When I was diagnosed with breast cancer over nine years ago, I hadn’t been checking my boobs – something I will probably regret for the rest of my life. I don’t know how or why, but my boyfriend at the time and I didn’t pay much attention to a lump that had been growing into the size of an avocado. I was embarrassed by my asymmetrical boobs and gave them little to no attention. I was blissfully unaware and totally unlucky to have gotten the disease at 23. It didn’t help that when I eventually did see a GP for advice they told me I was “too young” for breast cancer, as that was exactly what I wanted to hear at the time!
Eight months later not only was I told I had breast cancer, but because it had been found so late it had spread to my spine and was thus secondary breast cancer, aka stage 4, aka advanced, aka I was screwed.
I was told there were treatments available but I could kiss goodbye to a full recovery. What did I do with this news? Well, at first I freaked the f**k out, as you would expect. Then I dutifully swallowed the pills, sat patiently whilst chemotherapy was pumped into my veins, watched my asymmetrical chest turn to cyclops boobs and during all this fun I had very little else to think about but the rather unfortunate and ridiculous way my cancer had been diagnosed. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d been told to check my boobs, if I’d known I could get breast cancer at 23, if I had been confident to know that the lump was not normal for me, I would be in a whole different situation. In other words, I could consider a future post-cancer, but instead I was adjusting to a forever relationship with the bugger. And I am still with said bugger now, as it has since then not only migrated to more of my bones, but my liver and brain, too.
I am not alone. Every year, more than 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer – including 400 men –and the chances of surviving are dramatically raised the earlier it is diagnosed. If breast cancer is found at Stage 1 (when it is still in your breast), you stand a 90% chance of surviving. If it is found at Stage 4 (when it has spread beyond the breast), this drops to 10%. I dare not think how long I ignored the symptoms. When it comes to cancer, ignorance is not bliss.
So with time on my hands during treatment, I started to think about how I could change the way young people think about their boobs. I thought about all the moments in my early to late teens where that life-saving education could have started. With the help of some pals and my twin sister Maren, I started a charity called CoppaFeel.
CoppaFeel’s mission is simple: stamp out late detection and get every young person to understand the importance of checking their boobs regularly. My dreams were ginormous but I had absolutely nothing to lose. My enthusiasm and drive still baffles me to this day, since at the time my body was being obliterated with medications and I spent a lot of time feeling rougher than a tin of biscuits. The charity has grown significantly since 2009 and is now run by 12 kickass women. Boob education now happens in universities and schools, we run innovative media campaigns, take our boob van (named Belinda) on festival tours, educate GPs, send monthly text reminders to over 40,000 people, and we’ve persuaded loads of brands including Tesco and Next to sew reminder labels into their bras to help prompt people to check… Basically, you name it, we’re there, talking boobs.
As well as all this, we put on an annual music festival called Festifeel with the help of our patron, Fearne Cotton. It’s a huge joy to work alongside someone so enthusiastic about our cause and music! She would probably never rave about this but with the help of Fearne and her incredibly huge reach, we have heard from women who have been diagnosed early, have had treatment for breast cancer and have made full recoveries. If that ain’t a super bloody amazing thing, I don’t know what is. Right now Fearne and I are putting together the line-up for this year’s event happening at the House of Vans, Waterloo, on 6 October. It’s an awesome day of music, comedy, and boob fun - we’ve had the likes of the Stereophonics, Slaves and Busted as headliners in the past so you can expect a pretty great line up again this year.
It is thanks to some wonderful drugs, a massive desire to live and to learn, my cat, my friends, my family (in that order), and my unwavering dedication to CoppaFeel that I am still alive today. I try not to dwell on “what could have been” too much BUT If I had met someone like me when I was at school, college or university, I might not be in the predicament I am in now, where I have to go into hospital every month for treatment and take a daily cocktail of drugs. I live from scan to scan hoping the cancer doesn’t find any more spots to settle in my body. It’s never ending, and I don’t want that for you. What I want is for you to know your boobs, trust your touch, and feel confident to know if something is not normal for you. I hate to be such a buzz kill, but your life may depend on it.
10 Minutes To Check Your Boobs
1. Get to know what is normal for you: All boobs are different and nobody knows your body better than you do. So make sure you check once a month, using whatever method you are comfortable with.
2. LOOK and FEEL: A lump isn’t the only sign and symptom of breast cancer. Some symptoms you wouldn’t notice just by feeling your boobs, so it is important to have a good look too, and pay special attention to your nipples.
3. Unusual changes: There are a few changes to be aware of when checking your boobs. Click here for all the signs and symptoms.
4. Collarbone and armpit: You also have breast tissue right up to your collar bone and in your armpit, therefore it is important to check this whole area, not just your boobs.
5. If in doubt, get it checked out: If you notice anything unusual for you, then always go to see your doctor, as they have seen it all before and will be able to properly check you over.
For a FREE monthly reminder to check your boobs, head to coppafeel.org/remind-me for more information.
For one day only on Tuesday 27 March, Fearne Cotton has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Happy Place – a digital sanctuary, focusing entirely on wellness, happiness and good mental health.
For similarly inspiring and uplifting content, check out Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place, available on Apple Podcasts now.
Words: Kris Hallenga
Images: Josh Shinner and Derek Bremner