Fight goes on for BBC Radio Cumbria's Val Armstrong
Last updated at 18:45, Monday, 12 October 2009
If Cumbrian women with breast cancer wanted a voice, they could hardly have wished for a better one than Val Armstrong’s.
The BBC Radio Cumbria presenter speaks with the confidence of a seasoned broadcaster and the authority of having lived through the disease herself.
And now Val is happy to talk about her experience in the hope that it might persuade other women to examine themselves and visit their doctor if they find anything unusual.
This is what Val did in 2005 when she noticed a problem in one of her breasts. She was monitored by specialists at the Cumberland Infirmary and in June 2006 a non-cancerous growth was discovered and removed.
During the operation, doctors found the early stages of breast cancer.
“I just went blank,” recalls Val. “You start to try and think about what you’ve been told. At some point the penny drops – ‘Oh my god, I’ve got cancer’.
“I think that’s the reaction most people have to cancer. It doesn’t matter which part of the body. It’s just that initial shock. I was 41. Cancer didn’t enter my head.
“The difficult thing is having to tell other people. You find yourself using a lot of energy telling people that you’re going to be ok. You always start the sentence ‘There’s nothing to worry about, but...’
Finding the cancer early substantially increased Val’s chances of recovery. But she still had to undergo surgery to remove a large part of the breast, followed by a course of radiotherapy.
“I was asked how it changes you as a woman, to have part of you removed. It doesn’t change me as a woman. I’m exactly the same as I was before. It’s just there’s no cancer in my body now. I’ve not lost any of my femininity.
“There’s the physical thing. Then there’s the mental battle. There are demons that visit and dark places that you go to. With me it was always at night time. You knock the light off. You close your eyes. And you think ‘It can’t be the last thing I think of before I go to sleep’.
“It’s emotionally draining. But I didn’t shed many tears. I just thought that was wasted energy. For me it was too negative. My cup’s always half full. It made me understand how strong I was and how positive I was.
“When it’s happening to you, you feel more in control. It’s easier than if another member of my family had it.
“Everybody asks ‘Why me?’ but I never did that. One in three people get cancer. Why wouldn’t it be me?”
Val was off work for nine months. When she returned she was happy to tell her listeners about her experience.
“It’s not something that should be hidden away. It’s not something people should be scared of talking about.
“When I went back to work I was very open and honest. I said ‘This thing tried to get me but it didn’t succeed. God help me, I’m back.’ One lady had been diagnosed just a fortnight before I got back to work. She said listening to my story had helped her.
“Every woman should be screened. We have a great system and great support staff. These mammograms are free. It makes me mad when people say ‘I would know if there was something wrong.’ I thought I knew my own body but I didn’t have a clue when there was cancer in there.”
More than three years after her operations, Val is happy to say that she has moved on.
“You do move on from it. I’ve been left with a physical scar but hopefully not psychological or emotional scars.
“It does bring you face to face with your mortality. It does make you re-evaluate. I’m intolerant sometimes about people complaining about trivial things. Maybe that’s how it changes you.”
Ann Hope from Kingmoor, Carlisle, did not expect any problems when she had a routine mammogram six years ago.
“I had no inkling,” she recalls. “Then I got the letter back saying there was some sort of anomaly and could I come back for another test?”
A biopsy revealed cancer in her right breast.
Ann was 57 and a mother of two daughters. Suddenly she felt horribly afraid.
“My initial reaction was ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die. I’m too young to die.’
“You have your tears but I’m one of those that does it in private then puts on a brave face.”
Ann had two operations to remove the tumour. Another mammogram gave further cause for concern so Ann agreed to have a mastectomy.
She has learned to be matter-of-fact about the experience.
“It didn’t bother me,” she says. “A lot of women look at themselves and think it scars you for life. I’ve been divorced for 25 years. As far as the sexual side, it would definitely put me off the thought of going into a relationship. In a way I’m grateful I was by myself.”
Ann was helped by Carlisle Breast Care Support Group at the Cumberland Infirmary.
“You start to talk to other people and put it in perspective. You listen to what other people have been through and that inspires you to try and do the things they’ve done.”
Sadly, her mastectomy did not spell the end of Ann’s cancer. Three years later she learned that the disease had spread to her bones. It is now in her pelvic area and her spine.
“Before I’d had the breast operations the cancer must have spread through my body. Every now and then it seems to take a bit of an extra leap.
“You’ve just got to get on with it the best you can. I just live each day as it comes. It could be two years, it could be five years.”
Ann’s positive spirit remains as she savours time with her daughters, her five grandchildren and her two great-grandchildren.
“I see my family every day. They’ve been a great support. And I’m still working, three mornings a week at A+ Skills near Carlisle.
“I think I’m lucky because I haven’t had chemotherapy. I only had radiotherapy.
“You think about things differently. I’m not going to worry about this or that. I’m going to live for today.
“Nobody knows how long they’ve got to live. I could go out tomorrow and get hit by a bus. I’ve got to make the most of what I’ve got now.”
Breast cancer sufferers, their carers, or those who have lost loved ones to the disease are welcome to attend the Carlisle Breast Care Support Group. The group meets at the Education Centre on Infirmary Street on the last Wednesday of the month at 7.30pm.
To find out more about events and products being launched this month, visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk
First published at 11:32, Monday, 12 October 2009
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk
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