When Jane Eagar, a healthy and active designer, started her unexpected journey with breast cancer 10 years ago, she realised cancer can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Jane Eagar

In July 2013, my world as I knew it changed forever. Instead of a planned trip to Botswana, I started an unexpected journey with breast cancer. How could I get cancer? There’s no history of cancer in my family. I never smoked, my cholesterol was normal, I wasn’t overweight, I was active… but here’s a truth – cancer happens to anybody, anywhere, anytime.

I found the lump that changed my life by complete fluke. Lying reading to my daughter Hannah, who was seven years old at the time, my hand strayed to my left breast and there it was – a definite lump. Not a “maybe-it’s-a-lump” kind of lump, but a lump that makes your heart jolt and your blood run cold. I’m not alarmist, but first thing Monday morning I’d made an appointment for a mammogram. My new advice to all women: prod, poke, squash and squeeze your breasts – often. You can’t always feel a lump when lying down, so examine yourself standing up, leaning slightly forward.

I can still visualise the lump on the surgeon’s screen: an ominous-looking blob with tentacle-like fingers. I didn’t know what a cancerous lump looked like, but I didn’t like the look of mine. A core biopsy – they use a fat needle to extract a thin worm of flesh from the lump – came back negative, yet still my immediate gut reaction was to take it out. I felt instinctively that I didn’t want it in my body.

Unexpected call

With the reassurance of a negative diagnosis, I sauntered unfazed into my lumpectomy surgery. What I wasn’t expecting was the surgeon’s call three days later: they’d found cancer. That day still plays itself out in slow motion in my mind: numbness, disbelief, tears and a million questions, the first of which was how had I become a statistic? I remember walking across the office to a colleague and dear friend’s desk, realising with pin-sharp clarity that once I’d said, “I have cancer”, I’d never be able to unsay those words. Cancer had just become part of my world.

I faced a mastectomy, breast reconstruction and the probability of chemo. The plastic surgeon recommended DIEP flap reconstruction, which involves taking your belly fat to create a new breast. The surgery is long and intricate: first a skin-sparing mastectomy, then removing belly tissue along with all its blood vessels, reshaping it to fit under the breast skin and moving a rib to reconnect all the blood vessels. Possibly my worst moment was the morning of my surgery. I was standing in front of the surgeon as he drew lines all over my body with a thick black marker. It was freezing cold; I was shaking uncontrollably, and my warm tears were falling on the floor. I felt defenceless, vulnerable and scared. This is real, I said to myself.

After 10-and-a-half hours of surgery, you awake to drips, plasters and drains aplenty, and an extremely tight stomach. Your legs and head are supported, and you won’t straighten up for weeks. But the results are astonishing. I hadn’t had such a flat stomach since the age of 14! A mastectomy is a hugely traumatic undertaking for any woman, but despite my many scars and long recovery, my new breast looked and felt so natural that never for one moment did I feel my femininity compromised.

A small trace of cancer was found in my first lymph node, which under normal circumstances meant chemo, hair loss and, by all accounts, a journey to hell and back. But my brilliant oncologist suggested the Oncotype DX test. My cancer tumour was flown to the Genomic Health Laboratory in the US – where it was genetically analysed and returned with a recurrence risk factor of 0-100. Based on my recurrence score of 4, I was spared the awful experience of chemotherapy and a compromised immune system. 

Instead, I was given a five-year script for hormone therapy – and dived headfirst into menopause, along with the mood swings, night sweats and a diminished sex drive. There were days when I woke up thinking “Uh oh, it’s gonna be a crying day”. I’d cry driving to work, I’d cry putting in petrol, I’d cry dropping my daughter at school. Whether they were tears of relief, delayed shock or a sadness at the loss of my former pre-cancer self, I neither knew nor cared. I didn’t mind my tears and I didn’t want people around me to mind them either. It was who I’d become, and I was okay with that.  

Back into surgery

Seven years after my mastectomy, I noticed an indent in my reconstructed breast. “A bit of necrosis in the fatty tissue,” said the plastic surgeon, “easy to fix”. But COVID-19 was exploding across the planet and a hospital was not a place to willingly put oneself. In September 2020, masked and sanitised, I checked in for day surgery and after a few hours went home dent-free. When I returned to have the dressing removed five days later, my plastic surgeon clasped his hands, leant across the desk, and in the calmest, quietest manner, announced that the dent was in fact, another tumour.  

I’d confidently stopped taking tamoxifen two years earlier – to spare myself the continuing and disagreeable side-effects, plus my Oncotype DX had declared me low risk. Little did we know, that small daily tablet had diligently been sustaining the anti-cancer ramparts. With no oestrogen blocker, a lump had slowly been forming. So back into surgery I went, and my beautifully reconstructed breast now carries an unplanned-for diagonal battle scar – but no malignant lump. The surgeon also removed all the lymph nodes on my left side, which thankfully tested clear. 

Small pleasures 

Once my wounds healed, I underwent five weeks of radiation at Icon Oncology, Mediclinic Constantiaberg. I now have a lifetime prescription for Femara, an aromatase inhibitor that eliminates the production of oestrogen, so I’m back in the land of hot flushes, disturbed sleep, and other menopausal “delights”. Cancer and the accompanying medication regime have made me acutely aware of how easily negativity and heaviness can seep into your soul – but I refuse to succumb. I consciously focus on small pleasures – which requires effort but is so worth it. 

People often ask if cancer has changed my life. It’s not my view of the future that’s changed, but my view of how to live every day that’s shifted. Having walked a frightening road myself, I’m gentler and more empathetic in my day-to-day interactions and believe that a little bit of kindness really can make a difference to someone’s day. 

Start typing and press Enter to search