Rachel (middle) with her sister Thekla (left) and her mum (right).
Every experience of cancer is different, and that includes the impact it has on a family. But one thing remains consistent – the NHS staff who help diagnose and treat patients in their darkest hours.
Rachel, from East Sussex, shares how her sister Thekla’s breast cancer diagnosis has affected the family so far.
“I was with my sister the day before she got her lump tested. I remember reassuring her, saying that I’ve had a lump in my armpit before and it turned out to be nothing.
“The next day she went to the doctor and had it tested. She had to wait one week from her biopsy to her diagnosis. It felt so long.
“When it turned out to be cancer, it came as a complete shock. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever been told.
“She had just had her second child who was less than a year old. Her tumour was 11 and half centimetres long but was hard to detect as she’d been breast feeding.”
‘The colour was drained from my world’
Thekla was diagnosed with breast cancer in April this year, at the age of 40. The surgeon who diagnosed Thekla explained that she’d probably had the tumour for about a year, and it was likely to have spread, but that they wouldn’t be sure until she had an MRI scan.
“Those were the darkest days. The colour was drained from my world.”
Sadly, this wasn’t Rachel’s first experience of cancer. Her mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer through routine breast screening in 2015. Fortunately, the cancer was spotted at a very early stage and hadn’t spread.
“Although I felt concerned with my mum, I knew there was a treatment plan for her and that she’d get out the other side. Her breast cancer nurse specialist had reassured her it was caught at a very early stage. With my sister, there was so much uncertainty about how bad it was. I thought I was going to lose her. She’s so young, it seemed so unfair.
“I remember just waiting for news all the time. How bad was it? Has it spread? When was treatment starting?”
Thekla describes the 2 weeks between diagnosis and results of MRI as the darkest, most frightening of time of her life, feeling utterly numb to the news. Thankfully, when Thekla’s scan results came back, it was discovered that the cancer hadn’t spread.
“When we got her results back, I wanted treatment to start immediately, I was so worried about it spreading. It was a horrible time,’’ Rachel says.
‘My sister’s life will be changed forever’
Thekla started chemotherapy a couple weeks after her first scan, all within the targets set for NHS departments. But any moment of pause weighs heavy for the family.
“She felt tired and sick and couldn’t work. It was difficult for her to look after her two young children,” says Rachel.
After a few more sessions of chemotherapy, they found that the treatment wasn’t shrinking the cancer as they’d hoped. Thekla has now started hormone therapy, which blocks or lowers the levels of hormone molecules in the body to try and stop or slow down cancer growth. Fortunately, the treatment has started to take effect.
“It’s been a terrifying experience, but now we have more hope, and my sister is feeling more positive.
“I’m glad the NHS treated her like a person and not just a statistic. I felt like they were fighting for her so that made me a bit relieved. I know it must be an incredibly hard job and they’ve made such a difference. Their professionalism and little acts of kindness go a long way.
“She still has a long way to go. My sister’s life will be changed forever. But Thekla will take any consequences of treatment if it means she gets another day with her children.’’
Kirsten Rhodes is a campaigning officer at Cancer Research UK
Have your say
The weeks from Thekla’s diagnosis to starting her treatment were the darkest time for her and her family. Thanks to the incredible work of the NHS staff, Thekla is feeling more positive about the future. But it’s getting tougher for NHS staff to diagnose cancers quickly and care for their patients due to staff shortages.
- Write to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, and tell him to train and employ more NHS staff to help families like Rachel’s in their time of need.
We would like to thank Rachel and her family for sharing their story and helping raise awareness about the impact of cancer on their family. If you’ve been affected and need to talk to someone, you can call our nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 or contact them via this online form.