Shauna Lawson (35), who is in the middle of her breast cancer journey, lives in Lisburn with her two sons, Brandon (15) and Cameron (12).
Shauna has joined the Cancer Focus NI campaign urging women to become more aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer – and thinks that a support service for younger women is an excellent idea.
She shares her breast cancer story:
“I had breast implants put in with the NHS 10 years ago and was wondering if I needed them replaced so I visited my GP back in September 2019.
He referred me onto the breast clinic in Belfast City Hospital for a routine check-up. The doctor at the City advised me to check regularly for any changes due to the type of implant that was given to me back in 2009. I had textured implants that are linked to the lymphoma BIA ALCL (breast implant associated lymphoma).
That came as a total shock and after a quick examination I was sent home with some information on what to look out for. When I lay down, I could feel lumps around the nipple. When I searched on Google it came up as a number of harmless scenarios and so I didn’t worry too much.
As the months passed I could see a clear change where the lump was found under the nipple, the lump pulled the skin and an indentation appeared. I knew something was wrong when I read up again on the signs of breast cancer and made an appointment with my local GP who confirmed the changes and referred me to the City hospital breast clinic.
When I got my referral last February I was in my final year at Queen’s University where I was studying for a BA in film studies. When I first applied to Queen’s in 2017, I was living in a family homeless hostel in Belfast. I’d just moved into a beautiful home in Lisburn, where I could create a little bit of heaven for my boys, cat and crazy puppy, when the sky fell in.
Examination and testing
The doctor at the City carried out his examination and started drawing circles, like four of them! What the hell, I thought, ‘four’? The doctor explained that this would help locate the lumps for the ultra sound and these were probably a cluster of cysts.
It was confirmed on the ultra sound, I could see them right there on the screen and so far nothing to worry about. I was just going to have a fine needle aspiration test – but what a nightmare that was, through the nipple with no anaesthetic. Worst pain in my life! Then I had a biopsy, the nurse assured me they could numb me this time. I didn’t feel a thing, phew!
Back to the doctor for my provisional result and what a relief, they believed it was benign, although the doctor did say, “Now I don’t want to give you a false sense of security”. The print on the slide hadn’t shown cancer cells under the microscope in the clinic that day. I was to come back in one week’s time for the pathology result. Feeling emotional and relieved I made my way home on the train. Stitched and bruised I thought the worst was over.
Everything was different
The doctor said I was welcome to bring someone with me to have the results the following week, but why would I? Sure it’s not a big deal, I’ll be grand, so I messaged my sister Lisa that it looked benign and so far as I could tell, everything was well.
When the next appointment came around, I believed I’d be home in an hour or so, but from the moment I reached reception everything was different. The doctor and nurse entered the room, the nurse sitting close to me, and when the doctor began from the beginning I knew.
I’ve never smoked, taken drugs or been much of a drinker, yet here I was at 35, single with two kids, and had just been diagnosed with Invasive Lobular cancer in the breast.
The word cancer didn’t register well, “So…. your saying I have breast cancer? Like full blown breast cancer?” I asked. “Yes, Shauna, you have cancer.” The nurse held my hand. I burst into tears, how was I going to tell the boys? They worry so much!
I wondered, why didn’t I do all the fun stuff if I was going to get cancer anyway? Really, though, I don’t regret the way I lived my life at all. We all believe we could have done better, but actually we do the best we possibly can do at the time.
I wasn’t prepared at all for a cancer diagnosis, but then who is, and found myself faced suddenly with my own mortality with four tumours sucking the life out of me. I had permission to slow down but juggling work, single parent life and full-time education certainly was not without a struggle. Then I thought, right so, I’ll get this over with so I can get on with my life.
The care that follows a cancer diagnosis really is amazing, I’ve been assigned my own cancer nurse, and she’s only a call away for any referrals, questions or cancer related issues. The lymph node was clear, but now I knew that things can change quickly and I needed an MRI to reveal where exactly the cancer was and from there we could plan the surgery. I was to have a mastectomy, reconstruction and hormone therapy for five years as I tested oestrogen receptor positive.
The difficult part about all this was that I had to wait, that was the worst part. I have grade 2 cancer in terms of growth but wouldn’t know the stage until the MRI result. Now I don’t know if it’s the cancer or the stress of it but I got my figure back, so that’s an advantage to cancer I guess. The best part, though, was the out-pouring of love and support from friends and people I’ve never met on social media, the world seems like a better place now.
Then, in March, the pandemic struck. The waiting for news was overwhelming. The coronavirus impacted the NHS with treatment and surgeries postponed. This became apparent when I arrived at the breast clinic at Belfast City Hospital to meet my doctor. He explained they were waiting for Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s announcement, one which meant the surgery would likely have to wait three months. Tamoxifen would be given in this period waiting, to try and prevent further growth. So… ok this threw a spanner in the works for me, and when I say works, I mean the working of my brain. The impact of a cancer diagnosis on your mental health is something else, it’s a roundabout of emotions. I mean I was hanging in there.
My head professor in the university urged me to suspend my studies but I was too close to the finish line, and then the university closed due to the pandemic and we are all online.
I was waiting and waiting to find out what had been decided for me, I rang and pleaded to be taken. I just didn’t know how to get through the next three months with the worry of the cancer spreading to my lymph nodes. But I have been reassured that the tamoxifen would help.
I was just one person in an ocean waiting for word about treatment/surgery and it was so much worse for those who could not get an ICU bed in an emergency. I could only hope we’d all get through this and come out the other side.
The cancer nurse assured me my cancer at grade two would be ok for three months but that they would have a meeting with the team and let me know their decision. Knowing this surgery really could prevent further spread meant waiting could potentially slim my chances of recovery. The struggle to shake off the negative thoughts became real, faith and hope became my focus. If I had to wait, then I wasn’t going to waste precious life on fear.
On Monday, March 23, the call came – surgery was to go ahead the next day. I can’t even tell you the relief I felt, finally my journey could begin and I could have the best chance possible.
Breast cancer surgery
The next day I arrived at admissions. It was eerie, unlike any hospital I’ve been in before. Two metre distancing was in place. No contact between patients and staff where possible. I was asked if I felt well and thank God I did, so surgery could go ahead, my spirits were up and I met a fellow patient, Imelda, who was under the same surgeon as myself. We shared jokes and our diagnoses, the laughs we had waiting to be taken into the surgery were a welcome distraction.
I was to have a mastectomy of the left breast losing the left nipple. The nipple would be reconstructed at a later date. I had no idea what the process was, so there I was being led to have radio-active dye injected into my arm to dye the lymph nodes in order for the surgeon to detect them and have two surgically removed.
Everyone I came into contact with was so lovely. I was led in to the surgical room with familiar faces around while a ‘gin and tonic’ was administered to calm me down so I could walk into the surgical bed. It was the last thing I remembered before I woke up drowsy.
Back on the ward, a 24-hour pain blocker was put directly into my nerve and I was given pain relief via IV so I was comfortable. I was to be discharged after one-night stay with my drain attached which was removed with my dressing one week later. There was a moment in front of the mirror when I saw myself for the first time and it hit me, I lost the nipple and although I knew what to expect, it still came as a bit of a shock.
I left my family home in Derry at 16 so have been very independent, I’ve always had to find a way to cope and get on with things. When I got out of hospital, the pandemic certainly made it more difficult for visitors, so I only had one, my sister Lisa, before and after my surgery.
Lisa stayed to help with the boys and my pets for over a week once my drain was removed, though I couldn’t wait to get back on my feet and feel able again. Everyone’s support network looks different and so having a support group for women, like the one Cancer Focus NI is planning, may be a lifeline, you just don’t know.
Now, I’m trying to be as careful as I can and so wear a mask out shopping, use antibacterial gel constantly and maintain social distancing. When I wasn’t able to lift much my boys Brandon and Cameron helped out around the house and with chores, they are great company too.
I’d urge women to get any changes checked by a doctor, have the necessary biopsies and don’t wait around a few months like I did. When they removed my lymph nodes one was found with microscopic cancer cells, so it was just about to grow and could have spread throughout my system. The mastectomy has given me a much better prognosis.
Even after you’re given a prognosis, you are told that it could change, the experts cannot predict how cancer will respond and so it’s a constant reminder how the importance of regular self-checks can save your life. Having a support group where young women can meet up (on line as long as we have COVID), chat, have laughs and connect on a level could give the women a better outlook, relieve some stress and give them comfort.
Meeting my new friend Imelda in the cancer clinic really was a light in all the uncertainty, we laughed waiting in our hospital gowns sitting in our beds, a much-needed distraction that lifted my spirit and morale. It made me realise how important it is to have people to reach out to. Cancer doesn’t look the same for everyone; we might have a different prognosis and many factors come into play, but the level of uncertainty and fear can become an unspoken dread that other cancer patients can relate to.
Fertility and relationships
At one point, I was asked if I wanted more children or if I was trying to have children because the medication the doctor prescribed, Tamoxifen, can affect your fertility and should not be taken while pregnant. This is medication you can be prescribed for five to ten years so it’s something younger women have to consider long term.
I’ve been busy with full time study, working and full time parenting for years and always did mean to date eventually. Since the mastectomy, I will have to focus on positive body image and have more reconstructive surgery. I’m left looking different to how I was pre cancer and know young women with a breast cancer experience that have sexual relationships or would like to in the future may have reservations in doing so.
Women coming together to discuss their issues may give them an insight into possibilities and a much more positive outlook for their life. Coming to terms with the scars is a process, but so is the transformation period. Due to COVID and the stress on our NHS my reconstructive surgery will take a lot longer. I’m working out regularly and I’m feeling good about how I look because I’ve made more time for myself since surgery and I know how I look now is not the end result.
Getting on with life
I managed to finish the final year of my degree and graduated in July with a 2:1. I’m continuing my studies in September for a Masters in Cultural Heritage and Museum studies, which will be online for the first semester. My studies keep me focused on the future and having a goal to work towards gives me a better outlook on the whole experience. I’ve been doing well since my operation, keeping busy at home, updating my blog cancercraic.com and messing about creatively when I can. I’m also with Premier Artists NI.
I’ve been told there’s an 87% chance I’ll never be affected by breast cancer again but I will always be vigilant and do checks regularly.”