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In Sickness and in Health

by Karen Shaw


It’s the most common form of cancer in the UK with one in seven women affected. Seven may be a lucky number for some, but not so lucky for my cousin Jo when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer a year ago, just days before her marriage to husband, Steve.

“There was no lump. I’d got a line. Not like a crease. It was a tinted line,” says Jo.

It was in July last year that Jo noticed the tinted line on her right breast. In preparation for the big day, Jo had been dieting and losing weight, so initially, thought the change in breast may be due to that, especially when her private health assessment in the previous May showed nothing untoward – despite her having a breast examination, Jo couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that something just wasn’t right, and made another appointment. ‘This is sinister,’ were the consultant’s chilling words, prior to her going for a mammogram. “I knew what was coming,” says Jo. “I’m a worst-case scenario person and anything better is okay. Steve’s the opposite. He was trying to keep us both positive.” They didn’t even wait for the biopsy, immediately booking Jo in for an MRI scan, believing it to be one mass, and organised surgery for September.

With two days to go before her wedding day, Jo received a call with her lymph node biopsy results it was news she’d been dreading. The results from her MRI revealed numerous fluffy tumours – “they actually said the scan lit up like a Christmas tree,” Jo chuckles. “My breast was full of them – none of which had shown up on the mammogram or ultrasounds.

Our Jo

“It wasn’t the beginning we were planning,” sighs Jo. “It’s been really tough because Steve’s had to cope emotionally with it too, it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.”

The cancer had spread into her lymph nodes. Within the blink of an eye, Jo’s treatment changed, and with just over a week to go before the big day, she was having biopsies instead of brunches.

“It was surreal, looking back it doesn’t feel like my wedding day. I enjoyed it but not as much as if this wasn’t going on at the same time.” When first diagnosed Jo hit social media to encourage women to check their boobs. Alongside her appeal was a quote –

The Devil whispered in my ear,
“You’re not strong enough to withstand the
Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear.
“I am the storm.”

Shortly, after walking down the aisle, Jo was walking down a hospital corridor ready to begin her course six-month stint of chemo, then a mastectomy to follow, with radiotherapy after surgery…

“The last three rounds of chemo made me really poorly – constipation, diarrhoea, sickness and complete lack of energy.”


After a gruelling week Jo would eventually begin to muster up the energy to get in the bath, with Steve on hand to help her bathe and wash her hair. “I couldn’t eat. Every time food touched my tongue I’d begin vomiting,” says Jo. “I was losing nearly two stone each cycle (every three weeks). I’d put it back on as soon as I could eat. I was living on strawberry milkshake in an attempt to keep something down. Steve felt like he was watching his wife waste away in front of him.

“Steve is terrible with medical stuff, he said he wouldn’t be able to do it if it was him – but you can’t go sulk in a corner, can you?

“It gets harder. My first two were fine. The first couple of days I felt off colour and tired, my second one was for four days and I felt a bit more off colour, and then my third one, that’s when I ended up in hospital, not being able to eat – extreme constipation, and then diarrhoea.”

After a tough four-day stint in hospital she’d had enough. “I decided that I wasn’t having anymore chemo,” says Jo, “then, when you start feeling better you think, of course I’m going to continue, I need it, but in the middle of the cycle you feel like you are dying. That’s the worse thing knowing you’re going to have another and it’s going to be worse. The physical side is shit but it is really the mental side that’s the toughest.”

Jo recovering at home

If spending your honeymoon being pumped full of chemo, throwing up, and being constantly exhausted wasn’t enough to make her ‘lose her marbles’, this time she was told she’d have to lose her boob.

Jo’s consultant, Dr Mahsoudi informed her she’d lose her right breast and was offered a reconstruction.

“I didn’t find it painful or traumatic,” says Jo. “I hated my boobs anyway, so I looked at this as a bonus. I asked, ‘can I pay to have the other one done?’ and they said, ‘that will be done as well!’

“Dr Mahsoudi, well, he’s just amazing,” beams Jo. “He makes you feel like the only patient he’s got. He laid out all the options for the operation. They don’t realise the impact they have, they do it every day. He saved my life. “Because my cancer has a habit of coming back you are always mindful that even though I’m on this treatment and it’s very effective there’s always that chance… so, I’m constantly at Steve, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that.’ The poor bloke’s tired out and keeps saying, ‘Jo, I can’t keep up with you!’ I’ll joke about it and say I might not be here in five years!

“We live every minute now. We’re never in, that’s why I’m knackered. I can’t keep up with everything, in between my treatments and booking holidays – because I don’t know if it will come back. It’s one of them that has a nasty habit of returning…

Jo and Steve

“We’re both retiring at 55. We fancy living in France for a couple of years. We’ll probably want to be home when the grandkids come along. Who knows? The world is our oyster! We want an adventure; we want to buy a camper. Cancer didn’t break us up, but the motor home may very well do!” laughs Jo.

She may have been one in seven, but to me, she’s one in a million…

Colne Life Autumn 2022