‘I thought it was a swollen sweat gland’
A few days before her routine check-up mammogram last October, Paula* was lying in bed ready to sleep when she discovered a lump on her left underarm.
“At first I thought it was a swollen sweat gland – it happens sometimes – but deep down I noted that it was strange that I didn’t have one on the other side,” she said.
The 54-year-old mother of four went for her appointment at a private clinic and told the radiographer about the lump. With the image in hand, the consultant immediately ordered that a biopsy sample be taken from the lump. However, Paula had to wait 10 days for the results to arrive.
“The waiting killed me. I went into the bedroom and sat down when I called. They told me ‘unfortunately there is something malignant’,” she said.
Shocked and scared, Paula started a whirlwind of follow-up tests, including a CT-scan and biopsies, until a few days later she was told that the lump was cancerous, classified as a Grade 3, and she had three dark spots in her left breast.
She was referred to Mater Dei Hospital’s breast clinic and the team of consultants, specialists, and nurses decided the best way forward was to start with eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed possibly by surgery.
The chemotherapy started on the Wednesday after Christmas Day – once a week every three weeks for around two hours.
“The first time I went I cried throughout – not for myself but because there are all these people who do this, sometimes every day, and nurses who help them, and I never knew,” she said.
Immediately after the first session, she went to buy a wig – something she insisted should be done from the start of the treatment. “They can match it with your hair when it hasn’t started falling out yet,” she said.
Her hair started falling out after the second session but she immediately cut it one inch short herself.
The second half of the chemotherapy sessions were stronger and tired her out. Once these were up, the oncologist said the best way forward was for her to undergo a reduction and reconstruction of both breasts and she was operated in July.
“I wasn’t in great pain after the operation – paracetamol were enough for me,” she said.
The medical team decided she had to have one last blast of radiotherapy – five days a week for three weeks. Then she was given the all clear.
“My case isn’t closed – it can never be closed. I always used to wonder whether I would make it to carnival or Easter but if I think about it, almost one year ago, I hadn’t even found the lump,” she said.
All throughout she tried to keep her spirits up – even for her family’s sake. “One can only go through such an experience in a positive way with the full support of everyone. I’m sure the Lord doesn’t give us more than we can carry,” she said.
Do things that “make you happy and meet people who make you unhappy,” Paula added.
Paula* is one of the many women directed to Mater Dei’s breast clinic once cancer is diagnosed.
While thanking all the medical teams, she emphasised the importance of self-examination, awareness and going for regular medical check-ups. “I have been going for the past six years and was always in the clear.”
Liz Vella, 41, one of the clinic’s three specialist nurses urged women to “be aware and self-examine”.
“Know the shape of your breast and the way it feels – make sure you are aware of its normal shape and how it changes during the month and check it once a month,” she said.
The nurses see the women at their most vulnerable and remain their point of contact all throughout the treatment.
“We are their advocates during the meetings with the medical staff where we discuss their treatment and the way forward,” Ms Vella said.
Risk of breast cancer increases with age and with an unhealthy lifestyle, while keeping fit and eating healthy food improves the statistics.
However, she had words of encouragement. “The earlier you detect the cancer, the better the treatment and a lot of women are surviving. Don’t be afraid if you notice something in your breast but go and have it checked out,” she said.
The free mammograms offered by the government’s breast screening service were “a gift” that women should use. “Few women have the response they don’t want – it’s just a 10-minute slot and you should use it,” she said.
*Names have been changed.
Since the launch of the national breast screening programme:
• 33,000 women have received an invitation to go for a mammogram.
• 19,000 accepted.
• 150 were diagnosed with breast cancer.
• The acceptance rate has increased to 70 per cent from 45 per cent.