Two 31-year-old women have told how they became “secondary sisters” after learning that their breast cancer is incurable and they will not be able to have children.
At first sight, Nicky Newman, from Guildford, Surrey, looks the picture of health but an X-ray image shows her body riddled with “secondary” tumours.
Laura Middleton-Hughes, from Norwich, has the same disease and takes powerful drugs to help prolong her life.
Both women have been robbed of their chance to have children and suffer fatigue and pain on a daily basis.
But, determined to live life to the full, the pair have founded an online community, called Secondary Sisters, for women in the same position.
They are also supporting Stand Up To Cancer, a joint fundraising campaign by Cancer Research UK and Channel 4, which has seen them paint their bodies with words describing their journey.
Mrs Newman discovered she had cancer about a year ago when she noticed a lump in her right breast.
At the time, she was undergoing IVF in a desperate bid to have a baby with husband Alex.
She said: “I’ve always been a ‘lumpy’ person so I wasn’t worried. I talked to the IVF nurse and she said it was probably just a side-effect of the treatment.
“But a week later, there was an indentation in the breast and the nipple had gone in.
“I called the nurse again and she told me not to worry. But I decided to go with my gut instinct and went to the doctor, who fast-tracked me for extensive tests.
“Before the word ‘cancer’ was even mentioned, I could see it in the doctor’s face.
“My first question was ‘What’s going to happen to my eggs’? At that point, the most important thing to me was having a child. They told me not to panic.”
During tests, Mrs Newman also mentioned that she had been suffering back pains, so she was also referred for specialist imaging. A week later, she was called back.
“The surgeon said to me ‘I’m really sorry, there’s nothing I can do.’ It was terrifying.
“What she was trying to say was that there was nothing she could do as a surgeon – I had stage 4 breast cancer which had spread. But it sent me into a blind panic.
“I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. The whole thing was an absolute blur.”
Mrs Newman needed strong medication to control the pain and temporarily lost her ability to walk.
However, she was put on the drug palbociclib (Ibrance), which had only just been approved on the NHS, and her disease is currently stable.
“My oncologist told me that was a game-changer,” Mrs Newman said.
“If it hadn’t been approved, my prognosis would have been very different.”
Mrs Newman took three months off from her job at a finance brokerage.
“When I left hospital, I was grieving more for the fact that I had lost my chance to be a mother, than because I had cancer,” she said.
“It was only six months down the line that I could finally say ‘Oh my God, I have incurable cancer.’
“Then I had to grieve again for the life I thought I would have, or should have had.”
Mrs Newman and Mrs Middleton-Hughes met by chance through an online cancer community and bonded immediately.
They set up Secondary Sisters to “offer information, hope and basically a bit of fun”.
Mrs Newman added: “There are tough times, of course, and we don’t shy away from that. But our focus is on living your life and living it well.”
Mrs Middleton-Hughes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 after finding a lump in her left breast while on a dream holiday to Australia.
She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy and recovered, but began to feel pain in her right shoulder in April 2016.
The pain continued to get worse and her GP referred her for physiotherapy, and then eventually she had a scan.
Medics found that a tumour had overtaken the head of the humerus – the long bone in the arm from the shoulder to the elbow.
Mrs Middleton-Hughes said: “I didn’t know at that point if it had spread anywhere else but immediately I feared it had and I had only weeks to live.”
She underwent a shoulder replacement, which caused her agonising pain, and then started chemotherapy.
At present, she has traces of cancer in her spine, 12 vertebrae and pelvis. Her disease is currently stable, though incurable.
“I’m very, very grateful that the treatment I’m having is managing to give me a fairly normal life,” she said.
Mrs Middleton-Hughes has had to give up the hairdressing job she loved but in April this year she married husband Brad.
As part of Stand Up To Cancer, both women have painted their bodies with words which characterise their battle with cancer, including “pain”, “infertility”, “fatigue” and “stage 4”.
The campaign aims to unite scientists, celebrities and communities across the UK to raise cash for rapid new treatments.
It is supported by a host of celebrities including presenters Davina McCall and Maya Jama, comedians Alan Carr and Joe Lycett, and Olympic champion Greg Rutherford.
Lynn Daly, spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK, said: “Faced with such a difficult prognosis, Nicky and Laura are being unbelievably brave and positive in sharing their very personal stories.
“There’s been amazing progress in the past few decades and more people are now surviving cancer than ever before.
“But with one in two in the UK set to develop the disease at some point in our lives, and thousands and thousands of people in the same position as Nicky and Laura, there’s still so much more to do.
“Supporting Stand Up To Cancer enables scientists to explore brave new ways to fight the disease and develop radical treatments, meaning more lives are saved.”
To find out more about Stand Up To Cancer go to Standuptocancer.org.uk or channel4.co.uk/SU2C or follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.