Pay day? Use it to feel your breasts

It was a simple idea which struck Sue Cook when she turned 50 but little did she know it would save her life in years to come.

Friday, 27th January 2017, 4:01 pm
Updated Friday, 27th January 2017, 5:06 pm
Sue Cook, 62, who found out she had breast cancer after getting in the habit of checking for lumps every pay day

It was a simple idea which struck Sue Cook when she turned 50 but little did she know it would save her life in years to come.

Sue, now 62, decided to make pay day her “breast check day” and got into the habit of checking her breasts for lumps every month when she got paid.

Sue explains: “Up until that point, it hadn’t really come into my consciousness.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“It’s so simple, but I realised I would need a trigger to remind myself to check for lumps regularly, so I came up with the idea to check every pay day – as I always know when that comes around!”

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in winter 2008 and now, after undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a double mastectomy – and even having an inspirational tattoo to cover her scars – she is in remission and grateful that she spotted the signs so early on.

Sue, a mum-of-four and grandmother-of-four who used to work as an art teacher and is now chief examiner for foundation arts and design at University of the Arts London, says she is so pleased she started checking her breasts for lumps every pay day.

She recalls: “I went from feeling nothing in the September, to finding a little knot and then my breast caving in that October.

“I made an appointment with my GP after feeling it. It wasn’t a lump as such, it was more like a little knotted string. But that morning my breast just caved in and they fast-tracked me to Ormskirk Hospital – it had grown so fast. I had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy and it turned out to be a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. There was more than one tumour in my right breast and a follow-up found that there were cancer cells in my lymph nodes.”

Sue underwent eight sessions of chemotherapy over six months in 2009, as well as radiotherapy and a radical mastectomy to remove all of the tissue, muscle and lymph nodes in her right breast.

She then agreed to have her left breast removed in the summer of 2010 to reduce the risk of developing cancer there.

She says: “I decided against reconstruction because the treatment had made me incredibly ill and it had been such a gruelling and traumatic experience.

“I felt my body had gone through enough. Some people find the change incredibly difficult, but I was just grateful to be alive. I’m not bothered about my boobs.”

Sue did however opt to have a beautiful grey and black ‘lace’ design tattoo on her chest to cover her scars.

Sue says: “I had been given a 40 per cent chance of surviving more than five years, so when I reached that milestone, I celebrated with the tattoo. I got sponsored and raised £1,800 for Cancer Research UK, and every time I see it, it puts a smile on my face.”

Sue has now been in remission for seven years, but is still living with some of the effects of the intensive treatment she went through, including lymphoedema. Secondary lymphoedema affects around one in five women after breast cancer treatment, caused by damage to the lymphatic system, or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system.

Symptoms include swelling and aching, and if left untreated or if infected, cellulitis or septicaemia can develop.

Sue says finding out about the Woodside Clinic at St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall, near Preston, online and being referred there by her GP made all the difference. Sue also accessed specialist laser therapy through St Catherine’s, as well as compression pump treatments and the drainage massages. Sue, from Wrightington, was discharged in July last year, but still relies on the techniques and tips she learnt at St Catherine’s to manage her lymphoedema symptoms.

She says: “Going there has made such a difference. In terms of the cancer, I have check-ups every six months and scans. They’re keeping a good eye on me. I’m so glad I caught it early and I would really encourage people to think about adopting the ‘pay day check’ into their monthly routine.”

Debbie Murphy, lymphoedema services manager at the Woodside Clinic at St Catherine’s, says: “We have a range of therapies available depending on the location and severity of the lymphoedema.

“Our team will always design a programme of treatments best suited to the individual which promotes as much independence as possible.

“Our aim is to improve symptoms of lymphoedema, help patients understand and cope with their treatments and advise them about ways to self-manage the condition to help improve their quality of life.”