Cancer survivor’s message to East London women: know your breasts

Knowing her body and trusting her gut instincts helped save the life of a woman who has survived breast cancer.

May Cliffe is living proof of the vital message that women need to know what is normal for them. It is also the message from health professionals keen to raise awareness about the importance of early detection of the disease.

Three years ago, May felt a lump in her breast which seemed to be growing. Six months later she went to her GP who dismissed her concerns saying, “women with bigger breasts tended to have lumpier breasts”.

He said it was most likely nothing. He was aware that she had a sister who had died from breast cancer.

May, now 50, continued examining herself but when four months later the lump was still growing, she went back to her doctor.

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This time he said he would request a mammogram for her.

Six weeks later, when no appointment materialised, May went back to the GP where the receptionist revealed there was no record of him requesting a mammogram.

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At this point, May said she wanted a second opinion and was given a referral letter to a consultant at the BMI in Stepney as she had private healthcare.

Within two days she saw a consultant. Faisal Mihaimeed, who sent her for mammogram on the same day and, after seeing the results, arranged for a biopsy.

When the biopsy revealed she did indeed have cancer, her consultant told her to discuss the matter with her family over the weekend.

She saw him again two days later and underwent an operation to remove the cancer just days later.

May told the Recorder: “It was 2cm, and it was spotted early so I was quite lucky. I was lucky too that I used my common sense.

“The thing with GPs is that most people take what they say as gospel. My GP was so unconcerned that he did not want to examine me. I literally had to force him to examine me. Women must insist on being examined because they know their bodies better than anyone else. If you feel something then you have to insist that the GP take action, do not let your doctor put you off.

“I was always told about feeling something that felt like a pea but I felt hard tissue. Its something that I knew had not existed before.”

After the operation, May underwent regular three monthly check-ups to start with and now has a check up every six months.

She went through gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy but says she went through it by telling herself it was temporary and she was on the road to recovery.

Faisal Mihaimeed, her consultant breast surgeon at BMI The London Independent Hospital, said: “Women need to be aware of what is normal for themselves and that only comes if they examine themselves regularly, once a month after their period.

“Then have a look in the mirror and see if there’s any changes, nipple growing inwards or redness. If they are aged below 40 usually there’s no huge anxiety.

“If the changes are not related to the monthly cycle, then it needs to be checked.

“Women need to remember that breast pain is not a determining feature. Only five to 10 per cent cases of breast pain leads to a diagnosis of breast cancer. If you are below 40, then it is unlikely to be breast cancer.”

Mr Mihaimeed says breast awareness is vital – women need to regularly examine themselves so that they know what is normal to them, even if they are not aged 50.

Should they spot a lump, they need to see their GP who can refer them for further investigation. Women should not worry that they are taking up their doctor’s time.

He is aware that there are cultural bars to women seeking advice or having their symptoms checked. He also accepts that it will take time to change such attitudes but urges women to make their own health a priority.

Early detection and screening have led to significant improvements in survival rates. He said if you look at the data that goes back to the 1970s you will see that the survival rates were 50 per cent so if you had 10 women with breast cancer, five of them would have died.

The chances of women in their 20s being diagnosed with the disease is one in 15,000. By the time a woman gets to 50, those chances have gone to 1 in 50 as the risk increases with age.

There are other risk factors such as family history of the disease as well as the occurrence of other types of cancer.

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