W Series CEO Catherine Bond Muir and her sister, Jane Bowley, share their experience of the latter’s two battles with breast cancer.
I was 38 the first time I got diagnosed with breast cancer. I found the lump myself and was told I had a very aggressive form of the disease. I had a lumpectomy followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The treatment was pretty gruelling but the hardest thing about it was that I had three small children. They were three, five and eight so all my thoughts were with them rather than myself.
It was a very stressful time. My daughter had been seriously unwell the year before and had undergone several brain operations. The chemo made me very ill and to add to matters, we had started an extension on our house just before I was diagnosed so I had the builders in as well.
My worst fear was leaving my children behind. These things go through your mind – ‘am I going to live to see them grow up?’ Having dependents and realizing I might not be there for them was awful.
I wouldn’t have got through without the help of my family and friends. It takes a lot of work just getting to appointments when you’re not feeling well so you need people to help you do that. Catherine came up to the Midlands and accompanied me to several chemo sessions. My husband was working in London as well as looking after our children, so it was good to have that support as it took some of the pressure off him.
It’s very important for younger people to know you can get breast cancer when you’re young. The first time I just found the lump by luck, I was watching television when I felt it and thought ‘what is that?’ Second time around, 17 years later, I had a bigger lump but it took longer for me to notice because it was directly behind my nipple. It was discolouration that led me to seek medical advice that time; anything abnormal on a breast should be investigated, not just lumps.
I was 55 when I was diagnosed for the second time, around three years ago. I had more thoughts about whether I was going to die but half of me was thinking ‘I’ve actually had a lot of extra time since I last had it so if this is my lot, this is my lot.’ I had to have a mastectomy and then a reconstruction which was quite a big operation.
I’ve been tested to find out if I carry the BRCA gene* and I don’t which is a relief for the female members of my family. The fact that I’ve had two different breast cancers is just extremely unlucky.
All of the main breast cancer charities do amazing work. Those with the most funding are able to carry out the most research, but there are some smaller charities researching specific drugs, and that can make such a difference. Treatment has moved on a lot since I was first diagnosed.
Being ill makes you grateful for what you’ve got. I was always striving for something bigger and better and I realized you should just be happy with your lot. When I was unwell all I wanted was for life to be normal again, I didn’t want to go on a big holiday or do something outrageous because I thought I was going to die, I just didn’t want my life taken away from me.
It’s difficult giving advice to other women with breast cancer because everybody’s illness and treatment are different. Family and friends are important for buoying spirits but it’s good to have something else to focus on as well, like work or a project, because that can help you step out of your personal woes.
In the early stages of W Series Catherine asked me to help her out with the accounting until everything was up and running. I went with her to open the bank account for the business and I remember working on budgets with her during chemo. I wanted to focus on something positive and it was very positive; Catherine was so excited and it just took me away from my situation.
Overall the treatment for breast cancer is very good, and you’ve got a good chance of surviving it– most people will get through it. It’s important to work out what support you need, find out what is available, and if you can’t get it from friends and family there are brilliant organisations that will help.
*BRCA1 and BRCA2 are examples of genes that raise your cancer risk if they become altered. Having a variant BRCA gene greatly increases a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. They also increase a man’s chance of developing male breast cancer and prostate cancer.
My sister Jane was battling breast cancer for the second time in her life when I was setting up W Series in 2018.
The first time I heard Jane had breast cancer was horrible. At 38 she was the youngest person I had known with the disease and she had three very small children. When you receive that sort of news you can’t help but think the worst, and until you’ve been affected by it quite directly you don’t really know anything about cancer. It was an extremely scary time as my sister and I are very close.
As a result of Jane’s two battles with cancer I’ve been far more conscious of self-examination; I’m assiduous about getting my breasts screened. The second time Jane was ill I was married to my husband, Gordon, who is a consultant urologist. He treats prostate cancer. In some ways it was helpful being with someone who has medical insight on the disease but at the same time it can feel like you have more information than you may want.
Right in the early stages of setting up W Series it felt so unlikely that it was ever going to happen but my sister’s illness spurred me on to make it work. Being close to someone who is dealing with life or death makes you more ambitious with what you want to achieve because you know how precious life is.
My sister was instrumental in the early days of W Series and there were a couple of chemotherapy sessions during which she and I worked to pass the time. As a chartered accountant she was someone I could trust – without extensively interviewing people – to manage all the finances when Sean Wadsworth put in his first investment. This was all whilst she was being treated for cancer. She never stopped and I think that was her way of coping.
You adopt coping mechanisms for when things are dreadful. When Jane was going into chemo I’d sit there and make her laugh because it’s all so awful there’s nothing else you can do. If I’d kept asking her if she was alright and how she was feeling, then she’d have started to really worry. As far as we could we just tried to carry on as normal.
The advancement in treatment in the 17 years between Jane’s bouts of cancer is extraordinary, there has been a marked improvement. Whilst there are far more good outcomes now than there were before it is still a deadly disease. When it hits you, it’s so awful that you don’t really know how to react. That’s why we would make each other laugh because it’s just a way of trying to get through. The alternative is unimaginable.
For more information on breast cancer, visit breastcancernow.org or check out W Series’ official social media channels during the month of October to see how we’re highlighting the work of several breast cancer charities.