’s so much confusing and conflicting information out there, but Breast Cancer Care offer such a great amount of reliable information and without dumbing it down they make things that are medically complex very easy to understand.  For me it was good to be informed; understanding my breast cancer and the treatments I was offered was the best way of coping with the diagnosis. Breast Cancer Care’s publications made such a difference to me. I also went to some of the information sessions Breast Cancer Care regularly organises. These sessions cover a wide range of topics like reconstruction and  menopausal symptoms induced by treatment.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you before your treatment or diagnosis?

I didn’t realise how much I would change through my treatment; how it would affect my body and what the long term impact was and I think I would have liked to understand more about that.  However, at the same time you are going through so much that I can understand why doctors wouldn’t want to overload you with more information so it’s difficult to say.  The changes don’t need to be negative however.  My life has changed completely, but I met some fantastic people along the way, not only the medical staff, but also fellow patients.  You meet the same people when you’re having your chemo and you chat with them.  I have stayed in contact with some of them and I have made good friends through it so not every change is a bad change.  I volunteer a lot now for Breast Cancer Care which has opened a lot of doors and experiences for me that I would never have had otherwise!  For example this year I will be modelling in their fashion show - I never thought I would walk on a catwalk!

Treatment takes a lot of time and is very intense, so when that came to an end I had the feeling ‘Oh, what now?’ Breast Cancer Care’s Moving Forward course helps to move beyond hospital based treatment. They are group sessions for four consecutive weeks, during which a wide range of relevant topics are explained by expert speakers. You realise that emotions you have are very normal and that there is still help out there should you need it. Plus you can share experiences with women who know exactly what you are talking about because they are going through the same.  Even during my treatment I decided I wanted to give something back, so I contacted Breast Cancer Care to ask if I could become a volunteer. Now I am enjoying many different roles; I am a volunteer at the Moving Forward courses; I am an office volunteer helping the helpline; I am a trained Breast Health Promotion Volunteer organising my own workshops. I know how vital early detection is, and I am passionate about getting the awareness message out in the community. I also am a Someone Like Me volunteer, which is a service where people who have a diagnosis and want to talk to someone who has been through similar treatment is matched with a volunteer who had similar experiences. All my roles are very rewarding, and help me too moving beyond. It is great that I can turn something negative into a positive by volunteering with Breast Cancer Care.

Have you had any spa treatments throughout your experience with cancer?

I had aromatherapy and reflexology which were lovely during my cancer treatment.  It helped a lot because first of all it makes you relax for an hour or so and takes your mind off everything that’s going on.  I think it probably made me feel physically better as well because when you feel mentally stronger and you feel more positive then it makes things easier to deal with and maybe helps you to recover from the treatment.  I am not saying it makes the treatment less hard, but it does help.

Is there another treatment you would have liked to try?

I used to love saunas, but those are a no go when you’re having treatment.  It’s lovely to have your make-up done, so I think combining a makeover combined with spa treatments would be wonderful as it would show you how to do your make-up if you lose eyelashes, and to understand what creams and products you can use when the skin is very sensitive because it all needs to be very neutral.

What has been the most helpful thing anyone has done for or with you throughout your treatment?

People were lovely, everyone around me sent cards and flowers, then the practical help I got was wonderful wonderful.  So if you know someone going through treatment go and visit them for a cup of coffee but at the same time grab the hoover, because after surgery you can’t do the hovering!  Cook a meal for someone, or if they have children, take the children out.  Do something practical without being asked because people are not likely to ask for help.

If you have a query about breast cancer or breast health, just want to talk things through or find more support, Breast Cancer Care’s experts are only at the end of a telephone line. Call them on: 0808 800 6000.

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