Countryfile presenter JULIA BRADBURY reveals she waited WEEKS before getting a lump in her breast checked by her GP because of the coronavirus lockdown
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
Six weeks was how long it took me to finally see a doctor. Six weeks since I’d first discovered a painful lump in my left breast, on a work trip to Costa Rica before lockdown.
Why did I leave it so long? After all, most people who find a lump think of one thing — cancer. But these are strange times.
I check my breasts for lumps regularly, lifting my arms, feeling into the armpits, checking the skin for any changes or discomfort, and on my own in a hotel room back in March, I came across the ‘anything unusual’ we’re warned about.
The lump was on the underside of my breast and, when I probed it beneath my fingertips, it was sore.
Six weeks was how long it took me to finally see a doctor. Six weeks since I’d first discovered a painful lump in my left breast, on a work trip to Costa Rica before lockdown, writes JULIA BRADBURY
I wasn’t unduly frightened at first. I’m 49 and I’ve had three children, all breast-fed (which is said to lower the cancer risk), and there isn’t a history of breast cancer in my family.
Trying not to panic, I discussed it over the phone with my friend, Kate, who reassured me that on its own, pain usually isn’t cancer — although on occasion the pain made me wince, and I had the lump, too.
I decided to try to put it out of my mind, but thought: ‘I must go and see a doctor about that when I get home,’ which would be in ten days’ time.
However, my kids are still young (twin girls aged five and an eight-year-old boy) and when I got back from my trip, they ambushed me at the door and stuck to me like glue for the first few days.
Then another project came in. Then my parents came to stay. Then we had parents’ evenings to schedule. Then Covid swept across the country. Lockdown.
The former Countryfile presenter (second right) with (left to right) Matt Baker, John Craven, Prince Charles and Adam Henson in 2013
Watching images every evening on the news of brave NHS staff strained under the pressure of this viral phenomenon made me feel awkward — guilty, even — about seeking reassurance over a lump I kept telling myself ‘was nothing’.
In the back of my mind was also the thought that the last place I wanted to go was a hospital rife with coronavirus.
It’s a dilemma many others are going through. The number of people seeking a GP appointment has plummeted by more than 25 per cent during lockdown, according to NHS data. ‘Worryingly quiet,’ is how my GP described the situation in his surgery.
And that has a knock-on effect. Cancer Research UK says urgent referrals have dropped by around 75 per cent during the pandemic.
It’s heartbreaking to think that there are thousands — maybe more — who are putting their health at risk by not seeking help now. And I could have been one of them.
Five weeks after my return to the UK, I was still putting off doing anything about the lump, despite an intermittent dull ache.
Then a friend told me she was having surgery that night for breast cancer. I was devastated. It was out of the blue. I didn’t want her to have to go through this, especially during peak coronavirus outbreak.
I check my breasts for lumps regularly, lifting my arms, feeling into the armpits, checking the skin for any changes or discomfort, and on my own in a hotel room back in March, I came across the ‘anything unusual’ we’re warned about, writes JULIA BRADBURY
It was the jolt I needed. I realised this could happen to me, and doing nothing wasn’t helping anyone.
There are around 55,000 new diagnoses of breast cancer a year. And the coronavirus doesn’t stop that. What’s more, if I did have cancer then my chances would be dramatically better if I got treatment sooner rather than later.
So the day after I spoke to my friend, I had a Zoom appointment with my GP, whom I’ve known for 30 years. He didn’t ask to see my breasts because a) that would have been weird, and b) we agreed that he wouldn’t be able to see much — my gristly sore bit wasn’t visible.
Because it had been there for several weeks, he referred me straight away to a private breast cancer specialist who was still working during the pandemic — many are not. ‘You’ve done the right thing,’ my GP assured me. He said that if you find a lump, experience nipple discharge or you notice ‘contour difference’, then you must do something. All these symptoms need to be investigated further.
A special referral pathway is in place to ensure you’re seen within two weeks — whether or not you have private health insurance.
Video-conferencing with my doctor was strange. This man has seen me through endometriosis surgery, three births, a miscarriage and a triple hernia operation. But now we were communicating via a screen. It felt weirdly impersonal, given how ‘hands on’ our meetings normally are.
His parting words were: ‘Don’t worry, it’s probably nothing.’
Three days later, I was stepping over the threshold of a clinic in London. A trio of face masks greeted me from behind a glass reception booth. This was the first time I’d left my home since lockdown, and I was feeling quite strange. And nervous.
They handed me a clipboard, which I accepted gingerly. ‘No thanks, I don’t need a pen.’ I put down my bag on a waiting-room chair and instantly regretted it.
As I reached to get my sanitised pen, I accidentally pulled the face mask I had in my bag — carefully wrapped in a tissue — out on to the floor. This wasn’t going well.
While he was inspecting me, Mr Gui told me that he had picked up something in the mammogram, but there was nothing to be concerned about. Phew! Weeks of stress slipped off my shoulders, writes JULIA BRADBURY
I was told to go to the eighth floor, but I looked at the lift, thought about the ‘viral load’ in the tiny space, and made my way up the stairs, instead.
This was my first mammogram and I’d been told by friends to expect extreme discomfort. It’s basically like photocopying your breasts. They get flattened individually between two hard plates so doctors can capture an image of what’s going on with your tissue.
It was over within five minutes. The masked nurse left the room to show the doctor the images. Then she came back in and said the doctor wanted more images of my right breast. This sent a little shock through me because the pain and the lump was in the left.
SOCIAL MEDIA MYTH BUSTER
We debunk the Covid-19 hoaxes circulating online. This week: Foods that can protect against the coronavirus.
Numerous posts online advise using homemade remedies to protect against Covid-19, including eating garlic, lemon, ginger, broccoli and asparagus.
‘This type of story makes me so frustrated because none of these foods have been subjected to proper trials to test their medicinal properties,’ says Dr Bharat Pankhania, a clinical lecturer in public health medicine at the University of Exeter Medical School. ‘The same goes for any home remedies doing the rounds — including dangerous suggestions such as making your own remedy with bleach, which could be fatal,’ adds GP Professor Steve Cox.
Numerous posts online advise using homemade remedies to protect against Covid-19, including eating garlic, lemon, ginger, broccoli and asparagus
‘There is currently nothing proven to protect you from the virus, apart from not coming into contact with it and regular hand-washing.’
The consultant, breast surgeon Gerald Gui (who also works in the NHS) has a comforting air of efficiency about him. He became the third person to handle my breasts in an hour. I know some people might find this process excruciating, but I’ve never been shy or embarrassed about nakedness.
While he was inspecting me, Mr Gui told me that he had picked up something in the mammogram, but there was nothing to be concerned about. Phew! Weeks of stress slipped off my shoulders.
‘You have clustered microcysts — mini cysts — in your left breast, fairly common for your age group, and that’s what you can feel,’ he told me. ‘The majority of lumps that women find turn out to be benign.’
No treatment was needed — he simply urged me to have the usual breast screening. I wanted to shake his hand — the relief was now coursing through my body.
Back home, I took off all my clothes at the door and put them straight in the washing machine. Everything you do during Covid-19 life is complicated.
But I realised I had potentially made my life even more complicated by not seeking help sooner. I had gone through all those weeks of worry and stress for nothing.
My children ran up to me screaming: ‘Mummy, Mummy! We’ve got a pet slug!’ I hugged them all hard and felt that release again.
When I got to my bedroom, I cried. Big, emotional tears. I suppose I was just decompressing.
If you’re reading this and you have found a lump, bump, or discovered a leaky nipple or a strange contour, get to your GP and don’t wait six weeks like me.
It may be nothing, in which case, why waste life worrying? And if it isn’t, then the sooner you get treatment, the better. A three-month delay can be the difference between a tumour being curable or not.
My lovely friend has had her mastectomy. She was in and out of hospital in a day, remarkably, but now comes the challenging part in a Covid-19 world — recovery with no hugs.
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