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Breast cancer survivor Janet Forster shares her story

Posted 08/12/14

As part of her recovery from breast cancer, Janet Forster has cut back on the amount of alcohol she drinks in a bid to reduce her risk of the cancer returning.

Last year Janet Forster, from Cochrane Park in Newcastle, was enjoying life after turning 50. She’d recently returned to her native Newcastle after living abroad for a number of years and was securing regular work as an actress.

As with all women who turn 50, Janet was invited to her first breast cancer screening appointment. However, what Janet expected to be a routine mammogram ended up completely turning her life upside down.

Janet, who is now 51, said: “It was just a routine mammogram, I’d had no signs or symptoms of anything being wrong beforehand. After the appointment I never thought a thing about it because I felt fine, my work was taking off and I was enjoying myself.

“But one day I came running home from acting rehearsal and was getting ready to go back out for another when I received a letter. It was a thick and heavy envelope, I knew straightway something wasn’t right - thick meant pamphlets and pamphlets meant bad news. 

“I had to go back in for another appointment and I bypassed the mammogram and went straight for an ultrasound and that’s when my world collapsed.”

Janet’s fears were realised when she was diagnosed in November. She underwent a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction just a few weeks later at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. Further investigations led doctors to find the cancer had spread and Janet also had to have the lymph nodes removed from under her left arm in January this year.

She then faced a painful road ahead as she underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the Freeman Hospital. A process which took its toll on Janet both physically and emotionally. 

She suffered a further setback when she developed a blood clot on her heart which hospitalised her for another couple of weeks. She is now tumour-free but is still receiving Herceptin injections every three weeks, daily blood-thinning injections and daily hormone tablets.

“I wouldn’t wish what I have been through on anybody. It’s been horrific. I have had a particularly bad experience because I reacted really badly to the treatment. However, the effect on your life is far more than just being ill. A year of my life has been taken away from me, it’s impacted my finances and relationships. It’s such a big thing because it does change you as a person – physically and mentally.”

Janet has found much comfort from the staff and services at the Maggie’s centre in Newcastle. She has been able to access a wealth of support across a range of areas from health to finance. One aspect of the treatment process which hit Janet hard was the impact it had on her image.

She said: “I’ve always loved hair and make-up and making sure I look good. I didn’t choose to change my image or have short hair, cancer made me do that so I’m still finding that side of things a struggle.”

Janet, who has a blog documenting her breast cancer journey, has seen first-hand the devastating impact breast cancer can have on women and she has lost a number of friends to the condition since her diagnosis and this has made her reassess her outlook and approach to living a healthy lifestyle now that she is in remission.

She said: “As a result of being hospital so much you meet people going through the same thing as you and in the last few months three of my friends have passed away. I have been given a second chance so I have to look after myself.”

Pre-diagnosis, Janet regularly enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine in the evening with her dinner. However, her attitude towards drinking has shifted following her treatment as she has the learnt how alcohol intake can increase a women’s risk of developing breast cancer and, more importantly for her, increase the risk of recurrence.

She said: “I knew alcohol was related to cancer but would push that out of my mind because I didn’t feel like it would affect me because I just thought it’s for someone with an alcohol problem.

“Alcohol is something I have thought long and hard about. In the run up to finding out I had cancer I was very fond of a large glass of wine most nights with my dinner and I’d end up having two glasses that would be quite large because you don’t realise how much you’re pouring when drinking at home.”

She added: “My breast cancer was hormone-related but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been exacerbated by drinking. For me it’s about the fear of recurrence and I don’t want to go back to regularly drinking again because of the breast cancer connection. I can’t go through what I have been through again.

“That’s why this campaign is so important as it’s not about telling women to never drink again, it’s making them aware of this link and providing them with the information so they can then assess their own drinking habits and make changes if they think necessary.”