‘After breast cancer killed mum I knew Id get it – I dont want to suffer like she did’

Property expert and TV presenter Sarah Beeny, 50, was diagnosed with cancer in August after finding a lump in her breast and has now started chemotherapy. Her mother passed away from the disease when Sarah was just 10 years old. Janis Deville-Hallam, 59, from Weston-super-Mare, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. She says she knows exactly how Sarah feels having the same disease that killed her own mum. Here Janis shares her story…

"The first thought that entered my head when I was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 55 was, 'Oh no – I’m going to suffer in the same way that Mum did.'

So when Sarah Beeny revealed that she ‘knew’ she would one day get breast cancer like her own mother had, I knew exactly how the TV star felt. It can feel like a death sentence waiting to spring itself upon you.

My mum, Eileen, was a similar age to me when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, back in 1984. She had a lump, but it was growing inwards and so wasn’t picked up until she had a routine mammogram.

She had a partial mastectomy and radiotherapy, and for years, we thought she’d beaten the disease. But after her sisters developed it, she started to worry that we might have the BRCA gene, which impacts the likelihood of developing breast cancer.

The truth is, our family is riddled with it. Mum was one of six sisters, and four of them have developed the disease in midlife. My aunt Shirley was 45 when she was first diagnosed, and at 61 she died of secondary breast cancer that had spread pretty much everywhere in her body.

Mum went to Bristol hospital to be tested for the gene, and it was a relief when it came back negative. However, we’ve been told that even though we don’t have the BRCA gene, the likelihood is we do have a gene, which is not one that has been discovered yet or can be tested for.

Breast cancer is a sword that hangs over all our heads. Mum was terrified that what had happened to her sisters would happen to her, and that her cancer would come back.

As she got older, she started to suffer from aches and pains. She had osteoarthritis and had both knees replaced, and was in a lot of pain with her hip. But when she went into hospital to have a scan and a steroid injection, doctors delivered the bad news: the likelihood was she had secondary breast cancer in her bones.

On New Year’s Eve 2012, it was confirmed. But not only that: her lymph nodes were also riddled. It had been festering inside her for more than 25 years. Having watched her sister die, she was heartbroken knowing she might suffer the same fate.

Mum survived for another two years, but at the end she was a shadow of her former self. She was so proud and would always keep going if she could, but in the end she was bed-bound and in so much pain. Doctors told us she wouldn’t make it until Christmas Day so we had a family celebration two weeks before Christmas with some of her siblings, nieces, my daughter and grandson, and my now-husband Bob.

After that she went downhill and the pain got really bad. I’d help her wash and I know she hated it as she was so proud. It was so heartbreaking to watch her suffer, and in the end she died on 20 December.

Because of her and our family history, I’ve always been really careful about checking my breasts. I couldn’t help being worried for my future and was extra vigilant as I’ve always been prone to benign fatty lumps in my breasts. For a while in my twenties I had annual mammograms and they started again when I was around 48.

In 2018, I had just come back from a holiday with Bob and noticed a tiny pea-sized lump on the top of my left breast. I’ve got a wonderful GP and straight away she referred me to the hospital. I had a mammogram and then they did a biopsy on the lump.

Two weeks later, the surgeon confirmed I had stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. I couldn’t believe history was repeating itself. I had flashbacks to what Mum had gone through: I’d been with her every day while she had her treatment for secondary breast cancer, so I knew what it was like. I couldn’t help thinking, 'Is that going to be me, with my daughter looking after me?' You question how long you’ve got left.

It was a relief when I had a lumpectomy on 15 August, when they also took out one lymph node that the cancer had spread to. A month later I had the rest of the lymph nodes in that breast removed. Once I’d recovered from the op I started on a course of chemotherapy, which was followed up with radiotherapy for three weeks. I’m now on the hormone treatment Anastrozole to keep it at bay.

My body coped with the chemotherapy OK – I wasn’t too sick and would go shopping afterwards. Like my mum, I kept calm and carried on and tried to keep things as normal as possible for my children and grandchildren. I’d never cry in front of them, but sometimes I’d go into the bathroom, put the lid of the loo down and sit and weep. Then I’d splash my face with water and go out and carry on as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t want them worrying about me. After Mum died, I felt as if I had to take over her role in the family, that I needed to be strong for everyone else.

Now, although I have other health conditions such as fibromyalgia, it’s a good feeling to be cancer-free. After all the stress of the pandemic, I was overjoyed to get married to Bob in the middle of September. We had a wonderful day surrounded by family and friends and went on honeymoon to Cornwall.

As for what the future holds, I know that medicine is improving all the time. The days are gone when doctors could say things like, 'Women don’t get breast cancer over the age of 70,' like someone said to my mum.

I keep checking myself, and my mantra is, ‘First of the month, check for lumps and bumps.’

But of course, I worry for my daughter, Joanna. A gene might possibly be there, and if I have had it and my mum and her sisters have, then there is a strong chance my daughter might develop breast cancer too.

I’ve spoken to her about it and she’s said to me, 'Of course I’m concerned, Mum. When someone in the family’s had it, that’s close, like both you and my grandma, I’m going to worry.'

However, just like Sarah Beeny who insists, 'There’s no chance this won’t be OK,' all we can do is remain positive, be vigilant, and hope that somewhere along the line, research scientists discover the gene that’s caused our family to suffer so much."

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