When Claire Astle felt a breast lump while showering, she dismissed it as nothing to worry about at the age of 29 – but thought she would get it checked out just in case. With no family history of breast cancer and due to her young age, Claire was sent away by her then doctor – before eventually being sent for tests which revealed she had cancer. Claire tells AASMA DAY her story and why she is now going into schools to give fun talks with a serious message to prevent the same thing happening to anyone else.
Looking forward to her wedding day, Claire Astle was having a shower with dozens of bride-to-be tasks whizzing through her brain.
As she lathered herself with shower cream, she realised – with a jolt of surprise – that she could feel a small lump on one of her breasts.
Claire, now 33, who lives in Galgate, near Lancaster, can vividly recall the moment three years ago – a few weeks before her wedding to Paul on September 24, 2011.
Claire recalls: “It was just a small lump that I could feel. You couldn’t see anything there.
“With me only being 29, I thought it was probably nothing, but I thought to myself that the sensible thing to do was to go to the doctors and get it checked out.
“I promised myself that after our wedding and honeymoon, I’d go and see my GP.”
After a blissful wedding day and honeymoon in Mauritius, Claire was true to her word and went to see her doctor and showed her the lump.
Claire remembers: “The doctor had a look at the lump and had a feel of it and told me she thought it was very innocuous and she didn’t think it was anything to worry about.
“She told me to come back in a month if it was still there.
“Luckily, I did go back. It would have been very easy to think: ‘Well the doctor thinks it is OK’ and forget all about it.
“But a month later, I went back and she again told me it was nothing to worry about.
“I then left it until after Christmas and went back to the GP again. This time, I was more forceful and said: ‘Look, I’m really worried about it.’
“I just felt that even though she was telling me she didn’t think it was cancerous, I wanted to be sure.
“I wondered to myself: ‘How can you tell just through feeling?’
“I later realised that NICE guidelines actually state that anyone with a breast lump should be referred for an ultrasound because you cannot tell if it is cancer or not from feeling it.
“If I had known this at the beginning, I would have pushed more from the start.
“An ultrasound is so quick and cheap and it means that either cancer will be picked up at an early stage or that if it isn’t cancer, you will feel reassured.”
After pushing the issue, Claire was told be her doctor that she would refer her to the breast clinic even though she felt there was no need.
Claire, who has since changed doctors and now has a GP who she describes as “lovely” and is really happy with, says she believes the doctor’s reluctance to refer her for tests was all down to her young age.
Claire, who works at Lancaster University in the international office, says: “In her defence, I have no family history of cancer or in fact any cancer.
“It is very unlikely for someone of my age with no family history of cancer to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
“But it does happen and it is best to get it checked out.”
Claire went for her appointment at the breast clinic in January 2012. As she had been reassured that the lump was nothing serious, Claire was not expecting to be told anything sinister so attended the appointment on her own.
Ruefully, she says: “If I had known what the results were going to be, I would have made sure I took someone along with me.”
Claire had an ultrasound, a mammogram and a biopsy on the same morning and that same day, they told her the results showed she had breast cancer.
Claire recalls: “I remember feeling numb and shocked. I felt completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to ask.
“One of the hardest things was having to call my mum and my husband and tell them the news.
“Everyone was shocked and no one knew what to say.”
Medics told Claire she needed six months of chemotherapy followed by surgery and radiotherapy.
She had more tests and scans which showed the cancer had spread to two of her lymph nodes.
Claire says: “I couldn’t help thinking that if it hadn’t been for the delay, the cancer might not have spread to the lymph nodes. I had to have them removed.”
Claire underwent chemotherapy for six months at Royal Lancaster Infirmary which was eight cycles every three weeks.
Claire says: “The chemotherapy was physically exhausting and I was hit by a tiredness unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
“However, I wanted to keep busy and take my mind off it so I took three days off after each round of chemotherapy and then went back to work each time.
“But everyone is different in terms of how much work they can do and I was lucky as I did not have a physical job and was very desk-bound.”
Claire responded so well to the chemotherapy that she did not need a mastectomy but had surgery to remove the lump and area surrounding it instead.
Claire says: “I did not know what was going to happen and was prepared for whatever needed to be done.
“I had spoken to people who had had mastectomies and reconstruction and they were very positive.
“But I was relieved when I didn’t need a mastectomy in the end.”
Claire then had three weeks of radiotherapy which was a daily treatment.
She describes the end of cancer treatment as a difficult time to adjust to.
Claire explains: “While you are being treated for cancer, you feel you are doing all you can.
“But after treatment is over, you worry about it coming back.
“Getting back to normal life can be difficult because of this worry hanging over you.
“But I kept busy and kept working throughout my treatment as I wanted to stay positive.”
Claire, who had long hair before chemotherapy, lost all her hair. However, she wore a wig the entire way through her treatment and says that some people who didn’t know her that well didn’t even realise she’d had cancer.
Laughing, Claire says: “My wig was great!
“It was a bit shorter than my normal hair had been and was a bob.
“It was wonderful as I only had to wash it once every three weeks and I had no bad hair days.
“The only thing I worried about was the wind blowing it off!
“My hair has now grown back and some people have told me they didn’t even realise I had been ill.
“I think a lot of people have visions of people with cancer lying in a hospital bed throughout their treatment.
“But it isn’t like that and I tried to do as much as I could which was normal.
“Half way through my chemotherapy, I was actually a bridesmaid at my friend’s wedding.”
Claire initially put in a complaint about the doctor’s surgery where she had her lump dismissed.
However, after watching a documentary called Dying To Live, she found out about the work of the charity CoppaFeel! which focuses on promoting early detection of breast cancer by encouraging woman under 30 to regularly check their breasts.
Claire says: “CoppaFeel was set up by a woman called Kris who was only 23 when she found a lump in her breast. However, she was sent away by her GP and told the lump was hormonal.
“Months later, after fighting to get referred and tested, Kris was found to have advanced breast cancer that had spread to her spine.
“Kris has made it her mission to encourage young people to get to know their boobs and realise that breast cancer can affect young people at any age.
“Kris had never been told to check her breasts – and neither had I.
“CoppaFeel! promotes for people to be aware of their bodies and recognise any changes for them.
“Kris has done so much to raise awareness and I realised I wanted to do something positive and get involved in the charity’s work.”
Claire is now a “Boobette” for CoppaFeel!. Boobettes are a group of young women under the age of 35 who had had a breast cancer scare at a young age or a strong connection to the disease.
Using their stories, the Boobettes inspire other people to think differently about their lives and bodies and educate them about the importance of getting to know your boobs and making it a life-long habit.
Claire explains: “We go into schools and workplaces and give talks - but they are fun ones rather than scary ones. We use videos and props such as inflatable boobs and it is all about relating to young people and educating them in It is a voluntary role and we try to break down myths about cancer.The chances of breast cancer are low at a young age, but by checking regularly, if it is found, it will be at an earlier stage when treatment is less invasive and survival rates are higher.
“A lot of people, particularly when they are younger, think it won’t happen to them. It is now three years on from my breast cancer diagnosis and I have annual check-ups. I am determined to get something positive out of what happened to me and want to make sure getting abreast lump dismissed by a GP doesn’t happen to anyone else.”