Real life: Can­cer took our par­ won’t take us

Tracey Pin­fold, 47, and her sis­ter have shared much heart­break. But their bond is un­break­able

Woman's Own - - HELLO & WELCOME -

Stand­ing in front of the mir­ror, I snapped a pic­ture to send to my sis­ter, Cathy. I couldn’t stop laugh­ing at how ridicu­lous I looked. ‘Now try the mad one on,’ she typed back. ‘Don’t be silly,’ I replied. ‘There’s no way I could pull that off!’

It was April 2017 and for the most part, we sound just like any other sis­ters. But they weren’t funny clothes or silly hats I was try­ing on – they were wigs.

Cathy and I grew up in a large fam­ily in North­ern Ire­land with five other si­b­lings. When I was seven, our dad, Pa­trick, then 39, passed away from pan­cre­atic can­cer. Life with­out him was hard on our mum Frances. Be­ing the el­dest girl, I stepped up, learn­ing to cook, clean and care for my younger si­b­lings. I adored them all, but just three years younger than me, Cathy and I were best friends as well as sis­ters. Aged 19, I moved to Leeds to study at uni­ver­sity. There, I met Richard. We got mar­ried in Oc­to­ber 2000 and the fol­low­ing March our son Ja­cob was born. My si­b­lings just couldn’t wait to meet their new nephew. And, de­spite be­ing so far apart, I spoke to Cathy ev­ery day. I was so happy when she moved to Sur­rey, just four hours away.

Sadly, in 2006 Mum was di­ag­nosed with lung can­cer. Just two years later, in 2008, Mum died. Los­ing her was agony. It seemed so cruel – how could can­cer take both of our par­ents? Mum’s death made us more health-con­scious. We all joined gyms and ate healthily. ‘It won’t hap­pen to us,’ I re­as­sured my sis­ters Cathy and Tr­isha.

But in Au­gust 2016 I was get­ting dressed when Richard stopped me. Since Ja­cob had been born, I’d had an in­verted nip­ple on my left breast from breast­feed­ing. It’d never caused me pain, but Richard had no­ticed it had changed shape. ‘You should get it checked out,’ he said, worry etched on his face. But I just shrugged it off, as­sum­ing my body was chang­ing with age. Af­ter all, I was 45, surely things were meant to look dif­fer­ent. But Richard kept in­sist­ing. Fi­nally, 12 weeks later, I booked an ap­point­ment. ‘I want to get you checked by a spe­cial­ist,’ the doc­tor said. So, that De­cem­ber I was re­ferred to a breast care ward and, a week later, I went alone to the ap­point­ment – that’s how con­fi­dent I was that I’d be fine. Only af­ter look­ing at my nip­ple, the nurse frowned. ‘Have you got any­one with you to­day?’ she asked. When I told her I didn’t, she in­sisted I call some­one. Richard was work­ing two hours away in Sh­effield as a marketing di­rec­tor, but I didn’t ar­gue. The nurse’s face told me all I needed. ‘You need to come now,’ I said to Richard, over the phone. ‘I think it’s bad news.’ While he raced to my side I had a mam­mo­gram,

‘Los­ing Mum was agony – it seemed so cruel’

ul­tra­sound and biopsy. ‘We won’t know the re­sults for two weeks,’ said the nurse, af­ter Richard ar­rived. ‘But it looks like it’s breast can­cer.’ All I could think about was my par­ents. It was like can­cer was com­ing for us, one by one.

Stay­ing strong

The next day I was shak­ing as I called Cathy. As I re­peated what the nurse had said, my voice broke. But Cathy was so strong. She wouldn’t let me fall apart. ‘You can get through this, you can’t leave me,’ she re­peated. Two weeks on, I dis­cov­ered my can­cer was grade two and oe­stro­gen-re­cep­tive — mean­ing it wasn’t life-threat­en­ing and could be treated with hor­mone ther­apy and chemo­ther­apy.

I was given the choice of a lumpec­tomy or a mas­tec­tomy. But I wanted my breasts gone, with no chance of the can­cer re­turn­ing. I could have a re­con­struc­tion with mus­cle from my back, too. On 12 Jan­uary 2017 I had a mas­tec­tomy fol­lowed by chemo that March.

Cathy would make the four-hour car jour­ney to be with me and whether she was hold­ing my towel while she helped me shower, or mock­ing my big knick­ers, she al­ways made me laugh.

But chemo was tough on my body. I had mouth ul­cers and my hair started to fall out, and I was so weak. Cathy helped with Ja­cob, then 13, and the cook­ing and clean­ing. But that April, she didn’t seem her usual self. ‘I’ve found a lump in my breast,’ she admitted. I tried not to think the worst. How much bad luck could one fam­ily have? A week later, I learnt that can­cer doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate. Cathy and her wife Alana vis­ited with bad news. Cathy had breast can­cer too. Alana sobbed while Cathy and I grasped hands. ‘You can get through this,’ I said. ‘We can get through this.’ Cathy’s can­cer was stage two and hor­mone-re­cep­tive, like mine. She was booked into hos­pi­tal for six rounds of chemo while I was hav­ing mine at the same time.

Tak­ing con­trol

‘We are two of the lucky ones – we sur­vived’

‘My hair’s fall­ing out,’ Cathy re­vealed one day. I knew how she felt. My own hair had started fall­ing out just six days af­ter I’d started chemo and now I was com­pletely bald. Then I had an idea. ‘Let’s shave your hair off,’ I told her. ‘We can be bald to­gether!’ I said. Cathy loved the idea that we were tak­ing back some con­trol. So six weeks af­ter her chemo be­gan, my sis­ter Tr­isha, who owns a hair sa­lon, shaved it off for her. Cathy was ner­vous, but she’d said hav­ing seen me go through it made her less scared too.

We video called each other as we shopped for dif­fer­ent wigs and ban­dana styles, each more crazy than the next. And we couldn’t stop laugh­ing. But sense pre­vailed and I chose two dif­fer­ent wigs – a blonde bob and a longer blonde one. Cathy de­cided to stick with ban­danas, but soon we were happy be­ing bald to­gether in pub­lic. It was lib­er­at­ing.

Af­ter four months of chemo­ther­apy, I was in re­mis­sion and a month later Cathy was too. In Oc­to­ber, she had a mas­tec­tomy and this Septem­ber she’ll have a full re­con­struc­tion us­ing her stom­ach mus­cle. For a long time, it felt like can­cer was out to get us, that for some rea­son it had cho­sen my fam­ily to prey on, but the truth is, it goes af­ter ev­ery­one. And, al­though we’ve both been through a lot, Cathy and I are two of the lucky ones. We sur­vived, and for that I’m so grate­ful.

Tracey and Cathy are sup­port­ing Can­cer Re­search UK’S Race for Life in part­ner­ship with Tesco. Sign up at race­for­ and make a dif­fer­ence in beat­ing can­cer

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