A Co Antrim mum has revealed how an aggressive form of breast cancer went undetected for over a year because she was pregnant and breastfeeding. By Stephanie Bell
Developing breast cancer during pregnancy is very rare – affecting one in every 3000 women – and Lisa Smyth from Belfast knows to her cost just how difficult it is to diagnose.
Despite symptoms that persisted for months, Lisa’s cancer was at an advanced stage three and had spread to her lymph nodes when she was eventually diagnosed.
After coming through gruelling surgery and treatment, she was also given the shattering news last December that it has now spread to her lungs.
Determined to battle for the sake of her three young children, she says: “It took around 13 months for me to get a proper diagnosis as from what I understand it is difficult to do so during pregnancy.
“There are so many changes happening in your body which can sometimes mask the symptoms and I was either pregnant or breastfeeding over a three-year period.
“Unfortunately, this delay meant my cancer was stage 3 and had spread to 16 of the 21 lymph nodes. I had three boys aged five, two and five months and it was a very frightening time.
“Now it has spread to my lungs. My oncologist explained that they found nodules in the lung behind my breast, which he feared was cancer. To my horror, this was confirmed with a lung biopsy in January this year.
“I was totally devastated.”
Despite what she is going through Lisa is determined to raise awareness of cancer and much needed funds for research.
She will be on chemotherapy drugs for the rest of her life and knows how important research into new drug development is which is why she is hoping to inspire people to join the cancer Research UK Race for Life event this autumn.
“Everything I’ve been through means I understand all too clearly why Cancer Research UK’s work is so important. It’s thanks to research that I can enjoy more time with my family and all those I love,” she says.
Lisa who works in IT is married Simon (43), an IT consultant and they have three young boys Jake (8), Harry (5) and Ben (4).
She was just 39 and nursing Ben when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in October 2017.
However, her first symptoms appeared over a year earlier in September 2016.
She recalls: “Harry was 11 months old, and I noticed that my nipple was really raw and there was some blood. I continued feeding him for another two months, but then stopped as things were not improving.
“It was at this time I found out I was pregnant again, and my youngest, Ben, was born in April 2017.
“I had been seeking medical advice throughout my pregnancy. However, I became really concerned soon after Ben was born.
“He wouldn’t feed from my bad side and was losing weight, prompting me to seek further advice. It was affecting my baby now, so I had to get to the bottom of it.”
The fact that you can’t have a mammogram when under the age of 40, pregnant or breastfeeding was a major cause in the delay in diagnosing Lisa’s cancer, which was finally detected following an ultrasound scan.
It showed a 6cm lump, which could not be felt as the breast tissue was so thick.
She began treatment in November 2017 with chemotherapy, followed by surgery, radiotherapy and eventually reconstruction, for which further surgery was required in November 2019.
Life moved on for Lisa, returning to work, taking care of her three boys and dealing with the pandemic, whilst having MRI and CT scans every six months to monitor her progress.
It was during one of these checks last July that doctors picked up something in her lungs which concerned them.
She explains: “I had never been given the all clear but my oncologist always said there was no evidence of disease, so I had got back to normal life.
“I had finished my treatment in June 2018, and it was during a routine scan last July that I was told something had shown up in my lungs and they wanted to keep an eye on it.
“In December it appeared to have grown and I had a biopsy done and the results came through in January confirming that I had secondary breast cancer of the lungs.
“They told me I would have to start back on chemo and to me that was nearly worse than being told the cancer was back as it was so tough first-time round.
“Thankfully this chemo is less aggressive, and I get it every three weeks by IV and I have been told I will be on it for the rest of my life.”
Lisa does not know what the future holds but is determined to take one day at a time and have as much fun with her boys as she can.
She says: “I am trying to enjoy life now and not worry too much about the future. I would like to get to see my boys turn 18, if I can do that for them, I will be delighted.
“My oncologist put it to me that I am living with cancer not dying of cancer and I try to focus on that.
“I now have to fit life around hospital appointments, but you have to just get on with it. What’s the alternative? To sit and feel sorry for yourself?”
For Lisa, the fact that she is being kept alive by chemotherapy drugs has put into sharp focus the need to fund ongoing research.
It is why she aims to take part in this year’s Race for Life for Cancer Research UK which had to be cancelled last year due to the pandemic.
She adds: “More than ever I appreciate what cancer research means and the chemo I am on now is not too harsh and I am not bald or sick and can still have a life.
“If it stops working, they will try another drug and I know that new drugs are being researched all the time, which is why it is important to support events like Race for Life. Even if I have to walk it this year, I will be doing it and hope others will consider signing up.”
Every hour someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer.
Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, which has been in partnership with Tesco for 20 years, is an inspiring series of 3K, 5K, 10K, Pretty Muddy and Pretty Muddy Kids events which raise millions of pounds to help beat cancer by funding crucial research.
Money raised through the event series funds world-class research to help beat 200 types of cancer, including bowel, prostate, lung, testicular, brain as well as children’s cancers and leukaemia.
This year, participants will set off on the Race for Life course at Stormont Estate either alone or in small, socially distanced groups.
Hand sanitiser will also be provided with participants encouraged to use it before and after the event.
This year’s event will take place on September 26.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson for Northern Ireland, said: “We are grateful to Lisa for her support.
“Race for Life offers the perfect opportunity for people to run, walk or jog and raise money for life-saving research.
“We know that 2020 was a year like no other and we had to overcome many challenges thrown our way during the global pandemic.
“This past year proves, more than any other, the value of investing in science and medical research and what can be achieved by working together.
“Just like science is our route out of the pandemic, science is our route to beating cancer. We are absolutely determined to continue to create better cancer treatments for tomorrow.”
Jean adds: “All 400 mass participation Race for Life events across the UK were cancelled last year to protect the country’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So, this year, more than ever, we need people to enter the Race for Life, for the people we love, for the people we’ve lost and for the one in two of us who will get cancer.”
Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, Cancer Research UK’s work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of the progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.
Cancer Research UK was able to spend over £2 million in Northern Ireland last year on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.
Enter now at raceforlife.org or call 0300 123 0770