The latest statistics estimate that one in eight women alive today will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
Treatments are continually improving and survival rates are increasing all the time. But for those of us fortunate enough to have never been diagnosed, it is difficult to imagine what it must feel like to hear the words ‘you have breast cancer’.
This is why Leamington women Jan Gilbert and Kath Bannister, along with another lady who is no longer involved, set up the Bounce Back breast cancer support group for breast cancer patients across south Warwickshire.
The group meets every month at the Brunswick Healthy Living Centre in Leamington for discussions, talks, social outings and pamper treatments. Jan also provides support on a one-to-one basis for women who do not feel ready to talk about their cancer in a group situation.
Courier and Weekly News reporter SUNDARI CLEAL spent time with some of the members as they prepare for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The women spoke out about what they have gone through and why being part of a support group is important to them.
Jan Gilbert, 57, was diagnosed seven years ago, after at first being reassured that there was nothing wrong with her. Since her diagnosis, she has had a masectomy and gone through a long spell of radiotherapy and is currently in remission.
“I was prepared for this as my mum died from breast cancer when she was 52 and my aunts died of breast cancer when they were 42 and 46,” Jan says.
“Kathy and I and another lady set the group up because we could not find any support and there wasn’t even much literature around with information like there is now. Things have changed so much since I was diagnosed.
“When it happens, there is denial, where you cannot believe it is happening to you and you think the doctors must have mistaken you for somebody else.
“Then you get all these black thoughts and you wonder how you’re going to tell your family.
“There are some who just carry on working and living as normal until they go for treatment and all of a sudden, it hits them then.
“I started off by thinking I was going to die, but as time goes on you accept it and live with it.
“Every girl is different and that’s what’s good about the group because we can share.”
Susan Jenkins, 67, who was also diagnosed seven years ago, describes her diagnosis as her “retirement present” as the news came very soon after she retired. She feels she was discriminated against because of her age.
She says: “When I was asked whey I was not supported through my chemotherapy treatment, I was told it’s because I was 60, not 40. A lot has changed since then.
“I saw an article in the Courier about Bounce Back and then got involved. It’s useful to be able to share experiences and to have a social group to meet up with. I try to bring back ideas, articles and feedback that I think may be relavent to the others.
“Bounce Back is great because it’s totally outside you family and you can talk about things that you may not want to talk about with the people emotionally attached to you.”
Susan says she believes no one who has been diagnosed is ever “clear” of cancer, but she says: “Right now, I am living.”
Sixty-two-year-old Tish Spires was told she had cancer when she was having a mammogram in 2006. She was diagnosed again in 2010 and has had two masectomies.
“The first time I went through chemotherapy, I sailed through and went to work as normal. But the second time, I was so ill I passed out, I had anaphylactic shock and I was so sick,” she says.
“After that, I thought quality of life is better than quantity and I just go out and collect for charity and do the things I want to do. You cannot take your money with you when you die.”
A planned holiday to New York had to be cancelled at the time of Tish’s first diagnosis and she never managed to make the trip since then. So she is making the journey next week. She says: “My daughter has been supporting me so much through all of this that I am now taking her to New York to say thank you.
“Once you have got cancer, you go out and start living. It’s a wake-up call.”
From the moment Ann Lettis, 65, was told she had breast cancer last year, she decided she was going to “start living” as well.
She says: “I have been thrilled with the service I got, but it did come as a shock.
“I was due to go on a cruise the next week with my daughter and I was not prepared for this news at all.
“I worked with the health service, so I was usually on the other side of diagnoses.”
Going through chemotherapy was the worst part of Ann’s ordeal. She says: “Nobody can prepare you for how awful chemotherapy is.
“But I have a positive attitude and I have got too many things to do to let cancer get in the way.
“I have been to a couple of support groups and come away feeling quite depressed because everybody around me had a different attitude to me.
“We have more laughter in Bounce Back. We all have funny stories to tell and it’s just so reassuring to have people to talk to about what’s happening to you - even the small things. For example I had terrible pains in my feet in the night and I told the girls and they said, well don’t worry - we’ve had that.
“I did not have a friends-base because I was new to Warwick. Now I know that if I need anything, I can phone one of these girls and talk to them.
“I have done things I would have not done because I am spurred on by thinking, do it just in case.”
Kath Bannister, 55, was 48 when she was diagnosed and in April finished five years of drug treatment, which came on the back of a lumpectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
She says: “With the treatment, you’ve always got some illness or other.
“You are likely to be meopausal anyway. You are on treatment which gives you night sweats and brain freeze and osteoporosis.”
Kath recalls that as soon as she was sent for a biopsy, she had the gut feeling that it was cancer - and she found it hard to cope with the news.
“I could not go to bed - I would fall asleep on the sofa each night because I was afraid of what was happening,” she says.
But after coming to terms with it, she got together with Jan, who she was already friends with and had been diagnosed about a year earlier.
Kath says: “When the group was set up, the common thread for all of us was that the support offered by the medical profession lacked the access we needed to other women going through the same thing or something similar.”
Jan adds: “Our aim is to make sure the ladies go away and tell their sisters and daughters to have a good feel of themselves. It doesn’t matter what age you are.
“One in eight women in their lifetime will get breast cancer. If you feel you have a lump or change in appearance, don’t leave it, get it checked out. If you’re not happy with what the doctor says, ask for a second opinion.”
The group is hosting a fundraising party and raffle at St Patrick’s Club in Adelaide Road, Leamington, next Friday (October 4) from 7.30pm to midnight. Tickets cost £5 and are available from the club (call 420265) or from Jan or Kath (see below for contact details).
• Bounce Back meet on the first Wednesday of every month at the Brunswick Healthy Living Centre in Shrubland Street, Leamington, from 7pm yo 8.30pm. The group also organises meetings at different venues around Warwick district.
There is also a meeting on the second Wednesday of the month at the Lifeways Centre in Stratford from 7pm to 8.30pm.
To find out more, call Jan on 770628 or Kath on 429544 or email email@example.com
The group can also be contacted via Twitter @bouncebackgroup
To find out more about the group, visit www.bouncebackgroup.co.uk
For information about breast cancer and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk