My name is Laura Ashurst and during this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I had my 53rd birthday in North Yorkshire where I live with my husband Paul. That’s momentous. Not the part about living in North Yorkshire albeit is a really lovely place to live. It’s momentous, because I’ve experienced eleven more birthdays than I ever dared to dream that I would.
Just six weeks after my 40th birthday, in December 2007, I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer affecting my lungs and pleural lining. Shocked and devastated and feeling ashamed of my ignorance about secondary breast cancer, I asked a question and listened to the answer for which nobody is ever prepared. It sticks in your throat as the words tumble out. With the image of my two young children in my mind, I asked, “How long?” The answer flatly came back. “Three to six months without chemotherapy and up to two years with chemotherapy” bounced around the tiny consulting room and hit me very hard in my chest. My husband gripped my hand to the point where my engagement ring dented his skin. I immediately thought about how I must have caused this situation myself. The odd cigarette that I’d enjoyed in my twenties and thirties was surely coming back to haunt me. I was totally ignorant about secondary breast cancer. I’d put the breathlessness that I’d been experiencing for six months down to being unfit and my 40th birthday saw me make a pledge to myself that I was determined to get fit. What I hadn’t bargained for was a secondary breast cancer diagnosis that would change my world forever.
I struggle to recall my life before breast cancer. I was 34 when I was first diagnosed. Jack was 6 months old and Megan was three. Breast cancer invaded our lives again three years later when I was 37. Even then, having had two primary breast cancers I couldn’t have told you the first thing about secondary breast cancer because nobody had told me what to look out for; the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer were never explained to me until the day I was diagnosed with it. That was very wrong. But what is right now is that so many people are being made aware of what to look out for because of the tireless work that’s ongoing to press for change around a narrative where the end of treatment for primary breast cancer creates a false sense of security to one where all people are made aware of the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer.
Clearly, I didn’t die as forecast. I’m very much alive and it goes without saying that I am so grateful to still be here but I’m in the minority of people who live beyond 10 years following their diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. I want to see the day where there are thousands more people like me, where drug development and a quick route to market sees all of those people, irrespective of where they live, being able to access the most up to date and cutting edge treatment regimens with less harsh side effects and a better quality of life. Perhaps I’m asking too much when I’ve had so much extra time? Anybody who lives with an incurable, life-limiting disease will recognise the bargaining that has gone on in my mind. Dare I ask for more? Dare I dream of a future where this disease allows the majority to survive and thrive for decades? I choose to live my life with hope that this becomes a reality in my lifetime.
I have lived with secondary breast cancer for thirteen years this December. The biology of my disease meant that from December 2007 to April 2008 FEC chemotherapy couldn’t halt the progression of my tumour sites, but the introduction of Letrozole to my body after four days of radiation to my ovaries, saw a massive positive response that shocked and surprised my oncology team. It’s Letrozole that is keeping me alive and stable. It’s Letrozole, which has allowed me to see my children grow into young adults. It’s Letrozole that sees me regularly unable to function properly due to fatigue, loss of concentration, joint pain and other side effects but I am here. Zometa also has a part to play too in giving my bones the extra support that they need.
I am only the surviving member of a group of seven friends that were all diagnosed with secondaries around the same time as me. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t stop to pause and reflect on this. Maybe I should feel lucky but luck has got nothing to do with it in my book. In my book, the biology of their breast cancer meant that the available drugs at that time were not able to control progression of their disease. The biology of my breast cancer means that mine has been controlled. This seems very black and white and of course there are grey areas in the middle but it’s the grey areas in the middle that we need to eradicate. We are entering a new generation of drug development that was still only a dream when I was first diagnosed in 2007. Science is progressing. Now what we need is the bureaucracy and barriers to access to newly marketed drugs to be removed, to see a world where every person diagnosed with secondary breast cancer is given the best possible chance of survival.
Being involved in a range of breast cancer campaigns over the last thirteen years has made me feel frustrated many times but it has also given me a voice and a feeling of doing something to help bring about change. My hope is that our collective voices within the secondary breast cancer community are starting to be heard. I am currently thriving but that’s far from enough. There needs to be so many more people being given the chance to thrive. Everybody reading this knows that none of us can see into the future. I like to think I can and it’s full of people like me; people who outlive predictions and statistics, not because of luck but because of strategy, support and specialized drugs that have life extension and longevity written across the top of their boxes.
This glimpse into my personal story is just a glimpse. But I hope that by sharing it with you it gives extra life to the hope we all hold dear in our community: more time with our families and friends and a life where every second has been counted. Every person living with this disease is unique. What we all share in common is our desire to thrive and live well with it.
Thank you Make 2NDS Count for inviting me to share some of my story with you.