Councillor Louise Upton, Cabinet Member for Healthy Oxford, shares her personal experience with cancer to encourage women – and men – to get checked this Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“As I watched the birds wheeling through the sky, I saw my future telescoping inwards.
“It was the weekend after my diagnosis and I had escaped to the Otmoor nature reserve, as I do when I need space to think. It was dawning on me that these might be my last months, my last weeks.
“I’m sorry, it’s not good news”, the doctor had said. It came like a punch to the chest. Although I had had cervical cancer previously, I was still startled, shocked. Nothing can prepare you to hear those words.
“It was really tough telling my husband. As soon as you tell other people, once the news is out, it’s no longer just you and your thoughts. You have to deal with other people’s reactions, emotions, feelings.
“I slipped my diagnosis in with some good news, but cancer is all consuming. The fact that I had passed my Italian exam was forgotten in an instant, totally obliterated by my diagnosis.
“Luckily, we are both of a cheerful disposition and after the initial week of despair and fearful thoughts, we settled back in to some kind of normality – my husband has always been the cook, and very good at providing care and support.
“They say that one in eight women will be affected by breast cancer during their lifetime. That’s 55,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year, or one woman every ten minutes.
“Most of us will have been affected by cancer in some way. My mum and aunt were both diagnosed with breast cancer which ultimately caused their deaths. Both were in their 70s or 80s when they died.
“Currently, women over 50 are offered a routine screening every three years, but for younger women, it is also important to do self-checks – set aside time once a month to feel and look for changes in your breasts.
“It’s funny – if we were talking about cancer of any other part of the body it would be easier, but breasts… Well, it makes people uncomfortable, it’s almost taboo. This is why Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which takes place every year in October, is critical.
“We have to encourage open discussion, and to remind each other it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We have to encourage women to touch their breasts, to look for anything unusual, and get checked if there is a change.
“Breasts are lumpy! So if you find a new lump it often won’t be anything but there is always the tiny chance that it is malignant. It is always better to be safe than sorry, better to book that appointment and get a professional opinion.
“The chances are, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the more likely treatment will be successful.
“My diagnosis was followed quickly by treatment. We’re very lucky in Oxford to have world-class hospitals and the team at the Churchill were amazing – very supportive, kind and caring throughout the whole experience.
“The surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy were distressing, disruptive and exhausting – but I was determined to continue living life. I kept on visiting the birds in Otmoor, but I also pledged to do something I had always wanted to do. My mum had been a councillor when I was growing up, and I had toyed with the idea myself.
“I saw this as my prompt to get on with it. I would cycle up to the Churchill to attend my radiotherapy sessions, then tie my scarf around my bare head to deliver flyers, meet and greet residents, and share my vision and direction with the city.
“I became known as ‘that bald councillor’, even when my hair had regrown. My councillor photo stood as a reminder that I had made it through – I had defeated cancer a second time.
“Cancer reminded me that life is not forever. Like the birds over Otmoor, blink and you could miss it. So if you want to do something, you have to get on and do it: go on that cycling holiday you’ve always dreamed of, do a job that makes you happy, say ‘I love you’ – but most of all, make sure you get checked.
“I am here alive today because I got checked.”
City Councillor and Cabinet Member for Healthy Oxford