Breastfeeding Leeds mum’s ‘mastitis’ turns out to be rare and aggressive form of cancer
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Nessa Whitehurst, of Adel, was breastfeeding her third child, Una, then nine months old, when she noticed the classic symptoms of mastitis begin to appear one afternoon in October - redness and swelling on her breast and generally feeling unwell.
The condition - which causes inflammation of the breast tissue from a blocked milk duct which can become infected - is usually cleared up with a course of antibiotics so she visited her GP that same day who confirmed mastitis and prescribed the medication.
But she was no better after finishing the two-week course, so went back to her GP who prescribed a different antibiotic and referred her to the Leeds breast clinic at St James’ Hospital at Nessa’s request.
Nessa, 39, an associate assistant headteacher at Allerton High School, where she also teaches English, said: “By then we thought it was an abscess. I went to St James’ and had it drained four times - each time getting an ultrasound. But it wasn’t until December 13 that I was told it was inflammatory breast cancer.”
Inflammatory breast cancer accounts for just one to five per cent of all breast cancer cases. By the time it appears, it has already reached stage three as it has spread to the skin, and has poor survival rates.
Nessa, who is also mum to daughter Siofra, nine, and son Finn, seven, was diagnosed with stage 3c cancer - one step below stage four - and was also told it was Triple Negative, one of the most aggressive and fatal types of cancer with limited treatment options.
Despite having prepared herself for a cancer diagnosis, she said finding out which type she had was a total shock.
“It had been clicking with me slowly that it wasn’t an infection. I had it in my mind that it was probably breast cancer. From October to December I had had six courses of antibiotics and I still didn’t feel right. And it was spreading - I could see it spreading across my breast to my armpit. I could actually see it growing.”
She said: “When they said it was inflammatory breast cancer I was taken aback. They gave me a pamphlet to read up on it and I just thought ‘oh God, this isn’t good.’
“Then I was told triple negative.
“It was like another blow. It was a bit of a shock then. I had a 10 month old baby. I thought ‘Good Lord, she will end up not knowing who I am’."
Doctors immediately started intensive chemotherapy. She had her first dose on Christmas Eve and finished the course on May 13.
Incredibly, after a mastectomy and removal of 18 lymph nodes, which the cancer had spread into, Nessa has been beaten her grim odds and been left with no live cancer cells, according to doctors.
She is now embarking on a course of radiotherapy, as extra security, to target a lymph node which could not be removed but she says, “touch wood”, she feels incredibly fortunate.
“I have been really unbelievably lucky that it hated chemo. It had been 10 cm wide when I started.”
Nessa, 39, of Adel, is speaking out about her harrowing experience to try and raise awareness among women as well as doctors about the condition and its symptoms.
She said: “It looks exactly like mastitis. That’s how it presents itself. That’s why it’s so often mis-diagnosed.
“It doesn’t grow like a solid tumour. It’s a bit like a spider’s web, really thin and has tendrils. Even on ultrasounds it just looks like capillaries. It wasn’t until they did a punch biopsy [where they take a sliver of flesh out] that they identified breast cancer.
“Some women have that [biopsy] and it still doesn't find it, if it catches the wrong place.
“Because it’s quite fast growing, sometimes for a lot of ladies, it’s too late for them by the time they realise the mistake.”
She added: “I would say if the antibiotics aren’t clearing [mastitis] up, I really would ask to be referred to a breast clinic sooner rather than later - it’s better to be safe than sorry. [This cancer] is incredibly fast.”
Interestingly, Nessa said baby Una had refused to feed from that breast before the diagnosis.
“She started refusing it in November. She just wouldn’t drink from it. It’s funny to think whether or not she might have known - or something wasn’t right to her or didn’t taste right,” she said.
For now, Nessa says she will need to have regular checks and must keep an eye out for the return of any symptoms - but she remains hopeful she will be one of the lucky ones.
“I’ve just got to watch and see. I think this cancer has a 25 per cent chance of recurring which is a little bit higher than most. But still out of 100 ladies that’s 75 who don’t get it again. And I know mine responds to chemotherapy which is really reassuring - I know what happens if it doesn’t, it’s fatal really fast unfortunately.”
During her treatment at St James’s Hospital, Nessa was helped by the charity Maggie’s, in the new centre opened last year in the hospital grounds.
It offers free practical and emotional support for people affected by cancer and their friends and family and sessions such as yoga, make-up tutorials and wig fittings.
Nessa said: “It’s really helpful and even actually for my daughter. I took her and my mum in a few afternoons and she loved it. It’s really peaceful and really calm. And when she knew I was going to hospital, she pictured me going to Maggie’s. It was somewhere to picture me having therapy that wasn’t scary.
“For me, knowing I had somewhere to go and I knew I could ring them for support if I needed anything, or a nice place to sit with a cup of tea after treatment.”
For more information on Maggie’s visit https://www.maggies.org/our-centres/maggies-leeds/.
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