Louise McMilan, 51, from Weston-super-Mare, shares her story of being diagnosed with breast cancer while in a period of deep depression. Little did she know, it would provide her with the strength she needed to take back control of her life.
Putting myself through endless appointments, scans, operations, chemo and radiotherapy made me realise just how strong and resilient I am. After suffering from depression for decades, I finally allowed myself to be me.
My cancer came as a total shock. I had no history of breast cancer in my family, nor did I experience any of the common symptoms.
It was April 2017, I was 44 and in between jobs, when one morning, I noticed something odd. As I stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, I spotted a wet patch on the front of my pyjama top by my left breast. I didn’t give it a second’s thought.
Over the next few weeks, I noticed it happen a few more times, so I booked in with my GP. The timing was significant. I was job-hunting at home, so I finally had time to address the issue.
However, the previous year had been a different story. I had suffered from burn-out in autumn 2016 and, as a result, was struggling with anxiety and low self-esteem.
After suffering from depression for decades, I finally allowed myself to be me
That year, I was showing up each day for a job I loved in the HR department of a Bristol firm but I didn’t have a good life balance and I’d been neglecting myself, mentally and physically. Had these concerns about my breast discharge arisen back then, I probably would have ignored it. Honestly, cancer was far from my mind.
At my GP appointment in May, the doctor wasn’t concerned when she examined me, but she still referred me to Weston General Hospital to be on the safe side.
Again, at that next appointment, I was told there wasn’t a problem after a physical examination but they still suggested a mammogram. This all happened within two weeks, so I didn’t really have time to worry. I started a new job at the same time and focused on that.
Numb with shock
Two weeks after the mammogram, I also had an ultrasound. That was when things got more serious. I had a biopsy taken from my right breast — even though the nipple discharge had been from my left breast. I still wasn’t majorly concerned.
While at work a week later in early June, I got a call from the hospital asking if I could pop in. I drove straight there picking up my mum on the way. This was the first time I started to feel nervous.
My cancer came as a total shock. I had no family history of breast cancer and no common symptoms
When the consultant delivered the words, "We’ve found stage two cancer in your right breast," I stared back at her numb with shock. Then as both my mum and I cried, a MacMillan nurse talked us through the plans for a lumpectomy operation and treatment.
I hadn’t felt scared as I knew I was having expert care, but what I really wanted to ask about the operation was, "What happens if I don’t wake up?" I guess the fear had set in. Of course, I knew the answer to this question but I think I was trying to work out the chances so I could manage my fear. The relief was overwhelming when I did come round.
Despite what was happening, I didn’t slump into the dark places like before or spiral into anxiety in the middle of the night. I soldiered on with my life and work. It was like I was proving to myself I was still alive — cancer hadn’t got me.
The day before getting my results from the lumpectomy, I had a haircut. "This is the last time you’re going to cut my hair," I said to my hairdresser. I had a hunch that I would be told I needed chemotherapy.
I said the same to my mum in the waiting room on 5 July before heading into the consultant’s room. "But you’ve been so positive," she replied. Somehow, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.
When the consultant told me, 'We’ve found stage two cancer in your right breast,' I stared back at her numb with shock
It was a good job I’d prepared myself this way, because the results showed stage three breast cancer with a tumour of 45mm (not 25mm as first thought) and cancer in two of my lymph nodes. I didn’t actually cry because I felt ready for this news, whereas my poor mum was in floods of tears.
As if this wasn’t dramatic enough, a month later, after my first chemo I had really bad stomach pain and was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to have major emergency surgery — two days in intensive care and two weeks in hospital.
I had so much support during this time — from medical staff to my parents and lovely friends. I remember feeling overwhelmed by people’s kindness. It dawned on me that friends and family really cared for me. It provided me with a real sense of comfort and security.
A wake-up call
I finished my chemo on 21 December and started a four-week course of radiotherapy on 23 January, 2018. I stayed off work until April to help my body recover from all the treatment, have check-ups and take stock of what I’d been through.
I believe in the universe and things happening for a reason — I believe cancer was sent to me. I was stoic but just surviving before — I’d show up for work, I looked the part, but mentally I was unwell. When I was told I had cancer, I was faced with the realisation that I didn't want to die. It was like a wake-up call. I knew for years that I needed to change the way I lived, but this forced me to do so.
When you have an illness like cancer, there’s a network of medical support for you and a detailed, tailored treatment plan as well as awareness, so the people around you can help. For me, it wasn't the same as dealing with depression, although in fact there would have been the right support out there if I'd asked.
For me, I just thought, 'How do I explain my feelings to someone when I can't understand what’s going on in my own head?' I wasn't sure if anyone would know how to help me, but have since realised I was wrong.
I manage my mental health better now, so that it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying life any more
A new approach to life
I’m now five years' clear and went to my final annual routine mammogram earlier this year — now I'm on the routine three-yearly checks like everyone else over 50. On the one hand, it makes me believe I'm moving forwards, but on the other hand, it reminds me that I need to be more vigilant with my checks now I'm not getting seen so regularly. After all, my original diagnosis took a while to spot, even by the experts.
I manage my mental health much better now, so that it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying life any more. My career as a self-development coach is on the up — I help others live the life they want to live and share my story with other people. I also support women who may have been recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I have a good work/life balance now. I have my coping tools to nourish and ground me — like eating well, walking in the park and having guilt-free 'me-time' days when I feel like I need one.
Some days, I forget I even had cancer – to look at me with my long, blonde hair, you'd never know. But I do get reminders like when a hospital appointment crops up or I catch sight of my scar in the mirror.
I recently revisited my local Girl Guides group which I used to run, but quit 10 years ago due to my mental health. I credit the organisation for giving me the confidence to rejoin and find the fun in the community again. We're going on a camp next year and I can't wait.
Having cancer saved me from a continuous spiral of being in and out of depression – I finally found me.
If you’re looking for support through cancer or want to find out how to help others, go to MacMillan Cancer Support.