Heather Glover: Surviving and Thriving after Breast Cancer
Heather Glover is a mother, nurse and two-time breast cancer survivor. She shares her journey, from diagnosis to relapse, as well as how she founded her company – Skarlette.
I always wanted to be a children’s nurse, for as long as I can remember. I did not get the grades to study for a dual qualification, so I became a registered general nurse in 1992. I soon went on to complete my sick children’s nursing and then obtained my degree. I loved nursing children and their families; I think helping people is in my blood, as my mum was also a children’s nurse. I worked hard and enjoyed roles in management, education, and research, as well as my clinical roles.
My latest position, which I continue to work in, is in primary care. My life has never been all about work though. I love socialising – friends are a big part of my life. I love to exercise to keep in shape, of course, but more importantly, for my mental health and well-being. Most of all, my biggest achievement and passion is my family. I have a truly supportive husband and three fabulous children. They bring tears to my eyes when I think back to my cancer diagnosis.
We were merrily going about our lives, quite blessed really, but we did not necessarily appreciate that at the time. We all understand that there are no guarantees as to how our life will pan out, but we often do not acknowledge this, as it makes us feel vulnerable and uncertain. However, when you are suddenly faced with a life-threatening illness, you are confronted with all those feelings that you normally try to ignore, like uncertainty and vulnerability.
“We had not even been given any bad news at this point; I just knew. I knew what devastation I was about to bring to my family and friends.”
On the 20th of June 2017, I had a shower before work and then ran around as usual at my general practice nursing job. Having returned home and made dinner, I popped to the gym and had another shower that evening. Whilst I was in the shower, I found what felt like a whopping lump in my right breast. Was I worried? Definitely not. Why not? Because I had suffered with breast lumps since I was a teenager. I had undergone investigations and scans many times, and everything had always been fine.
Despite being healthy in my mid-40s, my luck had run out. That was evident on the 30th of June 2017, when I attended the Breast Screening Centre with my husband. Memories of that day still make me cry. We had plans to go to Manchester and watch Richard Ashcroft with friends, then stay at a hotel. I had multiple scans, mammograms, and biopsies.
My husband and I could read the bad news on their faces before any words were spoken. After many hours there, after I had held it all together in the consulting room, I could not stop the tears when we were left alone in the waiting room. We had not even been given any bad news at this point; I just knew. I knew what devastation I was about to bring to my family and friends. We went home, dusted ourselves off and continued with our plans, confiding only in the couple that we went to Manchester with.
“For myself, I had a plan. I just needed to get on with it, get through it, and SURVIVE for my family.”
Our worst fears were confirmed the following week. Now, the worst thing we ever had to do was about to happen… tell our children. Our son was 18 and about to leave home for the first time, our middle daughter was 17 and transferring schools, and our youngest daughter was moving from primary to secondary school. There was no sugar-coating bad news, and we have always been a very open and honest family.
Now, we look back and laugh a lot at this moment. When they all came in from school, I said, “There is tea and bikkies in the lounge.” Unbeknown to us at the time, they all wondered what the problem was as we never did that. Telling them at the time, however, was heart-breaking. My youngest cried and wanted to know if I would lose my long dark hair. My middle daughter cried and said she would kill herself if I died. My son immediately started looking at the practicalities, treatment options and figures.
The weight on my husband’s shoulders was massive. He had recently set up his own Law firm and was not bringing in any money. I had only changed jobs seven months before my diagnosis, and as I could not work through chemotherapy, I was off sick and did not get paid. It was a horribly worrying time for him. For myself, I had a plan. I just needed to get on with it, get through it, and SURVIVE for my family.
I started chemotherapy in August 2017, just after we had a week away in Greece with friends. I was so sick that my youngest requested sleepovers at her best friend’s house each week, on my chemo day. That was fine – I did not want to traumatise her further. My hair began to fall out after 2-3 weeks, and wow, it hurt. I had it shaved off and that was such a relief. I was complimented many times on my lovely-shaped head, so I really did not mind being bald, but I did not appreciate just how much your hair keeps you warm!
I would dress smartly each time I went for my chemo, I would walk there, and most times back home if I was up to it. I would sometimes wear a wig, and sometimes I would walk tall and bald, that made me feel so powerful, so free, so liberated. I did not want pity or sympathy, I wanted to flex my biceps at cancer, and being bald made me feel somewhat stronger.
Chemotherapy is poison, it is horrible. It took away my hair, my energy, my taste. I would not let it take away my smile though. I would remain as upbeat and smiley as I possibly could, especially in front of my children. I did, however, cry a bucket full of the biggest tears every single day, at least once. Sometimes I did not even know I was crying. Eventually, it made us all laugh… “Oh, she is crying again!”
“I had been attacked by Triple Negative Breast Cancer – an aggressive and difficult to treat type of breast cancer. I was petrified at the thought of it coming back.”
My chemo regimen finished not long before Christmas 2017. Just after New Year, I had surgery to remove the tumour in my breast (which was no smaller than when I began chemo), and I had all the lymph nodes removed from under my arm, as the cancer had spread to one of them. I thought this would be the easy part, but I was wrong. I developed a seroma, which is a collection of fluid in the void of the tissue. It was the size of a grapefruit beneath my arm, and it was the most painful thing. It required draining with a needle, yielding 200-300mls of fluid, and around 4 weeks later, it dried up. That time seemed to last forever, and I sympathise with anyone who develops a seroma – this is not something particular to cancer patients.
Once I recovered from that unwanted complication of surgery, I commenced my radiotherapy for 3 weeks. Then, it was over. I was all done. Life could get back to normal. That does not quite happen though. That is when I fell off a cliff. No more hospital appointments… nobody keeping an eye on me… no support. I had just been through the most traumatic event in my life. I had been attacked by Triple Negative Breast Cancer – an aggressive and difficult to treat type of breast cancer. I was petrified at the thought of it coming back.
I received counselling, through Macmillan, which really helped me process it all. I returned to my job in May 2018 and started to train for the Macclesfield Half Marathon, even though I despise running. I was determined to show cancer that I was the boss, and with my team, I wanted to raise money to give back to Macmillan. So, in September 2018, I ran the half marathon in under two hours and raised £2,000. I was in such a good place.
As the year ended, I was tired. Who wouldn’t be when they are running around as a nurse and approaching that very busy period of wintertime? We enjoyed every minute of Christmas day, remembering that I could not taste my previous Christmas dinner, and had barely any energy for our traditional walk the year before. Everything was just fabulous, and life was very much valued, respected and appreciated every day. It was short-lived though. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018, I was taking a shower before welcoming friends over to stay for New Year (two of which we were with the first time I was diagnosed with cancer). It was history repeating itself. Another lump. Exactly in the same place, right on my scar line.
January 2019 was the longest month of my life. So many investigations and biopsies as they were convinced it was scar tissue. The tumour was twice as big as my first, only much more aggressive. It was not visible on scans, but I refused to move and accept that it was scar tissue until they had done a biopsy. Nobody wants this news, but you only have a chance if you know what you’re dealing with. It was confirmed that Triple Negative Breast Cancer had returned, and this time I needed my breast removed, followed by chemotherapy.
My breast was red and very painful this time, so I urge anybody who is reassured by pain (thinking it must not be cancer as it hurts) to always have any abnormality checked out. To be your own best advocate, you must stand up for yourself if you feel things are not right. It is easier said than done, but it is so important, and having cancer has given me the strength to do this for myself.
“It was important for me to show my precious family that I was alright. I was more than alright… I was fantastic! Not only was I surviving, but I was also thriving.“
I was always good at advocating for others, not so much myself, but I needed to do this for the sake of my children and husband. There was less fear of the unknown with chemo this time, just dread for what was ahead. As regards losing my breast, I was glad, to be honest. I was desperate to get rid of the pain as I could not sleep, I was desperate to get rid of the risk to my life. I was relieved and felt good after my surgery.
Most of 2019 was made up of treatment, side effects and not feeling the best. I became involved with Prevent Breast Cancer during the spring of 2019 (the only charity focusing solely on the prevention of this disease), and I became one of 100 Boobees in the Manchester area. Our aim was to raise awareness of breast cancer and breast health, to be accessible to women from ethnic minorities who have great difficulty accessing screening and information and to raise money for the work of the charity.
Being with other women who understood my fears, who could empathise with my symptoms, who could laugh or cry with me and who could share brutally honest conversations, was incredibly empowering and inspiring. It helped me to get through that year. We all worked towards the same goals, and we all put on a spectacular event for our friends and families. It was important for me to show my precious family that I was alright. I was more than alright… I was fantastic! Not only was I surviving, but I was also thriving.
I always thought if I were unlucky enough to get cancer, that I would give up work and just spend time with my family and have an easy life, looking after myself like a precious fragile ornament. So, after this second diagnosis, would I treat myself differently compared to my first recovery? Absolutely. I would go out there, even more guns blazing, and set up my own business in a field I had absolutely no experience in!
Having had a mastectomy on my healthy breast, to reduce further risk of breast cancer, I remained completely flat. I did not have reconstruction, and I do not like to wear fake boobs. I was very glad not to have to wear a bra, but on days when I wanted to, I could not find anything attractive or affordable. The pandemic had struck, and I was stuck.
I approached my friend Kate, who had been a commercial pilot, but gave up her job to care for her son who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. She was also a keen seamstress in her spare time. I asked her to make me a flat bra. She made me the most wonderful piece of lingerie. I could not believe how beautiful and feminine this bralette made me feel. I wanted to run outside immediately and show everybody how gorgeous I looked!
We had to share this feeling with all the other women like me… Then, Skarlette was born. The bralette for scars, empowering flat and small chested women, helping to restore femininity and confidence, whilst also raising awareness of breast health and breast cancer, in my capacity as an ambassador for the charity Prevent Breast Cancer.
Look out for Heather’s next article to be featured in our sister magazine, The Businesswoman Today, where she will go into more detail about Skarlette and the message they stand for.