BBC television presenter Victoria Derbyshire is back at work having had a mastectomy on 24 September. That’s great and, like everyone else, I wish her all the very, very best.
Victoria recorded a video diary from her hospital bed just hours after her operation. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable when I saw her holding up one placard saying “This morning I had breast cancer” followed by another that said “This evening I don’t”.
You’ve got to admire Victoria for doing the diary but my immediate thought was “that’s not how it works with breast cancer”. There’s no guarantee you get rid of your cancer by having a mastectomy. There’s always the possibility that some cancer cells have been left behind near the site of the original tumour or have escaped from the site where the cancer started and are on their way through the bloodstream to somewhere else in the body where they could grow and cause new tumors.
That’s why for many women diagnosed with breast cancer surgery is just one step on a long journey that involves a range of tools aimed at getting rid of the cancer and reducing the likelihood of it coming back. Those tools can include combinations of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, biological therapy and daily hormone treatment for up to ten years after surgery… with accompanying side effects – physical and emotional – at each stage of treatment.
So I’m in the same camp as Catherine Pepinster, a journalist like Victoria (and me), and who, again like Victoria and me, has personal experience of breast cancer. I’m with Catherine in wondering whether Victoria’s reaction to cancer treatment sends an over-simple message.
Sure I agree with Victoria that having cancer is “manageable” and that having a mastectomy is “totally doable”. Thousands of women “do” mastectomies every year – it’s not like they have much of a choice – and everyone who has cancer – breast or any other type – manages it as best they can. But manageable and doable don’t mean easy. My own mastectomy isn’t until December or January but, like everyone else, I’ll “do” it as best I can.
I do agree wholeheartedly that you don’t “fight” or “battle” cancer, you just have it and deal with it.
If breast cancer is caught early enough, you treat it and, yes, you might get rid of it. Even if it comes back down the line, it may not be curable but it is treatable. But it really isn’t a question of having it one day and not having it the next.