Mavis: My cancer battle

Our popular globetrotter columnist MAVIS BENSLEY is best known for her worldwide travels and adventurous spirit.

James Marston

Our popular globetrotter columnist MAVIS BENSLEY is best known for her worldwide travels and adventurous spirit. But today she is on a different journey as she fights breast cancer.

Here, in her own words, she shares her experience in the hope it will help others.

I'VE been on another journey recently, one which is totally foreign to me.

No, not by cruise ship or flight to far-flung places of the globe but one much nearer to home, Ipswich Hospital no less.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered a small underarm swelling as I showered. “Oh No!” I thought, but as I was enjoying a city break in Dubai there was nothing I could do so put it out of my mind.

Most Read

Here's how the diary went for the last couple of weeks.

Thursday, April 16, home from Dubai at 11.30pm.

Friday, 17, 10am GP surgery appointment.

The doctor confirmed I had a small lump in my right breast and had his registrar also do an examination.

3.15pm phone call from Ipswich Hospital with an appointment for Monday, April 20.

Monday I saw a consultant who did an examination, same result, “whatever it is, it's got to come out!”

Thursday 23, X-rays (mammogram), ultra scan and biopsy.

Results took one week and one day in the path labs.

Next appointment May 1.

Yes, it's a cancer which must be removed surgically plus four lymph nodes to check that the disease hasn't spread causing more problems.

May 19 is the date set for the operation.

So in one month and three days I have found a lump, been diagnosed with breast cancer will have had the operation - end of story apart from follow ups and check ups that is - I hope.

Short and sweet, easy peasy, minor inconvenience, over and done with, sorted - move on, get on with life, except real life is never like that is it?

We can be rational, clinical, weigh the pros and cons in the brain but it all counts for nothing unless we take into consideration the emotional toll that it has on the mind.

When I first found the swelling I tried to put it out of my mind and did as much as possible to occupy myself - reading, swimming, sight-seeing, sleeping, shopping, eating, chatting etc, but in the quiet moments I kept asking myself “what if..?” Then “think positively - maybe it's just a little knot of fat so check it out ASAP”.

Everything seemed to happen so fast when I got home. I was quite amazed. No one mentioned waiting lists or delays, of course doctors, nurses, consultants, pathologists, surgeons and everyone else who examined, poked, probed, pressed, swabbed, x-rayed or took samples of blood etc had seen this all before many times but it was all dizzyingly new to me.

Everyone was calm, professional re-assuring, told me exactly what they were doing and why, what would happen next and when.

I found everyone friendly but not gushing (except one rather jolly-hockey-sticks lady who said “come along Mavis”).

Thankfully nobody offered sympathy, I don't think I could have borne an “oh poor you!” in my rather tense state of mind. What I really wanted was someone to say “nothing there - no problem - no action to be taken,” but it was not to be. I had to come to terms with the fact I had cancer.

Hard enough to accept but even more difficult to tell my family. I waited until I knew more facts so that I could be reassuring and positive and give my daughters full information. The biggest fear with cancer is the fear of the unknown. What is it? How does it get there? What sort is it?

Words like “tumour”, “malignant”, “radio and chemo therapy” are, to me, terrifying.

I've been doing my research, finding out as much info and details as I could but more importantly, which questions to ask the surgeon re what is pertinent to my situation and condition like “what is going to happen to me?”

Since my lump is quite small the procedure as I understand it seems very straight forward.

Imagine a polo mint, the hole in the middle represents the cancerous tissue which is removed surgically then the “mint” is treated to radiotherapy to destroy any cells which may have escaped into the surrounding areas. During surgery a blue dye is injected to check if any of the underarm lymph nodes have been affected. Four of these nodes or glands will be removed for checking later in pathology.

It's ok though I'll have about 35 nodes left. Lymph nodes connect to other organs in the body and this is how cancer spreads if not detected soon enough. I'm not looking forward to a patch of blue/grey skin. I don't know how big the scar(s) will be but I hope they don't show too much when I have my bathing costume on on my next cruise.

I did tentatively suggest that the surgeon might do a bit of liposuction on the “bingo wings” whilst she was in there.

Maybe I am flippant and casual about the whole affair but it's the only way I can deal with it.

There is no prescribed method of preparing for this op.

I walk a lot, have read several books, become addicted to Sudoku, swapped my nightly tot of scotch for a glass of red wine, eat healthily (except I indulged in fish and chips the other day) kept in close touch with family and friends who are very supportive - anything to keep my body and mind occupied.

So next week I will pack a very small bag for my “away day”.

I will have the op hopefully in the morning - arriving at 7am, stay overnight and be home the following day.

What happens after that is totally out of my hands but I look forward to an active, healthy future and especially a relaxing cruise - just to recuperate you understand!

Many people (men and women) develop cancer and Ipswich Hospital sees 200 new cases a year.

I just want to show that it need not be too frightening if acted upon quickly.

Don't bury your head in the sand if you are in the least suspicious of a lump, anywhere.

Have a mammogram; even if it shows nothing it will act as a comparison should something show up in later years.

Being breast aware simply means getting to know how your breasts normally look and feel at different times of the month. If you notice a change that isn't normal for you, talk it over with your doctor.

You don't need to examine your breasts everyday or even every week. You just need to get to know how your breasts normally feel, and how that changes with your periods.

Some women have lumpier breasts around the time of a period. If this is the same on both sides, don't worry. Just check your breasts again the following month, a few days after your period is over. If the lumpiness comes and goes with your menstrual cycle, it is nothing to worry about.

It is easiest to check your breasts in the shower or bath. Run a soapy hand over each breast and up under your arm. The NHS breast awareness five-point code says

Know what is normal for you

Look and feel

Know what changes to look for

Report any changes without delay

Attend for breast screening if you are aged 50 or over

You are checking for changes to the size, shape or feel of your breast. This could mean a lump or thickening anywhere in the breast. Most people naturally have one breast bigger than the other. It is a change in size or shape that you should watch out for.

If you are worried about feeling your breasts, there are people who can help.

Talk it over with your doctor or nurse

Staff at your local 'well woman' clinic (your GP will be able to give you the telephone number)

Staff at one of the breast cancer organisations

For more about cancer visit the patient information website click on 'specific cancers' then 'breast cancer'.

If you want to talk in confidence about cancer, call the information nurses. Direct line 020 7061 8355 or freephone 0800 CANCER / 0800 226 237 or e-mail

Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK. In the 1970s around 5 out of 10 breast cancer patients survived beyond five years. Now it's 8 out of 10.