Breast cancer: an unexpected journey

A few weeks ago I found a lump on my breast that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I knew what the description of a potentially cancerous lump was, and I was immediately worried. My GP referred me to the breast clinic where an ultrasound suggested the lump was irregular, and biopsies were taken there and then. The doctors told me that they unfortunately couldn’t say that it was benign, but also that because I was young it was unlikely to be cancer. Some fairly detailed research of my own, however, plus what I can only describe as gut instinct, meant that I decided to expect the worst, despite breast cancer incidence in women of my age (31) being very low.

I had fieldwork in Iceland planned during the two week wait for the biopsy results, and although concerned about getting the results while away from home, I decided not to give up the opportunity for some quality glacier time. My colleagues were fantastic and the trip fun and successful with some exciting new samples collected for my research. A phone call near the end of the trip to say I needed to go back for the results the following week, rather than receiving the results by letter, hinted further that perhaps I should expect the worst. I stayed strong, and enjoyed the spectacles of Iceland knowing that this  period of fieldwork in a stunning setting might just help to keep me sane and give me some nice images to look back on in the coming weeks.


Having returning from Iceland the wait for results reached “peak stress” last weekend; I just wanted an answer one way or another. My partner and I both tried to stay positive on the outside, but I think we both knew deep down what the outcome of the follow-up appointment would be. Sure enough, earlier this week I was told by a rather surprised consultant that I have breast cancer. Looking at the data below from Cancer Research UK I can understand her surprise, with so few breast cancers occurring in the 30-34 age bracket. Now I’m preparing myself for surgery in a couple of weeks, followed by radiotherapy and further treatment (as yet unknown).


So why am I writing this post, aside from as a cathartic exercise? I’m writing it because getting this news made me realise that I am a massive workaholic and that now is as good a time as ever to review my work-life balance. The programme of treatment and recovery ahead means I can no longer commit to finishing a large funding application that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into over recent months. Rather than the worry of cancer treatment being at the forefront of my mind in the hours after diagnosis, I worried more about not getting my proposal submitted, letting other people down, whether or not I would be able to be as productive with paper writing as I’d hoped over the coming months, and how it would impact upon my teaching. To put this into a broader perspective, I’m currently on the first proper period of annual leave I’ve taken in a long time, and had initially decided to dedicate my first week of holiday to finishing my funding application. Supportive discussion with colleagues has made me realise (albeit stubbornly) that work really need not be a priority over the next few weeks/months, and that my now shortened holiday pre-surgery would be better spent climbing, socialising, and writing about things other than work! In time I know that my research will come to be very important again to keep me sane during my recovery, but if one good thing comes out of this unexpected bump in the road, it’s the recognition that I’m already doing enough in my career, and that prioritising myself and my personal life apparently won’t lead to disaster!

A coveted climbing trip to the Lake District next week has unfortunately had to be cancelled in place of hospital appointments, but my wonderfully supportive partner and I plan to make the most of the beautiful South West over the next two weeks instead, exploring more of the climbing on our doorstep. I fully plan to keep climbing for as long as I can before treatment starts, and I’ll be back on it again as soon as my body allows! Sport keeps me happy and healthy during other periods of stress, and I will sorely miss the physicality of climbing, and the lovely people I climb with, over the next few months. I’m lucky to have a very close family, awesome friends, and a group of colleagues (friends) who have already helped to alleviate so much of the stress I was feeling about letting work go for a while.

The only thing left to say for now is that checking your breasts regularly is so incredibly important. Screening doesn’t start until at least age 47 in the UK, so for younger people the most likely way to discover cancer is by knowing what feels normal for you. If you don’t know how to do this, please take the time to read this guide from Breast Cancer Care. I was lucky enough to catch it at a relatively early stage, and I’m sure I’ll be right as rain and back to obsessing about glaciers in no time!


18th July 2018

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