I skipped my mammogram every year for eight years – then I got breast cancer: Designer KELLY HOPPEN, who had a family history of the disease, tells her story to courageously warn other women not be too fearful to have their check-ups
- Kelly Hoppen, 63, had consistently avoided routine invitation to mammogram
- Now, she says she ‘can’t believe her own stupidity’ as a result of the avoidance
- READ MORE: Beautician, 28, beats cancer after her NHS aunt dismissed doctors’ opinion that she was only suffering from a cold and insisted she get scanned
For eight years I ignored my routine invitations to have a mammogram. Writing this now, I can’t believe my own stupidity. I was like a child plugging my ears with my fingers and singing to blot out the sound of something I didn’t want to hear.
I believed as I was getting older — I’m 63 — I had less chance of developing the disease. I thought I’d dodged the bullet. Of course, if I had done the research or asked questions, I would have seen that I was wrong. But ignorance was bliss.
My mother had breast cancer when she was my age — an extraordinary woman, she’s soon to be 87 — but at the time I couldn’t cope with her illness and my strategy was to blank everything out.
Added to this, I hate hospitals as I watched my father die in one when he was only 48.
So on the rare occasions when I didn’t overlook the succession of reminders to have my routine checks, I booked, then postponed, appointments. Then, finally, I cancelled — and just stopped thinking about them altogether.
It was a foolish thing to do, which is why I am writing this now: it’s a cautionary tale, a warning to others, not to be too frightened, too harried by the demands of work to go to your appointments.
Kelly Hoppen, 63, had consistently avoided her routine invitations to a mammogram – and was then diagnosed with cancer
I find it hard to write this — it is private, I feel vulnerable — but I feel compelled to tell my story for the sake of other women.
And if it wasn’t for my executive assistant Jane, and a wonderful temp PA called Phoebe, things might have been different, and infinitely worse, for me today.
One morning last September I woke up and resolved to have that long-overdue mammogram. I hadn’t detected a lump; there were no warning signs. Perhaps it was just intuition, but something made me determined to finally go.
And I actually asked Jane and Phoebe to make sure this time I didn’t cancel, which in itself was odd for me.
But on the day of the appointment I hit horrendous traffic. I even sent Phoebe a photo of the jam, I was stranded, stationary, and texted her to say I wouldn’t make it in time. Would she phone and cancel?
Remembering what I’d said before, she called me back and was insistent: she’d phoned the clinic and explained my predicament. And they said they’d see me whenever I got there. So that was that. No excuses.
I arrived and sat nervously in the waiting room. Then finally I had that long-overdue mammogram.
Everything looked fine, they said, and I left feeling that lightness that overcomes us when a weight is lifted. But the relief was temporary. Two hours later they recalled me telling me they needed one more image of my right breast.
The designer recounts the horrifying ordeal of going from one medical professional to another for answers
I froze and called my partner John immediately.
I went back at once, for the second mammogram, and again was allowed to go home. But just a few hours later I was called again: they wanted to carry out an ultrasound scan, which would show up, more clearly, any abnormalities. I booked it for the next day and barely slept.
By now, I was starting to panic.
Next day I returned for the ultrasound, this time with John. I felt unnerved, anxious.
And there was more. After the ultrasound they needed further clarification. They wanted to do a biopsy. And even though we’d reached this crucial point, I did not want to carry on. But John sat down with me, listened to the doctors and asked pertinent questions — because I was too numb and deafened to ask them anything or to take in their answers myself.
It was John who urged me to continue and the next few days — during which I called my GP and booked to see an oncologist — remain a blur. I couldn’t think straight. But I continued to busy myself with work. It was a welcome distraction.
Next, I went to see Dr Christina Choy at The London Clinic, who was extraordinary in every way. But by now my fears had escalated into terror. My thoughts were still confused; I took in nothing Dr Choy was telling me. But because John is the most loving and supportive of men, he stayed by my side, taking me to appointments, listening to doctors’ explanations when I could not focus, buoying me up when my strength faltered and my mood plummeted; making me laugh when I wanted to cry.
Kelly – whose mother had breast cancer – said she had been hoping to avoid dealing with her stresses about the illness
It was a matter of days before I had the biopsy, the removal of a sample of tissue from my right breast, which felt as if a staple gun was piercing my numbed flesh. The ensuing five- day wait for the results was purgatory. Fear of the unknown haunted me. I couldn’t sleep or think or eat.
They took two more biopsies before they were certain — more worrying and waiting — and by now I knew something was wrong.
But I continued to work, to keep busy, to exercise, and when I went back into hospital for the results — John, as always, by my side — my heart fell when they told me I had DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ). I had no idea what it meant, but I feared the worst.
Then Dr Choy explained that I’d been very fortunate indeed: DCIS is the very mildest form of cancer. It was in two milk ducts and I was booked in to have the cancer cells removed from the ducts — an awful procedure which made me feel very sore.
Then they needed to do an MRI scan to check everything. After, there would be precautionary surgery to remove the tissue around the cancer and ensure it hadn’t spread.
Again, I baulked at having the MRI, but sweetly and patiently John talked me into it and was allowed to stay with me while I had the scan.
Kelly says that ‘cancer had been her biggest struggle’ because there was suddenly something entirely out of her control
It showed something potentially concerning in my left breast, too, so the surgery was postponed and once more I went through a biopsy. Fortunately, the results came back clear.
A week later, I arrived for the operation to remove the tissue from my right breast. John was with me, of course; even by my side when they took me down to have the anaesthetic. So many medics and nurses asked me my date of birth I joked, ‘You’d better buy me a good birthday present.’
I tried to be positive, but laughter masked fear. I was worried sick. I said to John, ‘Will it look weird if they have to cut away some of my breast?’
‘It won’t matter. I always preferred the other one,’ he joked, reminding me of what was really important.
I had surgery to remove tissue from around the ducts and, although I was in a lot of pain for many weeks after, I felt I was on the home stretch.
I’m usually the most upbeat person. I leap out of bed happily every morning, ready to grasp the day’s challenges. But cancer had been my biggest struggle: suddenly, there was something I had to deal with over which I had absolutely no control. I told only close family — my daughter Tash, stepdaughters Savannah and Sienna, my mum and brother and a few close friends. I didn’t want to talk about it until it was all over.
One thing I missed sorely was the comfort of having my mum with me more — who doesn’t want their mum with them when they’re sick? — but she is unwell and I found that very hard.
Kelly, pictured with her partner John Gardiner, who she says was supportively by her side for the entire ordeal
When my thoughts were muddled my radiologist, Dr Susan Cleator, was incredible, and it was reassuring to have John there telling me, ‘Kell, be thankful. They’re being thorough.’ As usual, he was right.
He was my rock; always positive. I love him so much for that. And his daughters Helena and Erika sent me messages I’ll always treasure. Helena’s meant so much as she was so ill herself as a child. She dealt with endless medical appointments, always without complaint, and her words gave me perspective and strength.
As tests and procedures followed each other, the waiting for results was easier to deal with than the wakeful hours I spent at night, re-living memories of my daughter over the years, thinking of everything I still wanted to say and do for her. Then I’d pull myself back into the now and try and be positive and visualise everything being OK.
I remember, too, bumping into an old friend who’d also had cancer. He was back having treatment, which scared me, and he said, ‘Kell, keep looking up. Be positive.’
I’m naturally a fixer and organiser, no task is too big, so I struggled with not being in control. But working helped so much.
Finally, the news came that the cancer had not spread — I was overjoyed. But it wasn’t over yet. Dr Choy wanted me to have the BRCA gene test to find out if I had an inherited tendency for certain cancers.
Even then, I didn’t want to know, and was almost ready to walk away until John persuaded me to stay.
So, despite my terror of learning the worst, I had the test. There was a ten-day wait for the results. Meanwhile, a wonderful nurse told me I’d been extremely lucky my cancer had been treatable and caught early. ‘If this table is the ocean that is cancer, you’ve just dipped your little toe into the water,’ she explained.
Kelly, pictured with Queen Elizabeth and Patrick Cox, says that instead of burying her head in the sand she now wants to know more
Then the results came through from my BRCA gene test on a Friday night I will never forget. Because of my mum’s cancer history I feared the worst. But when I was told I hadn’t got it, a wave of euphoria washed over me. I can’t describe how happy I was.
There is something about a brush with serious illness that makes us reappraise our lives. I don’t waste nervous energy getting stressed about things I can’t control now; neither am I a workaholic. I’ve learned to delegate. I never thought I’d die, but for those long weeks my mind oscillated between hope and fear. It was traumatic.
I wondered if I should stop taking HRT — I’ve been on a form of it for about 12 years — and when my hormone doctor Martin Galy said I should carry on, having discussed it with my oncologist at length, I was relieved.
Now, instead of putting my head in the sand, I want to learn more. I’ve spoken to menopause expert Dr Louise Newson who has also been helpful and reassuring about HRT.
And throughout it all I have carried on working. Early in December last year I went to oversee a big interior design project in Dubai. Under my trousers, I had on the horrible white surgical socks I’d been told to wear. ‘Is it OK to fly?’ I asked Dr Choy, fearing a blood clot. She laughed and told me it was perfectly safe.
I feel blessed that I have been able to work and keep busy. This has kept my mind tethered and anxiety at bay.
I had a gut feeling I’d be OK; that the results would come back clear. Even so, every now and then a pang of doubt would hit me and I’d take a deep breath. When Dr Choy gave me the good news that all was well, for the first time, I broke down in tears. It was such a relief. I was told at the same time I wouldn’t need to have radiotherapy. I was overjoyed because the prospect of it had terrified me.
Then, just a month ago, I had another check-up. Everything clear. So now I feel safe to say I’m through it. There’s just a 10 to 15 per cent chance that the cancer will come back. I’ll deal with it if so, and I have vowed never to skip a mammogram again. I have my next one booked for September and you can be assured that I’ll be there.
Kelly, pictured with her daughter Natasha, says that she was ‘hugely fortunate’ as her cancer was detected early
I wanted to wait until I was completely sure that I was out of the woods before I told my story, and I’m doing so now to encourage other women never to miss a screening.
My own foolishness will stay with me. Now, I intend to get checked twice a year. And I’d urge other women to follow my example. Never think you’re invincible. Never be too scared.
Now it is over, I feel relieved, but each day when I wake up and see the scar on my right breast I wonder about what might have been if I had not gone for that mammogram. And I remind myself to be positive and that stress needs to be managed.
I have huge respect, both for the medical institutions who treated me — every nurse and doctor has been so dedicated — and for all women who are going through breast cancer.
In the past I’ve said, ‘Live life to the full. Be present.’ Now I mean it more than ever. So please, don’t follow my example. Overcome your fears and get checked, even if you are frightened.
I was hugely fortunate. Although I’d neglected my check-ups, I was lucky that my cancer was detected early. Had it not been, I might have faced a less happy outcome. Actually, I might not be here writing this cautionary tale now.
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