'I always thought I'd get cancer'

Certain cancers run in families. Jackie and her mother, Kate, have both had breast cancer. Does that mean the next generation, Jackie's daughters, must suffer too? By Lena Corner
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Indy Lifestyle Online

According to the Cancer Research Campaign, a small number of high-risk genes are responsible for causing nearly 10 per cent of all breast cancers. It's a figure that raises questions in some families about whether to go for genetic testing. Kate Batsford, now 84, was successfully treated for breast cancer in 1969. Last year her daughter, Jackie Hughes, 53, was diagnosed with an early form of the disease. Now Jackie's daughters, Joanne, 27, and Alison, 26, are considering genetic testing.

Kate Batsford, 84, retired cleaner

It started when I went for a hysterectomy at the Royal Free Hospital in Islington. The doctor asked if she could examine my breasts and when she pressed them and she said that they they felt "wooden". She asked if a group of students could have a look too and they all gathered round looking and pressing.

It was only when I came back from my hysterectomy that I realised they must have taken a piece out of each bosom to see what was going on. They didn't tell me. When I came to from the operation the sister said: "You'll have to go back to theatre." I said "Why?" She said "Ask no questions".

Nothing was said until about a week later and the sister came up to me again and told me one breast had tested positive for cancer and the other negative. The sister offered me a glass of sherry, a sedative or a cigarette as a sedative. I said "I'll have a fag."

A few days later they told me to get my gear together and they sent me up to the Royal Free Hospital on Gray's Inn Road. I had to see myself to my ward and when I got there my bed was unmade. No one seemed to know who I was. I tried to explain and then eventually somehow someone got hold of my notes. They told me I was going to have the operation on Tuesday but then on Monday they took me down and I had them off.

I thought I was only going to have one breast removed because only one had tested negative, but when I woke up, they were both gone. I didn't ask any questions, I just took it for granted. Besides, when they took the pieces out of each breast to test them, they looked so awful, I was glad they had gone.

I was sent to convalesce with my son who lived in Bexhill. I kept asking for a pair of falsies but they never came. The doctor just told me to put a pair of socks in my bra and that was that.

Eventually I did get falsies. The first pair I got were made of what felt like millet seeds, they moved when you touched them. Then I got another pair, which I kept getting caught on my fingernail and all this gooey stuff would leak out. I had to keep going back to get new ones. In those days they didn't make bras with pockets in, so they used to fall out while I was doing the gardening. I never had any check-ups on my breasts. There was no follow-up, nothing. When Jackie told me she had breast cancer, I felt awful. I felt like it was all my fault. I said to her that if you get the chance to have breast implants, get them done. I was satisfied with my treatment, although I did feel my boobs were the ugliest things under the sun.

Jackie Hughes, 53, cashier in an accounts office

In a way I was expecting to get breast cancer. Once I started getting older it was something I began to think about more and more. I remember saying to a colleague: "It's coming round to the time Mum got it." And that was it, a month later there I was with breast cancer.

Initially I paid for screenings myself, but when I was in my late forties, because there was so much of it in our family, I was offered it. I thank God for screenings because the worst thing was that I never even got a lump. I could have been riddled with it, it could have spread through my body – without me even knowing. I had been checking myself for years, you have to, but quite a few people I met in the hospital didn't have a lump either. Now that I've only got one breast left, I get screened ever year.

It started off this time last year and since then I've had three biopsies and a reconstruction. First they took my nipple off and a surgeon cored out the cancer. Then a plastic surgeon took over, he made a cut in my back and tunnelled the muscle through to recreate my bosom. I'm very pleased with it. It looks fine, apart from the fact that it hasn't got a nipple, they offered me one but it would have meant removing some skin from my thigh, and I couldn't face having more surgery. When I've got a bra on you wouldn't know any different.

I was 19 when my mother was diagnosed as having breast cancer. It was the late Sixties and things were very different then. I think she wanted a reconstruction like mine, but when she asked they just said: "Why? You've lived with it this long." Back then she didn't have anyone at all to turn to. Now they have cancer nurses on the NHS, they're so knowledgeable and there are lots of different support groups to talk to, things are completely different now.

Obviously I do worry for my daughters but I don't think they really think about it. I'm in the process of applying to a clinic for them to be genetically tested for the cancer gene. The clinic has asked me to fill in a family history form. I don't know much about the disease but I do imagine it's hereditary. One uncle died after being diagnosed with cancer behind the eye, both my grandfathers died of lung cancer, another uncle died of bowel cancer and my great grandmother had breast cancer too. They didn't know she had it, but when she died her breasts had totally caved in, the cancer had eaten them away. She was in agony – in those days all they had was morphine. I know how my mother felt when I told her I had it. It's the same way I would feel if my children got it. I'd rather go through the whole thing again myself than see them get it.

Joanne Hughes, 27, draughtsperson

My sister's a year younger than me. We don't really talk about breast cancer much. I believe you can't worry too much about it until it happens – if you lived your life like that then you'd never leave the house. That was always my Mum's point of view. You'd never know that she'd had cancer or even that she's had one of her breasts cut off.

It has made me far more aware, though. People are always telling me about different articles they've read about what sort of food I should be eating. I'm also aware of the importance of checking myself regularly. A couple of years ago I found a small lump on my breast. It turned out to be nothing but even so, if there's something, whatever it is, I do worry.

I was really, really upset when I was told my Mum had breast cancer. Mum was upset but really strong: she's always far more worried about everyone else. I was in shock. I didn't think it would happen to us again. Recently we've decided to go for tests and I did talk to my sister about it then. We'll probably get checked once every three years. My Mum is sorting something out at the moment to check if it's hereditary. Because my Nan had it too, it does look like it might be. The sooner you find it the better, so it's definitely worth getting tested.

But I'm only 27, and although it does affect people my age, it's not as common. The likelihood is it's not going to affect you until you're in your fifties, and I'm sure I will have children eventually. It wouldn't stop me having children, no way.

'Living with Cancer' is on BBC1, Monday 29 October at 10.35pm

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