GETTY [STOCK IMAGE]Last month it was revealed that 450,000 women in England were not called for breast cancer screening
Yet even for women who do attend routine screenings, there is no guarantee their disease will be discovered – as Mandie Ballentine knows only too well.
Having lost three members of her immediate family to the disease, the 48-year-old was extremely vigilant about checking her breasts and having regular mammograms.
Despite this, four years ago she was given the devastating news that she too had advanced breast cancer.
As with many women diagnosed with the type of breast cancer she had, it had gone undetected by a mammogram.
Mandie, who works as a Macmillan nurse and lives in Himley, Staffordshire, with her husband Rob, 51 and daughter Jess, 17, had the less common form of the disease, which is often difficult to spot.
Called invasive lobular cancer it affects the lobules – milk-producing glands – in the breast and despite accounting for 15 per cent of breast cancer cases, most women have never heard of it.
Even more concerning is that the way this type of cancer grows inside the breast makes it notoriously difficult to detect, explains Professor Kefah Mokbel, lead surgeon at the London Breast Institute based at Princess Grace Hospital.
“Unlike ‘normal’ breast cancer which can cause a defined tumour, invasive lobular cancer grows in lines inside the breast tissue,” he says.
I lost my mum, nan and aunt to breast cancer, so when I developed a ‘hardening’ in my breast tissue but a mammogram revealed nothing – I insisted on being checked again
“I lost my mum, nan and aunt to breast cancer, so when I developed a ‘hardening’ in my breast tissue but a mammogram revealed nothing – I insisted on being checked again. As a nurse, I know there are different types of breast cancer which are not always picked up on mammograms which is why I called the breast unit at City Hospital in Birmingham and insisted on being seen.”
Her worst fears were confirmed almost immediately on an MRI scan when she was diagnosed with advanced Stage 3 breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
“They found that I had lobular cancer and the tumour was so large it had replaced my entire breast tissue,” she recalls.
Mandie immediately started a six-month course of chemotherapy before undergoing a mastectomy and radiotherapy. Sadly her case too common, says Professor Mokbel.
“I see patients who were given all-clear after a mammogram who come to me with advanced invasive lobular cancer because a symptom such as thickening of the breast was never investigated properly.
“Because it is so hard to diagnose, lobular cancer is often missed and only detected at an advanced stage, where the prognosis is not as good.”
Mandie now wants to use her experience to raise awareness of dangers of breast cancer in younger women – who are not routinely scanned until age 50 – calling for greater self-awareness.
“They need to focus on more self-examination, not being afraid ask for a second opinion from their doctor and having more tests such as a biopsy or MRI scan if they still feel unhappy.”
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Patients having MRI scan
While Mandie’s treatment was successful she was dealt another blow when doctors suggested she have her other breast removed due to a 40 per cent risk of the cancer returning.
“After all the treatment ended I was exhausted and had no confidence whatsoever,” she says.
“And after reconstructions I was left with two shapes which didn’t look or feel like breasts. I also had a lot of scarring because of the skin grafts. I never wanted to get undressed.”
It was then that Mandie heard of an increasingly popular treatment called “breast pigmentation”.
The procedure – sometimes known as medical or cosmetic tattooing – involves using natural pigments to mimic the natural features of the breast and create the illusion of a 3D nipple and areola.
Although the procedure is offered by the NHS, budget cuts and varying levels of expertise among staff means many women are unable to access it.
Instead Mandie went to a company called Brandwood Clinic, based in Solihull, near Birmingham.
“I made an appointment just to see what they could do for me and when I met the ladies at the clinic doing the treatment, I immediately felt at ease.
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“I remember telling one of them that my breasts were like a face without a nose. They weren’t breasts, they were just a constant reminder of what I’d been through.”
After her initial consultation last April she had the pigmentation treatment on both breasts, a process that involved three separate sessions spaced eight weeks apart.
“Each treatment lasted three to four hours with two people working on me,” she recalls.
“At the end of my first treatment I burst into tears – happy tears. It had made such a difference to me.
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“The level of expertise was amazing and they were able to devote more time on the treatment than I could have got on the NHS. And after my second treatment I started to change my outlook. I was happy to wear a swimming costume on holiday.
“The breast pigmentation treatment gave me my confidence back and the closure I needed.
“I had been ashamed of my scars but I started to feel proud of them because they were a reminder I am still here after all I’d been through.”
For more information visit brandwoodclinic.com or call 0121 296 9280.
Daily Express :: Health Feed