Meet Debbie. Having fought through eight years of breast cancer while bringing up three children and seen several of her family members go through similar battles, Debbie is a Women V Cancer warrior in every sense of the word. In 2021, she and her husband, Rob cycled from London to Brighton to show strength against cancer and raise vital funds for three very important charities, Breast Cancer Now, Ovarian Cancer Action and Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust. Aiming for a phenomenal £5,000, Debbie and Rob led the way as the Highest Fundraisers for this challenge in 2021. Here, Debbie tells her story.
When did your journey with breast cancer begin?
Cancer has always been in my family, my aunty was diagnosed with breast cancer back in the 90s and unfortunately, due to delays in testing and diagnosis, she died aged 50. A few years later, my mum (her sister), was then diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 50. I am pleased to say that following a mastectomy, she is still here today, 20 years later.
From the time of my mum’s diagnosis and my first one, I had been referred several times to have a lump in my left breast examined and each time, the ultrasound/biopsy was clear.
I was very aware of my family history and at around the same time, Angelina Jolie had hit the headlines about the breast cancer gene (BRCA) and preventative surgeries. I was repeatedly told my history was not significant and did not warrant gene testing unless my sister was to get a diagnosis. My husband Rob and I had talked in detail about preventative surgery and I would have gone down this route if a gene test had been carried out.
In 2009, after another ultrasound/biopsy showed the lump was benign, I asked the consultant if I should have it removed. She advised not to, because it was benign and it could drastically change my body shape for potentially no reason. I then explained the anxiety the lump caused and asked if it could ever become cancerous if I left it. She said no.
She sounded so sure that even though I was not comfortable leaving it inside me (Rob wasn’t either), I had blind faith in what she said. I just put it to the back of my mind and lived with it.
What made you seek a second opinion four years later?
While on holiday in 2013, not long after my 40th birthday, I noticed that the lump had changed in feel. It was now quite rigid and sharp to touch under the skin, though not any bigger.
I made an appointment with the GP as soon as I was back home and I was referred immediately for a mammogram and a consultation the next week. At the consultation, the doctor told me it was cancer. He actually had to spell it out as I kind of zoned out. He said he had concerns and needed to take a core biopsy.
The following week waiting for the confirmed results was a blur. Deep down, I knew it was cancer. At that point, I just didn’t know what that would then mean for me and my family.
Every so often, I do wonder if my life would have been different if I had had the gene test and preventative surgery earlier and before my diagnosis, but it is what it is and it is not healthy to keep looking back and wasting energy on it. I can only keep going forward.
What I will say is this: never accept blindly what a doctor tells you. They are only human and humans make mistakes, if you’re not convinced, seek another opinion and keep asking until you are satisfied
Where did you go from there to get the cancer removed?
I had the initial mastectomy with reconstruction and then chemo started about a month later, which ended in April 2014.
It is quite strange, because whilst I had been focussed and so pleased to have reached the last session, I soon realised life would not get back to normal overnight. I still had no hair and I now had a 40-year-old boob and an 18-year-old one to deal with, so even my clothes became an issue.
I started taking tamoxifen and I was referred for the gene test. I was then in and out of hospital for most of 2015. I had preventative surgery because of the BRCA mutation and again to replace the first implant, which had creased. I guess you never know how the tissue around the implant will recover after such drastic surgery.
A few years went by and I had put it all behind me. A colleague from Spain I hadn’t seen for a while asked me how I was with a kind of knowing look. I was taken by surprise as I had kind of forgotten!
How did you manage to stay so strong throughout?
I am quite a strong-willed and determined person by nature and quite practical. Once I was over the shock of my initial diagnosis, I just wanted to get on with its removal and to get through any treatment I would need. I never really allowed how I felt about it all to get a look in.
My husband, my family and my friends were all there to support me. Friends gave us vouchers from the Cook shop, so we could buy fresh food frozen to make it easier to still eat well when it was difficult. My family and friends made me entire dinners and delivered them throughout, as well as cakes and other treats to keep me going.
I was determined to put this behind me and hoped it would be over. I had some time off work to recover and then went straight back to it as I thought normality was good, but I kept any fears to myself.
You mention on your JustGiving page that the cancer has spread since then. When did you become aware of this?
Less than three years after my first diagnosis in April 17, I noticed a lump under my arm and an ultrasound indicated it was, again, something I needed to have removed.
That was when I had to ask the questions I feared the answers to. I was sobbing, so my consultant took control and told me it was treatable, which gave me the energy to tackle all of it again. Because a lymph node was involved, I had to get radiotherapy of the neck and chest wall.
With family members taking me to my daily sessions I got through it. I even managed to sandwich my treatment between my two sons’ races on their Sports Day. I watched my youngest have his first sports day, then went in for my treatment and got back in time to watch my other son have their race!
I was determined to beat it again and get back to normal. This time however, I sought counselling, as I could not stop worrying about the future. It certainly helped and so again, after a period of recovery, I went back to work and life carried on.
But your battle didn't end there...
After my second brush with it, I was having yearly CT Scans. I felt well so I had no underlying concerns when my appointment came.
Unfortunately, at this time, my dad, who had advanced prostate cancer, started to deteriorate. Whilst visiting him in hospital, he asked if I had my results yet. My focus was on him and I really did not think I had anything to worry about so I kind of dismissed it. I found out I had lesions in my lung a week after my dad passed away in May 2019.
I have to admit, I did not take it as well as the other times, as this was now a distant recurrence, which meant the cancer had travelled and who knows where else it might be? I cried a lot and all my fears rose to the surface again. However, I felt I had to brush all of that under the carpet and deal with it, to do whatever it takes to stay here for Rob and the boys.
The recovery from lung surgery was long and painful and at times, I thought I would not get through it, I cried a lot from the pain, the frustration of going through it again and what I thought was the injustice of it all. As I slowly started to feel better physically, I again had to just look ahead and get on with it.
How I have personally felt and managed it has changed each time, but the support of my family and friends has always been consistent and has most certainly helped me to get through it so that I am still here today.
Have you received the all clear yet?
Unfortunately, the CT Scan last July showed that I have lesions in the liver, spine and lungs. I had only finished chemo that February (just before the first lock-down) so this was not great news. I felt my world had fallen apart. It has taken me some time to come to terms with it.
I started some oral chemo tablets in September, but a scan in November showed this treatment hadn’t worked and some lesions had grown. I started a new treatment (daily oral chemo plus monthly injections) in December and I have a scan at the end of April 2021 to see if it is working or not, so we shall see.
We have everything crossed because immunotherapy would not work for me and my treatment options are gradually becoming more limited.
It’s amazing that after all that, instead of resting, you’re raising funds to save and support countless other people affected by cancer! What inspired you and your husband to sign up to the London to Brighton Cycle Challenge?
Over the past eight years, every time I have been through treatment, I have just wanted to focus on getting back to normality as quickly as possible. Surgery, treatment, recover and move on.
I have to admit, I struggled with that last part this time around, as it is new territory not knowing what the future holds. Shortly after the news it had spread to the liver and spine, my anxiety levels rose and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I realised I needed something to focus on. I am quite a goal-oriented person and doing something meaningful helps to keep me positive.
When the Women V Cancer event came up on my social media, it resonated with me. I like the way it isn’t just about breast cancer research - this is for several women’s cancers. More and more younger women are being diagnosed these days. Lives are cut way too short and families are torn apart.
I wanted to do something to help make a difference, even if it is only a small difference. Raising awareness through early diagnosis and raising much-needed funds for essential research, as well as challenging myself is a win-win. Having had open lung surgery in 2019, a running event is not an option, so cycling is perfect even whilst going through treatment.
The cherry on top is that men can take part in this event and it really means something for Rob and I to do this together. He has always been by my side and it has taken its toll on both of us, so this Women V Cancer London to Brighton Cycle Challenge is an amazing way to pull together and achieve something so worthwhile!
How have you managed to fundraise so much during the lock-down?
I cannot take any credit for having done anything out of the ordinary here. Whilst I had all kinds of plans to raise money - one being instead of a coffee-and-cake morning, I wanted a Prosecco-and-Nibbles eve - the national lock-downs have prevented anything like that.
My fundraising so far has come from my friends and family who have been extremely generous and supportive. I plan to try and make more people aware of what I am doing to try and raise more in the last few months before the event, so we shall see.
Do you have any fundraising tips or advice for your fellow Women V Cancer heroes?
As I said above, I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary, but sharing what I am doing to a wider audience is probably key.
I am going to start cycling with my Women V Cancer cycling jersey once it arrives too. Now more than ever, charities such as these need help to get back on track regarding research and development.
How are you training for the challenge?
I am not a cyclist, but my husband, Rob, is. He agreed to help me with training and has been taking me out on rides, which is a bit boring for him as he can do 40-50 miles easily with friends.
I also have an indoor bike that I can use when the weather isn’t good though early on my second training session fell on a day with torrential rain and I just had to get on with it.
I am very fortunate that a friend has let me borrow a good road bike for my training and the event. I am just about getting to grips with the different gears on hills. I plan to increase my mileage and outdoor riding from this month as I still have some way to go.
What do the Women V Cancer charities mean to you?
It was only after being diagnosed with breast cancer that I was finally given the gene test I had been asking about for years and I found out I had the BRCA 2 mutation. This subsequently led to a right-sided mastectomy and the removal of ovaries and tubes, so a large part of what made me feel like a woman.
By the time I was due to have the surgery my ovaries were already ruined from the chemo. For me, having the surgery was a no-brainer as I had already had my three boys and it was now about survival.
It was then I realised how hard that same decision would be for someone in their twenties, who may not even have considered a family at that point. So much has improved over the last decade in terms of diagnosis, treatment and prevention, but still more needs to be done.
Empowering ourselves with knowledge so we can have upfront and frank conversations with doctors about our bodies is key to prevention and now more than ever, we need to get these charities back on track in terms of research development to keep more women (mums, sisters, partners) with their families for longer. Quality of life is also important so further improvements in the treatments out there is also key.
What about the London to Brighton Cycling Challenge are you most looking forward to?
Aside from completing such an amazing physical challenge, I am looking forward to meeting other women who have been through a similar experience to me, riding with them and being part of something bigger in this fight against cancer.
On a personal level, it is also a way to prove to myself that my cancer diagnosis shouldn’t stop me pushing myself. I may, however, invest in an electric bike as a back-up, as I am under no illusion how my ongoing treatment may affect me going forward. Knowing how my mind works though, I would be unlikely to give in and use it.
Follow in Debbie's tyre-tracks
There has never been a more important time for us to unite in the fight against cancer. The coronavirus outbreak represents an unprecedented situation for all of us, but this continues to be an extremely difficult and uncertain time for so many people affected by breast, cervical and ovarian cancers.
Our Women V Cancer charities, Breast Cancer Now, Ovarian Cancer Action and Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, provide life-changing support for people facing these cancers, whilst also funding research into new treatments and cures.
By taking part in our special Women V Cancer London to Brighton Cycle Challenge in 2022, you can help our charity trio restart their cancer support services, catch up on lost hours in the labs and start making new discoveries that will improve the treatment of breast, cervical and ovarian cancers for good.