Real life: Cancer took our parents...it won’t take us
Tracey Pinfold, 47, and her sister have shared much heartbreak. But their bond is unbreakable
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.
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.
‘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 raceforlife.org and make a difference in beating cancer