With the dawn of a new year, Diane Parkes meets a brave woman with more reason than most to celebrate.
As a new year dawns, Sandra Burn will have more reasons than most to celebrate.
For Sandra, 47, operations manager with a shipping company, has survived breast cancer, ovarian cancer and being told that she has a gene which makes her susceptible to the disease.
Despite enduring through two sets of surgery to remove the tumours and another to remove her breasts to stave off the risk of the cancer returning, Sandra, from Erdington, Birmingham, is looking forward to the next 12 months.
In fact, she is convinced that 2009 is the year to celebrate life with husband Billy, a 48-year-old foreman for a shopfitting company, and daughter Natasha, a 19-year-old student.
“It sounds a cliché but having cancer does make you realise what you have,” she says. “It was my family who kept me together.”
Sandra’s nightmare began five years ago when she was on holiday and noticed a lump in her breast.
“I didn’t say anything as I didn’t want to ruin the holiday but I went to see my GP as soon as I got home,” she says. “She sent me to Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield and I had a mammogram and a biopsy. Then I was diagnosed with cancer.
“All the time I had thought it was a cyst so it was a real shock. You go through stages when you have breast cancer. First is the crying, then comes anger and then you just want to do anything to get it out of you.”
Sandra, who had private health care through her employer, attended Spire Little Aston Hospital in Sutton Coldfield where doctors arranged to operate two days later at the sister hospital, Spire Parkway in Solihull. Here she had the lump removed. This was followed by a course of chemotherapy but Sandra reacted badly to the drugs.
“With the first lot I wasn’t that bad, although the worst part of the treatment was losing my hair,” she recalls.
“But with the second lot I reacted to the oral tablet and ended up being rushed to their Edgbaston hospital. I had to have blood transfusions and antibiotics. Every three weeks I took the oral tablet and became ill. But after the first time they were prepared for it and I am sure it was that which kept me alive.”
Throughout this time Sandra received the full support of her employer, Metro Shipping. Off work for 11 months, after chemotherapy came radiotherapy followed by regular check-ups. And then came the devastating news that Sandra had been hit by cancer again.
She had been referred to Good Hope Hospital for problem periods before the breast cancer was diagnosed and in 2005 she was recalled for further tests. Because of the large time gap, doctors requested an ultrasound.
“It was a locum consultant and I knew straight away from his face that there was a problem,” says Sandra, now aged 47. “I asked what they had found and they told me there was a tumour and I would have to have a hysterectomy. I asked if it was cancer and they said ‘yes’. I couldn’t believe it. I was scared again but this time I knew I could fight it so I remained as positive as I could.”
Sandra returned to Spire Parkway for more surgery. “I had got to know the staff at the ‘fast access’ breast clinic there really well especially the breast care nurse Bethan. So when I came out of the ultrasound I rang Bethan and she arranged for me to see the rapid response unit at Spire Parkway.
“When they operated they told me that the tumour was quite large and they told me I was very lucky it had been spotted because, if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have seen that Christmas.”
Now with diagnoses for breast and ovarian cancer, Sandra decided to have genetic tests to determine whether she was susceptible to the disease.
“My dad had died a couple of years earlier from lung and throat cancer and I remember him asking if he could have passed it on and the doctor said ‘no’. But in actual fact it was hereditary.
“The gene I had made me at risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The consultant advised me to have a double mastectomy. I trusted him and wasn’t going to carry on knowing that the cancer could come back again.”
Sandra underwent the operation to remove her breasts as well as reconstruction surgery using tissue taken from her stomach. She is still undergoing regular check-ups but they are now just once a year.
“It was really hard but I needed to stay positive,” she says. “The team at the hospital were really supportive and I never felt there was anything hidden from me.
“Now I just feel ecstatic to be alive and I am looking forward to next year.
“Going through this made me really appreciate my husband Billy and my daughter Natasha. It was them who kept everything together. Next year Billy and I are celebrating our silver wedding anniversary and we want to go to Greece.
“Having cancer does change your outlook on life. We always enjoyed life but now we really appreciate everything we have.”