Colette Rankin was enjoying her maternity leave and looking after new baby Emelia when she was struck down by breast cancer at the age of just 30.
Now undergoing chemotherapy having had a mastectomy, Colette is keen to raise awareness about the need to self-examine among women of all ages.
Colette’s family has a strong history of breast cancer, but she was still shocked to discover a lump she found in July was cancerous.
“I have always checked myself because I have a really strong history of breast cancer on both sides of my family,” said the mum-of-two, who is married to James and lives in Halton, near Lancaster.
“On my mum’s side, her mum had breast cancer and my cousin was diagnosed at 27. On my dad’s side, my nan and her two sisters all had breast cancer.
“Throughout my life it’s always been something I was very aware of, and I have been referred to genetics experts because of the family situation.”
Colette found a lump during a routine breast examination while having a shower.
“I noticed quite a large lump in my left breast and to the side of it the skin had started to dip in,” she said.
“I left it for about a week and then I called the doctor and they referred me to the breast unit at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and I was seen two weeks later.
“They did an ultrasound and a physical examination, and I was diagnosed there and then, which I wasn’t expecting, although in some ways I am glad.
“They did a biopsy straight away and I was sent for a mammogram.
“A week later I went back for the full biopsy results which confirmed the cancer and that they needed to establish how big it was.”
Colette was told she had Grade 2 cancer, and that the only option for her was to have a mastectomy, because the tumour was too large for a lumpectomy.
“I had a full left-sided mastectomy with immediate reconstruction on August 24,” she said.
“It’s all been so quick. The care has been unbelievable, they are truly amazing.”
Colette’s diagnosis was labelled pregnancy associated breast cancer, because it was within 12 months of having a baby and could have been hormone-related.
New daughter Emelia was nine months old when Colette was diagnosed, while the couple’s older daughter Elodie was almost three.
“They said if I hadn’t checked myself and gone to see them, the situation could have been very different,” Colette said.
“The important thing is to get checked. Even with my family history it was still a massive shock. I have a young family and I was still on maternity leave; our life was lovely, I was very happy.
“I should have been going back to work about now, not worrying about cancer.
“It changes your whole life and your whole sense of normal. Your life is sent in a whole different direction.
“No one ever expects it to happen to them, but you have got to take a bit of responsibility for your own health.
“If I hadn’t checked myself then life could be very different for my children.”
Due to tests showing small groups of breast cancer cells – called micrometastases – in her lymph nodes, Colette was told she would need a course of chemotherapy, which began earlier this month and will last until January.
At this point, she decided it was time to take back control of her body – by shaving off her hair before she lost it to chemo and raising money for good causes at the same time.
“Places like CancerCare are brilliant because it’s not just me that they support; it’s for everybody involved,” she said.
“The breast nurses gave me information about different support, and when I was first diagnosed I found it very difficult so I contacted CancerCare and self-referred.
“I now see somebody each week and also use the online Phoenix group which is great for a bit of support when you need it.”
Colette also found support from the Younger Breast Cancer Network on Facebook, which is specifically for women under 45.
Through them, she heard about national charity Mummy’s Star.
“They have been amazing,” she said. “It’s the only one of its kind that offers specific support for women within pregnancy or the year after, and they continue to support beyond that first year.
“The head shave was a big thing for me. I am still getting used to it, but I decided that I would rather take a bit of control back and shave my head before I lost my hair.
“Your body is not your own any more so this was something I thought I could do. My friend Sam Livesey did the shave and she also shaved her own head in support; we did it together on our own in my kitchen.
“For me that’s probably the hardest bit of it all.
“CancerCare and Mummy’s Star have been amazing to me so I thought I would try to give something back to them.
“I set a target of £150 and so far I have got more than £2,000; that money will do an amazing amount of good.
“I also sent my ponytail to the Princess Trust.”
Following the completion of the chemo, Colette will have hormone therapy for 10 years as well as annual check-ups.
She is classed as being at a high risk of recurrence because of her family history.
Her sister Sarah, 32, will be put on an early screening programme, and both her daughters will be too once they are older.
“Me and Sarah were originally on an early screening of 40 years old, which would have been too late for me,” said Colette, who grew up in Windermere and went to Lancaster University.
“If you catch it early the outlook is very good for breast cancer and having people in my family who had been through it really helped on the bad days; just having people who knew what you were going through.
“It truly scares me the number of people who don’t do checks.
“It’s not something that comes easily to people but you have just got to find the time. I just hope that people like me will help raise awareness.”
Colette’s fundraising page can be found at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=ColetteRankin
For more information, go to https://www.breastcancercare.org.uk or http://www.mummysstar.org/