“The services that the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity provide are invaluable…”

Nicola McHugh, 39 from Chelmsford was diagnosed with cancer in her native South Africa; here she tells us how the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity was instrumental in her treatment. 

“In 2012 I was 33 years old, with a 6 year old daughter and a 2 year old son, living in my native country of South Africa. My lifestyle was healthy and I used to visit the gym at least 3 times a week; my childhood was spent always active and enjoying life to the full.

In February 2012 found a lump in my breast later that year; stage 1 breast cancer. Fortunately I had found it in its early stages but I still had to undergo 6 chemotherapy treatments, a mastectomy and 17 doses of the drug Herceptin. I lost my hair and still had to work as a Management Accountant through it all; we needed the money. I got into a routine of fitting my treatments around my job – I’d have chemo on a Wednesday which would then give me the rest of the week and the weekend to recover. My husband Roderick had his own business to run so my mother in law moved in and helped out around the house.

My cancer diagnosis was different than most cases in that I was diagnosed at stage one, this meant that I was clear of cancer at the end of February 2012 as soon as they did the full mastectomy on my left breast. The treatment plan I was given was all preventative treatment to stop the cancer from coming back. After a year of intravenous treatment while working full time I was an emotional wreck. I knew of a good psychiatric clinic and took myself straight there where I began visiting a therapist and started taking anti-depressants; there were no services available to me like the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity in South Africa.

In 2013 I finished my treatment plan and put onto Termoxifen to block my hormones then I was allowed to have my breast reconstruction operation where they inserted an implant. In 2015 I had found a small lump growing on top of the implant in exactly the same place the cancer was in before they operated; doctors were convinced that this was scar tissue and after a mammogram, chest x-ray, blood test and ultrasound I was given the all clear.

Our little family of four then immigrated to the UK in July 2015 and we set up home in Chelmsford. I had just found a new temporary job working in Braintree when I was due for my yearly check up. Unfortunately the lump on my implant had grown to 3 cm now. They had never seen anything like it before. After having a full mastectomy there shouldn’t have been anything for the cancer to grow on. Not only had it grown but the cancer had also spread to my sternum. I was devastated but I had to stay strong for my two young children; they were starting to understand that mummy was very ill, again. At first I was reluctant to tell my colleagues about my cancer diagnosis; after all who would want to take on a new temporary employee with this terrible disease? I couldn’t have been more wrong and was thoroughly supported by all of my managers and new colleagues; what a wonderful welcome to the UK.

My cancer plan now is not to cure it, but management of my symptoms. The doctors were not able to operate this time because it was in my bones so my only option is to remain on chemo for life and work on keeping my stress levels down and live a healthy balanced lifestyle as much as possible. I had to go through Docetaxel for the second time and lost all my hair again. After 6 sessions of Docetaxel I went onto Pertuzumab intravenous every three weeks. In 2017 the drug stopped working and the cancer started to grow again. I then went through radiotherapy at Colchester Hospital. During this time someone suggested that I get in touch with the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity because by this stage I had lost all the feeling in my feet from the nerve damage cause by the chemo. I began attending reflexology sessions whenever I could fit them in between work, kids and cancer treatment. Often I was lucky enough to catch a Helen Rollason consultant at the actual chemo unit at Broomfield Hospital so I was able to have reflexology before a chemo session to help reduce the side effects of the chemo itself. This charity has really been instrumental in my healing process and helps me cope both mentally and physically with the horrible side effects of the cancer drugs. I was also able to have some counselling sessions with the team at Rochelle House in Chelmsford. They offer a course of six sessions of counselling to as many cancer patients they can. These sessions helped me realise how strong I was to survive what I had had to go through in a foreign country without any option of using benefits. It also helped me realise that I needed to keep on going and keep on focusing on keeping my stress levels down and make the most of time spent with my family whenever I could.

I have recently started a new course that Rochelle House in Chelmsford is offering to cancer patients. It is a six week course on Mindfulness. I really think this is something that all chemo patients can benefit from and wish that it could be made available for more people around the world. The reality is that we spend our whole life rushing around from place to place trying to fit as much into a day as possible. And a lot of the time we forget to take time to reflect on our life and on how we are feeling overall; especially as working mums.

The services that the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity provide are invaluable and I hope that they will be able to open more centres around the country to continue their work in helping many others that are going through similar experiences.”