Helena Boyce with her husband and two children
Helena says: “If you’d ever asked me for a list of people who would get cancer I would have put myself right at the bottom. Because of my job I exercised at least eight hours a day, I didn’t drink much and I ate well. I never thought cancer would happen to me and I seldom checked my breasts.
That all changed in July 2014 when I got an itch on my right breast. As I scratched, I felt an egg-like lump on the inside.
One voice in my head told me it was breast cancer and another said it was just a bit of swelling because I was in-between periods.
When the GP saw the lump the next day he referred me as an emergency to the breast imaging unit at the Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton where I had my first mammogram, an ultrasound and 12 biopsies taken.
My partner Dowayne tried to be strong for me and the children, saying, ‘There’s no point worrying until we know what it is.’
A fortnight later Dowayne was busy with our son’s birthday celebrations so I went to hospital for my results alone. I like people to tell it as it is so I appreciated it when the consultant said straight out, ‘It’s cancer.’
I remember wanting to cry but thinking I didn’t have time, so I sat there in silence for what seemed like five minutes. After being told I’d need a mastectomy, tears welled as I pictured myself baldheaded and grey.
Terrified, I asked if I would die and the consultant told me that I would need to have surgery to survive, adding, ‘Unfortunately there’s no way I can safely allow you to keep your breast.’
I wondered how I’d never noticed a lump that was 4.5cm by 2.5cm (1½in by ¾in) – hardly small. But I wore a DD bra and maybe if I’d had smaller breasts I would have found it earlier.
Cancer taught me to listen to my body and get any worries checked. I’d urge all women to check their breasts regularly
My course of chemotherapy started on August 21 with the first of six two-hour infusions at Southampton General Hospital. Even though the lump reduced by half after the first treatment, I knew my breast would have to come off because as well as the lump there were other specks that would eventually turn into tumours.
After the third chemo treatment, massive chunks of my hair started to come out so I announced, ‘Right, kids, I’m going to cut my hair off.’ I put it into a plait and snipped it off – then Dowayne and Rosario shaved my head.
Cancer is such a scary word and the children were so little so I told them I was taking some drugs at the hospital that meant I wouldn’t be jumping around with them as usual for a while.
Once my chemotherapy had finished I focused on the next step – a mastectomy in January 2015 with a reconstruction at the same time.
I chose a procedure where the breast is hollowed out and an implant is inserted.
As I went under the anaesthetic I sang Old MacDonald Had A Farm and the next thing I knew the consultant was waking me up. He said the op had gone really well. I just wanted to get home and get life back to normal.
And life did get back to normal. I went back to the gym and lost the weight I’d gained from taking steroids. My goal was to enter a bodybuilding contest before my 40th birthday.
Out of the blue one day Rosario asked me if I had breast cancer. The mums had been talking at the school gate.
1 of 14
‘I did have it,’ I told her confidently, ‘but the good thing is I don’t have it any more. It was all cut out of me.’
Then one day my tongue swelled up and I started shaking. It was as if I was back in the moment when I had cancer. I talked to a counsellor who told me it was post-traumatic stress disorder. I hadn’t realised that cancer would leave me with such anxiety.
I had annual mammograms and despite thinking my right breast was safe because it was an implant I asked the staff to check it.
‘There’s no need,’ the mammographer told me. ‘You have an implant and as there’s no breast tissue there we can’t do a mammogram.’
I suggested an ultrasound, adding, ‘There’s no point having my breasts checked if you don’t check the one that had cancer in it.’
Eventually they did an ultrasound and to my relief everything was fine.
Then in February this year I was with Dowayne on the sofa when I felt a shooting pain in my right breast. The pain kept coming every 30 seconds. As I held it to try and ease it, to my horror I felt a lump. For a moment I didn’t say anything. Then I told Dowayne.
He reassured me it was probably scar tissue but I cried. ‘This can’t happen to me again,’
I sobbed. ‘I can’t do this all over again.’
The next day I rang the breast-cancer nurse. She agreed it was probably scar tissue but a few days later I went to hospital for a needle biopsy.
Although I was told there was no cancer in the biopsy I wanted to know what the 18mm (½in) lump was if not cancer – and so did my surgeon.
A month later, under general anaesthetic, I had the lump removed. It turned out it was cancer.
Helena has now finished my chemo and is happier than ever
‘I was so sure we’d got everything last time,’ my consultant told me. ‘It can come back like this but it’s a very small percentage.’
I had to go back into hospital for more surgery to make sure they’d got all the cancer out again. Afterwards I couldn’t raise my arms to reach my son Dowayne’s high bed to kiss him goodnight.
‘I’ve injured myself at the gym,’ I said.
‘Don’t lie,’ Dowayne told me.
And then it all came out.
‘I had cancer and most of it was taken out. But a little bit ran away and hid and it snuck back and grew again but that’s also gone now.’ Dowayne sat on my lap and cried for an hour.
Then Rosario asked why Dowayne was crying, so I told her. She took it hard. ‘Are you going to die?’ she asked every night before bed. ‘Will I get breast cancer?’ I did my best to reassure her.
When I had my second round of chemotherapy I explained to the children that chemo is like bleach. It makes sure everything is clean and cancer free.
I’ve now finished my chemo and I’m busy working. We’re saving up for a big family holiday next year. Dowayne and I are stronger than ever.
When you go through something like this as a couple you realise how petty everyday arguments are.
Cancer taught me to listen to my body and get any worries checked. I’d urge all women to check their breasts regularly even if they have a reconstruction. Insist on the checks.
I thought I couldn’t get cancer once – and I got it twice.”