Lauren Tedaldi, 33, from London, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the birth of her daughter in 2016.
“I found out that I had the BRCA1 gene just after I turned 30 in January 2015, I remember because it was just after Christmas. I was tested after my cousins received similar news. The increased risk of breast cancer that my genes carried wasn’t supposed to be too bad until after 35-40 years old. I didn’t start the BRCA1 breast screening programme because I found out that I was pregnant with our first child. It focussed my mind on positive things as I was feeling pretty desperate after I found out about my potential time bomb genes.
Nine months of a fairly normal pregnancy passed. The usual weird things happened when you grow a person in your belly – itchy feet and hands (there are tablets for that), indigestion from a baby squashing your stomach (there’s a drink for that), general need to pee at all times (there is nothing for that) and we had a bright-eyed baby girl in November 2015.
When she was six months old, as I was reducing the amount I was breastfeeding her, I noticed odd changes in my breasts. I should say, odd changes in your breasts is par for the course when you’re breast feeding but this was different. I found a lump that wasn’t like anything I’d had before, even in my lumpy, breast-feeding breasts. It felt like a life time but over the course of the next ten days or so I would go to my GP, be referred for a routine check, told ‘it’s probably nothing’ but biopsied to be sure, and then in June 2016, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.
It was a shock but I (more or less) kept it together. And then the surgeon told me I would have to completely stop breast feeding immediately. I burst in to tears. It’s hard to say why that broke me but it really did. it was the first real change we’d have to make. The first impact. Also, breast feeding isn’t easy and I’d pushed through the hard part of learning to do it, teaching a baby and getting past any social difficulties, to be in the easy part of just comfortable feeding in public whenever and wherever we needed. And that was over now. And it hurt.
I have (technically I should say ‘had’ but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe enough to use the past tense) triple negative breast cancer. This means that it’s not related to hormones, like most of the common breast cancers. It’s rarer, tends to be more aggressive (whatever that means) and has poorer survival statistics. It also has fewer drug treatments available.
After being diagnosed, we almost immediately went on a holiday that we had booked previously. We took the time to try and process the diagnosis and we told my parents. A horrendous task. Over two weeks we weaned my daughter off breast milk and on to bitter non-allergen milk (she is allergic to eggs and dairy) which was one of the worst experiences of the whole ordeal, I’ll be honest. People take months to get babies off the breast. Maybe even a year. I did it in two weeks so that I could have the injections, radio tracers and ultimately chemotherapy that would hopefully save my life.
We returned home, and I had two weeks of almost daily appointments – bone scans, body scans, kidney scans, CT scans, fertility checks, optional appointments, essential appointments, everything you can think of and things you never would.
I washed my long brown curls and took my first selfies, aware that I would soon look very different.
I underwent six months of chemotherapy that turned to eight as I couldn’t always recover quickly enough from the toxicity of my chemo. As my hair started to fall out, I cut my ever-thinning hair into a crop, went bald and started wearing an assortment of wigs – but mostly a blonde bob that allowed me to just be a different person.
I had nosebleeds that lasted for a month, bruises in unexplained places, blisters on my tongue and a constant hangover. It was a long hard slog and I looked after my daughter every day except for the days when I had chemo because you’re not allowed to have a dependant with you there. My husband supported me every inch of the way, but he also had to work and ensure we had some sort of stability.
Once chemotherapy finished on the 6thFebruary 2017, I had to decide on what kind of surgery I wanted. I could have no surgery (not advised as the tumour was reduced by the chemo but still there), a lumpectomy, a single mastectomy or a double mastectomy. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I decided to go for a double mastectomy with implant reconstruction under my chest muscle wall. I couldn’t use my own tissue because I don’t have enough excess body fat. I couldn’t have the ‘easier’ option of doing the reconstruction on top of my chest muscle (where the breast normally sits) because I was also going to need radiotherapy.
Five weeks after the chemotherapy I had my surgery, a little delayed due to a chest infection in the interim. Recovery was incredibly painful and incredibly slow. Daily exercises and streaming TV passed the days and 12 weeks later I started radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy was straightforward by all accounts and involved daily trips to the hospital for three weeks. Radiotherapy left me with a square suntan over one side but very little other side effects. There’s a long-term risk that the radiotherapy side will tighten up and create a ‘hardened’ breast compared to the other.
Things looked a bit more straightforward and I started going back to work in Summer 2017 (I’d left in Winter 2015 for maternity leave). Nearly at the end of a 12 week transition back to work I went on holidays for five days and things started to go very, very wrong.
Between taking off on a flight to Bulgaria and landing, a late surgical infection took hold inside my chest and I was woozy and in pain. A course of IV antibiotics on holidays (under regular contact with my UK surgeons) was hoped to take the edge off and clear the infection. Because the reconstruction doesn’t have a blood supply, infections can take hold very quickly and are very difficult to clear. I started to feel better but I still swollen and red. We got the flight home and planned to see my surgeons in the morning once we landed, but we never got that far.
My surgery ruptured on the flight home and this started a long, long (long) list of post surgical infections. Two were huge infections that involved my skin splitting under the pressure of the infection, the following three ‘just’ required hospitalisation. I’ve needed four more major surgeries than I had planned and my side is peppered with scars from the surgical drains I need after every surgery.
It’s been nine weeks since my last surgery on January 6th 2018, hopefully the final one. I’ve got a chest infection and it’s spread to the reconstruction site – the weakest part of my body. So far I haven’t been admitted to hospital and it’s just oral antibiotics and bed rest while we wait and see if my body can recover without splitting open and having to start again (again).
Dimbleby Cancer Care have been with me through many parts of my journey.
When I was having chemotherapy, they offered to give me a massage to soothe my aching body but it was really difficult to justify getting childcare just for me to have a massage when we were only resorting to it for chemo and major medical needs. So the charity – as they are located at Guy’s Cancer Centre, and truly understand the scheduling nightmare of cancer treatment – arranged for me to have my massages in the ‘gap’ between blood tests and chemo every third Friday. This simple rescheduling meant that it became feasible for me to take some time out just for me.
As I approached the end of radiotherapy, I started to fear the end of treatment and returning to work and the Real World. Dimbleby Cancer Care offered me counselling to help me find my place in the world again. It wasn’t a quick-fix-cure-all, not least because I kept getting readmitted with serious infections between counselling sessions, but it was wonderful to have someone to talk to, to be made to feel like it was ‘ok’ to not be ok.
I don’t really make plans for the future. Every time I do, something comes up that postpones the plans and breaks my heart. I’d like to be alive to see my daughter grow up. I’d like to make it on holiday this year.
I’ve not been well enough for long enough to take on any fundraising but my friends Emma and Ollie recently cycled the length of South America to raise money for the charity and another cancer charity on my behalf.
Just after I got diagnosed with cancer, I decided to start writing a blog on what’s been happening to me. It’s been a good way to keep people up to date with what’s happening to me, a good way for me to feel part of the outside world and, somedays, it just helps to do something.”
To follow Lauren’s blog, click here.