Lisa and her husband Rob
To mark the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, one woman shares her story Lisa Charran, 36, lives in St Albans with her partner Rob. She works in advertising. Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2013. After a double mastectomy and successful treatment, she is proud to be modelling in Breast Cancer Care's annual fashion show in London...
After my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time a couple of years ago, she was tested for the BRCA1 gene, and found to be a carrier. My sister Lea and I were then tested, too. Within a week of one another, we learned that I had inherited the gene, but Lea hadn't.
So what did this mean? The genetics specialist explained I had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 65 per cent risk of ovarian cancer, at some point. But because I was still relatively young, the immediate risk was still considered to be very low. I was only in my mid-thirties. Rob and I didn't yet have children. So I decided to wait a couple of years before having preventative surgery. I would just be extra-vigilant and go for annual screening in the meantime. Meanwhile, Mum's cancer was successfully treated. She also underwent a double mastectomy and had her ovaries removed.
'I had to lose my breasts or they would kill me'
A year later, I found a lump in my right breast. My GP thought it was probably a cyst, but referred me to the breast clinic the following week. A mammogram revealed three lumps and I was given a biopsy there and then. I had to wait a couple of days for the results, but I think it was already pretty clear what it was. Rob and I went home in a daze. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, so we went for a walk. None of it seemed real. I was only a couple of weeks into a new job. This couldn't be happening now.
After I was given the firm diagnosis, life became a whirlwind of medical appointments - consultations, scans, tests and more tests. Lots of decisions had to be made quickly. But it became clear that I was about to lose my breasts. It was devastating - but what choice did I have? If I didn't have them removed, they were going to kill me.
'I couldn't lift my arms to brush my teeth'
I've always been a just-get-on-with-it kind of person. So I opted to undergo the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in one go. It meant 10 hours on an operating table - while poor Rob waited anxiously on the ward. The doctors were very impressed with the speed of my recovery. I was prescribed strong painkillers, but didn't need to take them. After five days, I was allowed home. The first couple of weeks were particularly hard. I couldn't lift my arms so Rob had to help me dress and brush my teeth.
Before the next stage of my treatment, Rob and I decided to have one cycle of intense IVF. I was pumped with hormones, which I found really difficult. I've never suffered with PMT or anything like that before, but now I fully sympathise with anyone who does. We managed to harvest 11 embryos, which were then frozen while my cancer journey continued.
'I've never seen myself without hair'
Next came six sessions of chemotherapy. Like many women, the side effect I dreaded most was losing my hair. We decided to splash out on a real hair wig from a company called True You. They match the wig to your own hair. After my first session, they shaved my hair and fitted the wig. I have to go back every few weeks to have it re-glued, but they always hide the mirrors so I've never seen what I look like without hair. Rob's taken photographs and tells me I'm just as beautiful, but I'm still not ready to face it.
So what was chemo like? Of course, everybody suffers different side effects - and some people's may be worse than others. You think about losing the hair from your head - but I lost my eyelashes, too, which meant my eyes watered all the time. And yet the hairs on my legs kept growing as usual. I still had to shave them every day! How unfair is that?
A friend who'd had cancer also advised me to avoid my favourite foods while I was having chemotherapy. It messes with your tastebuds so people often associate the food they ate at the time with chemo, even years afterwards. She was right. We even had to change our brand of toothpaste after treatment finished. I'm so pleased I took my friend's advice and avoided Thai food - my favourite - so I could still enjoy it later on.
Lisa and husband Rob after her illness
'Cancer makes you realise who you can rely on'
I tended to have one bad week following chemo then a good week before the next session. And we always made sure we had something to look forward to in that good week - a cinema, theatre or restaurant outing, for example. Half the battle is staying positive. A lot of people commented on how well I was coping, but I still had some very dark days. When that happened, I didn't even have the energy to watch TV or read. I'd just sit in bed, staring out of the window. But then I'd tell myself: tomorrow is going to be a better day.
My friends and family were amazing. When you go through cancer, you realise who you can rely on. Some of my friends clubbed together to pay for six reflexology sessions, which really helped me to cope with the side effects. And Rob bought me a beautiful charm bracelet. Each time, I'd made it through a chemo session, he'd buy me another charm to go on it. Sometimes, we didn't even make it out of the hospital car park before I'd start asking where my new charm was!
'Cancer can be a lone journey'
Despite the huge support I received from everyone around me, cancer can be quite a lone journey. And that's why the Breast Cancer Care online forums are so great. It was just such a help to be able to communicate with other people who were going through - or had been through - the same experience. I never realised cancer would steal my sleep, for example. But I'd tiptoe downstairs and open up the laptop at 4am - and there'd be someone like me already there, waiting to chat.
A few weeks after my chemotherapy finished, I had five weeks of daily radiotherapy. When you're going through these things, it's all-consuming. But then you come out the other side - and some of the memories start to fade. In March, I called my company to tell them I'd got the all-clear to go back to work. They told me to take a few weeks off to rest up and come back in May - so that's what I did. They've been amazingly supportive throughout.
'I just want to get on with my life'
Has cancer changed me? I'm definitely stronger than I used to be. I don't get stressed about little things any more. If the kitchen sink's full of washing-up, so what? And I don't get stressed at work. I just try to look for solutions and manage people's expectations. But my confidence took a real beating while I had cancer. And that's why I was so thrilled to be chosen to model in Breast Cancer Care's annual fashion show - where all 24 models, including two men, have had a diagnosis of breast cancer. I knew it would take me out of my comfort zone, but would also give me a real boost. I've bought tickets for 30 friends, relatives and colleagues who've helped me. Rob and I are also making sure we have plenty more things to look forward to. We've booked a holiday to Thailand - so I can't wait for the food, in particular! I just want to get on with my life and enjoy it.
* Lisa never thought her breast cancer diagnosis would result in her modelling on a catwalk. For more unexpected hidden effects of breast cancer, visit breastcancercare.org.uk/hiddeneffects