Written by Susan Gourlay
Two years ago: October 2017 my life was turned upside down.
I had returned from the Black Forest in Germany on October 6th 2015 where I’d spent an idyllic week hiking in the hills and woods with my best friend Ann.
It was late in the evening on 6th October 2015 when I arrived home from my holiday.
My husband informed me that I had to be in Ninewells Hospital the next morning for 9:30am. I was called for another mammogram as the one I’d had in the previous month- my 3 yearly checks for women over 50 required to be done again. I remember thinking it was very inconvenient, in fact probably “a total waste of time!” I was adamant that everything was really okay! I took the bus to Ninewells the next morning and arrived 30 minutes before my appointment so sat in the café and had a coffee. This was when I finally read the booklet with the appointment slip. Oh my goodness, the harsh realities hit me like “a tonne of bricks”. It looked like something sinister was going on and yes I did have a cry as I thought I was invincible and had already lost my dad to cancer in 1994 when he was 64. I pulled myself together, immediately turning the situation around: we have a problem, be positive and let the journey begin!
My Auntie and her daughter, my cousin, had already gone through breast cancer the previous year; indeed my cousin was going through it again in her other breast with under a years’ grace! My mum’s youngest sister had died due to her secondary breast cancer.
Everyone at Ninewells was superb, a great team who made me feel in a very comfortable and friendly environment. My breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed 14 October 2015. Initially it was only small 2.2mm high grade DCIS- Ductal carcinoma in situ so a lumpectomy and a bit of radiotherapy would suffice.
Things change drastically after I’d had my MRI scan with the results delivered to me at the breast cancer clinic in November 2015. Thankfully my friend Janet was with me as now the DCIS had grown to 5.6cm and we were now looking at a full mastectomy- that was a hard pill to swallow. Me being a bit matter of fact said, “Right, lets get it off as soon as possible!” I wanted my life to get back to normal as quickly as possible as I was training for an Ultra Marathon 35 mile run on Tiree! It was then stressed to me that despite my 61 years and me being very fit I needed to consider my options.
After much deliberation I decided to go ahead with reconstructive surgery to be carried out at the same time as the mastectomy which came to a total of 12 hours of surgery! The procedure I was to undertake is known are IGAP where part of my lower buttock was removed to form a new breast- this was the only part of my body where fat was found! It’s a bit like a buttock lift.
I had my sentinel lymph node removed just before Christmas due to the speed in which the DCIS had grown. I even managed to run/walk the Park Run the following morning after surgery.
Christmas Eve delivered some good news that the lymph nodes were cancer free.
The big adventure and journey finally began on 19 January 2016 and this is when I needed Maggie’s. The mastectomy and reconstruction from my buttock was a great success until the weekend of 6 February 2016 when life took a bad turn for the worse. I was fainting, had a temperature and became very weak because something very bad was taking place in my buttock surgery.
On the Monday morning my friend Janet took me to Ninewells to see my surgeon. I could barley walk and was a shadow of my former self- not what the team had expected to see because in January I had made a great recovery from surgery. Apparently fat necrosis had set in which is very rare so I then needed another operation the following day. I had to be reopened but this set back wasn’t going to get me down.
Walking was proving very difficult, I could only take very small steps at a time but that was when the next challenge stepped in. The stairs from Level 7 to Radiotherapy and across to Maggie’s became my friend to strengthen myself- some days I’d do this four times! If this set back never happened I’d have never have discovered the wonderful Maggie’s Centre.
I then made the daily journey to Ninewells to get my wounds redressed along with radiotherapy and used Maggie’s as my sanctuary!
I’d heard about Maggie’s but thought it was a hospice so definitely not somewhere I should be going- I wasn’t at the end of my life yet! How very wrong I was. It was during my redress visits and chatting with the nurses that she suggested I visit Maggie’s. I said “no way!” but the nurse was quick to explain about the centre, and the programme they have available to help strengthen my physical and emotional wellbeing.
I braved it one beautiful sunny day after my visit to the hospital and was overwhelmed by not just the location in wooded grounds of the hospital with daffodils dancing in the wind but by the welcome I received from Karen and Moira as soon as I entered. Finally I felt at peace away from life’s’ trials and challenges which had been chucked at me!
The friendly team at Maggie’s chatted about the centre and showed me around the magnificent airy building with a spectacular room upstairs where you can sit, relax and look at the views over the river. A dull, grey day can be uplifted by the ambience of Maggie’s: A relaxing kitchen table where chatting to others over a “cuppa” helps to make my own situation seem not so bad. I enjoy reading and the Maggie’s library is a wealth of information with something for everyone.
If I hadn’t been part of the Maggie’s journey I would never have experienced the warm and friendly team who made my journey easier to deal with- especially emotionally.
Maggie’s gave me the space, the beautiful woods to walk through to reflect on my life in a positive way. Throughout the adventure I was still training for my ultra marathon- 10 September, 35 miles around Tiree! Maggie’s helped me so much that I felt I needed to give back so fundraising began in March 2017 with sponsor forms and events kicking off! The fundraising for Maggie’s Dundee was a brilliant experience as I was able to tell others about Maggie’s marvellous work for people living with cancer and to support their families and friends. I was astounded to learn that it costs £2,400 to run a centre for one day. I not only completed the Tiree Ultra Marathon but three weeks before in the Lake District completed 26.2 mile Marathon- even before cancer I wouldn’t have managed this!
Maggie’s was my driving force and I wished to smash any previous targets. I have been able to give £2055.50 back to Maggie’s to help others.!
I hope my story can inspire others no matter what set backs are dealt to you in life, nothing is impossible even in vintage years- I’m a young 63 years!