Breast Cancer at 29 – REALLY?! Chapter 2
So how did all this cancer nonsense begin? Well, in typical Gemma style, it wasn’t as simple as all that, since everything else in my life got going at around the same time.
The story of how Andy and I came to be engaged is relevant to this. One evening in November 2012, when my parents were babysitting Mollie, who was 7 months old at the time, we went out for a drink to the Bedford Arms with some friends. After discussing how nice it had been to go to my younger sister’s wedding a couple of weeks prior, the topic turned to marriage and we became unceremoniously engaged. Indeed, I had to ask him after he suggested it! The following week I went out to buy an engagement ring and hey presto – we were engaged. We were going to leave it a while, but a conversation with a friend, combined with a discussion about wanting a very elderly relative to attend led us to set a date for 27th September 2013.
Thus began 10 months of planning a church wedding. 70 guests, working my arse off (I was contracting) to raise the money to pay for it all, booking venues, church, designing centrepieces, stationery and helping my mother to design and build all the dresses from scratch. Thinking back on it all it feels like the stuff of nightmares. In the January the diet and exercise regime was cranked up a notch when I started to picture myself, a whale in a wedding dress. With bad payers and needing to reduce my reliance on a single client, I stopped contracting and took a permanent job at Capgemini, working on Salesforce with some fantastic people at NOW TV before I hit the bench in the summer time.
By then it was all systems go on wedding plans; I was pretty much obsessed with it, kept imagining it, thinking about how it was going to be, how everything would look etc. I had plenty of worries since I had 2 people working with me on things who turned out to be pretty unreliable, but I was going to the gym every 2 days without fail – which helped; I had shunned all things starchy and carbohydrates; the weight was dropping off me and I felt better for it.
Anyway, in the summer I was asked to work on a bid with a large retailer based in Somerset. I was away 2-3 days a week in the 6 week run-up to the wedding. I had calls from Andy in the middle of the night when Mollie wouldn’t settle; around September time I started to notice I was getting quite sleepy but I put that down to all the driving I was doing and the late night calls from Andy when Mollie wasn’t sleeping.
Anyway despite my confusion about being so sleepy, I put it down to hard work. I was on the run-up to the wedding and a holiday in Turkey straight afterwards, so naturally with all that time off booked I was going to do my best to make sure I did a good job and didn’t leave a mess for someone to deal with while I was away. It was an offshore integration project with 5 interfaces and a customised screen, so it was a complex build and a 5 hour time difference; anything could have gone wrong if I didn’t work with the guys to get it working before we handed it over to the client to test while I was away. This was basically a London commute whilst I wasn’t on site in Somerset, tiring enough as it is. After the hen do, with 2 weeks to go till the big day, my mum was working her arse off sewing; she made 5 bridesmaid dresses and my wedding dress. There were numerous fittings; in between fittings we congregated at my mum’s house to make wedding stationery, centrepieces and get the last few pieces together.
I hadn’t really enjoyed working on the bid in Somerset; unfortunately I’d been on the bench from May when I rolled off NOW TV to the August when the bid work started. I spent a fair amount of time working on designing a demo for the utilities sector and a smoke-and-mirrors demo on community engagement, but began to tire of not having anything to work on. I worried that the skills I had built in delivering training courses, building in Salesforce and designing solutions were ebbing away.
One day I noticed a LinkedIn post from the HR director of this company I had wanted to work for since 2011; he was looking for people. So I told him I was interested, snuck outside the office one day to answer his call and he arranged a meeting with me and Rich, the Services Director. We met in Starbucks at Leicester Square, had a coffee and a chat; I answered a few questions, gave a few examples and left it at that. I had a week till the wedding so it progressing quickly wasn’t high on my priority list; I just thought I’d see where it would go, though I hoped it would go somewhere. I’d already worked with the company a few years back so I knew it was exactly what I wanted; I had been trained on their product before they had even had a professional services team, so I had the product / platform knowledge and implementation experience they needed. I was very lucky to be in that position and grateful that they’d been so responsive in setting up the interview.
Saturday 21st September
Mollie and I had stayed over at my mum’s house the night before, as we lived in Stevenage and they lived in Bedford, so it wasn’t a case of just being round the corner. Andy stayed at home as usual. Mum got the dress out and I decided to grab a shower, not wanting to make the dress dirty in trying it on. I got out of the shower, started drying myself, then felt something in my left breast that I’m sure wasn’t supposed to be there. It was a very definite lump; elongated like a sausage, going across the top corner of my left breast. I kept checking it over and over again, did that motion they showed you how to do on Embarrassing Bodies – just to be certain I was still feeling what I thought I was feeling. I was. It wasn’t going away the more I prodded it, either. I remember feeling a rush of emotion that could be summarised as “Oh shit, what the hell is that?!” but then thinking, no it can’t be that, surely not, I’m way too young for it to be anything scary. Then I started wondering why i hadn’t felt it there before – it was quite definitely there and it wasn’t a small lump.
I went downstairs to try my dress on; went through the motions for an hour or so; mum was doing the hem so I had my wedding shoes on and had to stand very still on a stool while she went around the bottom of the dress to pin it. Mollie came in once or twice and hid under my dress, giggling her little head off. She was 18 months old at the time; barely talking and most definitely teething; we’d had a few sleepless nights with her. My mind was racing the whole time; I knew I’d been losing weight, but that had been deliberate. I’d been a bit sleepy….but surely it couldn’t be something massive. People get lumps all the time.
When Mum told me she had finished working on the dress for now and I could take it off, I decided to ask her if she could feel it too. I needed to know that I wasn’t going mental and feeling things that weren’t really there. I told her I’d felt something strange when I’d got out of the shower that morning – a lump; she asked me where and I asked her to feel it to make sure I wasn’t going nuts. She helped me out of the dress and examined me; she confirmed that she could feel something too and that I should get down to the doctors to get it checked out. It was Saturday though; all the GPs would be shut; there was a walk-in clinic and of course there was A&E, but with stuff to do for the wedding and a baby to take care of that day, who had time to sit in A&E all day to be told to book an appointment with the GP for Monday morning because all the staff that would be available aren’t?
In my 20:20 hindsight vision, I know I should’ve gone to the doctors anyway, but I genuinely didn’t think anything would happen that day because it wasn’t an emergency. I managed to convince Mum that would happen and I said I would go to the doctors on Monday. So for the remainder of the day I went about my business; took Mum and Mollie shopping and tried to put it out of my mind. I did keep periodically feeling the lump to see if it was still there; it’s possible that some part of me was thinking it wasn’t real – I was overreacting, being silly – generally I was beating myself up when actually, I had something legit to worry about!!
Why Andy Wasn’t Told
A few years later I was interviewed by a journalist (following a referral by Cancer Research UK) who wanted to publish a piece about my story in the MailOnline. Her interest was in finding the lump the week before the wedding and her written emphasis was on why I hadn’t told Andy about the lump. She was absolutely fantastic; a wonderful lady, very understanding. At the time I had no viable explanation for why I hadn’t told Andy; Andy and I were in the last few weeks of our relationship at the time but I couldn’t bring myself to explain this extremely private reason with a journalist, who could potentially change what I was saying to make Andy look bad.
The truth was I didn’t think he would be interested; I played the potential conversation over in my head and decided it wasn’t worth even trying. He wouldn’t go with me to the doctors anyway; he’d just say “it’s probably nothing to worry about” and turn back to his computer. He was hooked on World of Warcraft at the time, doing lots of raids with various people online and I was making orders of service, place cards and centrepieces, so I wasn’t spending much time with him either.
We generally had very little we could discuss and talk about – we are on different intellectual levels; we have very different interests, but he also struggles to talk about his feelings – as many men do. He had had little involvement in the planning of the wedding; pretty standard in most cases – especially traditional white weddings I guess. I had asked him for opinions, thoughts, input and been told it was really up to me. So I planned, paid for and organised the entire wedding by myself. In fairness to him – I was OK with that at the time. It meant I could do whatever I want and he would just turn up. I guess I wanted something though. Something I knew I wouldn’t get. Ours was a relationship where you wouldn’t have any kisses but he’d make you a cup of tea. He wasn’t a monster. We just weren’t really all that compatible, but we were trying to make the best of it. We laughed a lot and we have a beautiful daughter together. He’d shown more interest in me in recent months leading to the wedding when I got down to a size 12 – physical, you understand – but I wasn’t at a level where I could tell him what was on my mind and seek advice, comfort and support from him – because I’d given that up when receiving little input or response over the two years we had already been together. So that is why I hadn’t told him. I put my faith in my mother, because I knew I would be supported by her no matter what.
Of course I am going to tell you that the wedding went off without a “hitch” – I met my mum and dad in Hitchin on the Thursday and my mum asked if I’d been to the doctors yet. I said no because I just hadn’t had the time. We had a lovely dinner the night before with my family and friends, then on the day – the dresses were beautiful, the vows were sincere, everything was fun and lovely, the music was gorgeous, the food was good and we sat up with 2 of my favourite sixth form friends after everyone had gone home, setting the world to rights. The next day we flew to Turkey with my mum and dad and Mollie for our family holiday. Despite the great day we had, I look at the photos from that day and find myself staring intently at my left breast, knowing now about the cancer that had started working its way through my body, because the lump was out of my mind – and surely it’s not something that serious in someone so young?