'I had breast cancer and then cervical cancer'

Juanita Higgs, 69, explains the impact of cancer on her life, and how her charity work helps others and brings her so much happiness.

Finding out I had cancer

I’d always had problems with lumps in my breasts, particularly on the left side, so I was always quite breast aware. They were just little cysts that had to be drained at the breast clinic. But then I found a lump in my right breast, and it felt different. I had a feeling that something was wrong because it was on the other side.

I went to have the lump drained as I normally did, but they couldn’t get anything out. I had to have a biopsy. When they came back with the results, I could tell from their faces that something was wrong.

When I spoke to the consultant, he said, "We’re 99% sure it’s breast cancer". I didn’t remember anything about what he was saying except the word ‘cancer’. It’s as if you’re looking in on someone else; it just isn’t you, it’s not real.

The treatment: surgery and tamoxifen

I had to have a mastectomy, and I decided to have a breast reconstruction at the same time. I had an appointment with the plastic surgeon, who was really kind and helpful. He said he’d do a reconstruction with a silicone implant. He'd take some muscle from my back and make a new boob with it. It’s an operation called a Latissimus Dorsi flap (LD). I wanted to know everything he was going to do. It helped me feel a bit more in control of what was happening.

It was a two-week wait for the operation, the longest two weeks of my life.

I tried not to cry because I didn’t want to upset my husband. I wanted to be brave for him because he was devastated. He was so supportive. We often think it’s all about us, but partners go through hell too.

I remember going home and looking in the mirror and thinking: I’ve got something in my body that I can’t control, and if I don’t have this operation I’ll probably die. So there’s no choice really.

The operation took seven hours. Everyone in the ward was so helpful. I’ll never forget my husband’s face as he watched me go up to theatre on the trolley. Afterwards, he said he thought he was never going to see me again. When I woke up the draining tubes were coming out of my chest and I was a bit groggy. But two days later I was sitting up in bed with my makeup on and my hair done.

I went home after a week, and it was great. It felt like a new beginning. I had an appointment to see the plastic surgeon and he said I could have a nipple done, to make it look more normal. The nipple’s great. They do a tattoo around it to look like the areola. I never thought at my age I’d be having a tattoo! It looks great. It’s never going to be a complete match, but it’s very good.

The reconstruction helps me to feel as close as possible to how I was before. I’m not really aware of it anymore. It’s been some time now, and it’s one of these gradual things – suddenly one day you forget it’s there.

I took tamoxifen for five years after my operation. I went through a phase of feeling sick, but I told the breast nurse and she said the coating on the tablets was affecting me. So I was put on a different brand of tamoxifen and I was fine.

My second diagnosis of cancer

About two years after the operation, I found out I had cervical cancer. It wasn’t linked to the breast cancer, it was completely separate, just one of those things. I had a complete hysterectomy, and again I received great treatment in the hospital.

Life after cancer

I knew I wanted to put something back for the wonderful treatment I’d had, so I decided to volunteer. I worked at Sandwell hospital for three years as a volunteer complementary therapist. Then I applied to do peer support for Breast Cancer Care. They match you up with someone who has the same type of cancer you had. You talk to them and see what their problems are, and try to help them. Peer supporters can’t give medical advice, but we’re there for support.

I do breast awareness stands, giving out leaflets and helping people to be breast aware. I’m also involved with Headstrong, a brilliant service for women having chemo who lose their hair. We show them how to put scarves on, and help them with looking after their scalp and their nails. They might feel a bit low when they come in, but they usually go out with a smile, and it’s just so rewarding.

I also work with ‘Look Good... Feel Better’, a charity that arranges skincare and beauty workshops for women having cancer treatments. The beauty consultants come to the hospital and show the ladies how to do their makeup. We have tea and a biscuit and a chat; it’s just wonderful. Plus the ladies each get a bag of goodies, really nice stuff. It's a relaxed environment, where everyone's going through the same thing, and it really helps people to open up.

I used to be such a quiet person, but now my husband never knows what I’m going to do next. This whole experience has really brought me out of myself. Having cancer is not a good thing, but it’s changed my life completely. I’ve made so many friends, and I’m doing things I never ever thought I would do. I can’t explain how great it is.

Breast Cancer Care is a charitable organisation providing services and information to people with breast cancer. You can also call them for free on their helpline (0800 800 6000) for advice and support.

Breast cancer: Symptoms, screening and treatment

Breast surgeon Mr Clive Griffith talks about breast cancer, including symptoms to look out for, screening and treatment.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Page last reviewed: 15/04/2013

Next review due: 15/04/2015

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