Real Life: My Fashion Show Saviours
A gruelling battle with breast cancer left mum-of-three Lesley Young feeling lonely and isolated. But thanks to a group of brave ladies she met through a Grand Arcade fashion event, she’s finally on the road to recovery
July 20, 2015. It’s a date forever etched in Lesley Young’s mind. Sat in a consulting room at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, awaiting biopsy results from a breast lump, she had a sixth sense that a devastating diagnosis was imminent. “To hear the words ‘Your biopsy shows you have breast cancer’, was awful,” she recalls. “I knew something wasn’t right as there was a specialist nurse in the room. My husband Chris cried but I don’t think I really took it in; I was numb. I remember thinking how I am going to tell the children?” explains Lesley, mum to Kieran 21, and daughters Rhian, 19, and Erin, 18.
The pair drove back to Chatteris in a daze. “Going home was horrific,” Lesley says. “I told the girls first, and they both cried, which broke my heart. Then I told my son - he couldn’t believe it and disappeared. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Lesley, 44, an occupational health nurse, had been watching television one evening when she discovered a small pea-like lump in her right breast. She wasn’t immediately concerned as she was young, there was no family history and she’d breastfed her children. Doctors reassured her it looked like a harmless cyst, but some weeks later a mammogram revealed suspicious calcium deposits, hence the biopsy and subsequent diagnosis.
Lesley started chemotherapy within five days to fit in before a pre-booked family holiday to France. “The first course of chemo was the worst; I was dizzy, I could hardly stand and I lost a lot of weight,” she recalls. “My biggest concern was losing my hair. I never shaved it off because I always hoped I’d be the one person that kept it. I remember stopping at a petrol station on the way home from France, looking in the mirror and realising I only had a tenth of my hair left. It looked horrendous.”
Lesley endured six courses of chemotherapy, then in December 2015, underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction, adamant she wanted both breasts removed to reduce the risk of getting cancer in the other breast. “It felt such a relief when they were gone,” she says. During the surgery, some of her lymph nodes were removed and revealed traces of cancer cells, so the remaining nodes on her right side were taken out. Now at increased risk of lymphedema, Lesley has to be careful not to overuse that side. “No painting ceilings now!” she quips.
As Lesley’s type of aggressive breast cancer was HER2 positive, she was given targeted therapy of Herceptin, Tamoxifen and Zoladex, the latter putting her into a chemical menopause, bringing on a myriad of symptoms. “It was like the worst PMT you’ve ever imagined,” says Lesley, incredulously. “I remember I went shopping one day, and I can only carry one bag at a time, so I did a big shop, got it all into the car, carried it in, one by one, into the house, then sat and sobbed for two hours.”
Further surgery has followed to remove Lesley’s ovaries and tubes, following a blood clot caused by the cocktail of drugs she has to take, which have also brought on osteoporosis.
When we meet Lesley’s walking with a stick, having fractured her hip, the bones weakened by the condition. She’s had four infusions to prevent bone metastasis, and will continue to have those administered for the osteoporosis. She’s also sporting a neat scar across her neck, which she explains is due to the removal of her thyroid gland, which was found to have cancerous nodules. She’s currently undergoing radioactive iodine therapy to help minimise the chances of the cancer returning.
It’s been a real rollercoaster few years for Lesley – and she admits, for a long time she kept the cancer secret. “When I was first diagnosed my husband went out and bought me a load of head scarves from Primark, but I refused to wear them because I didn’t want to deal with the pity looks. I even put my wig on to put the bins out.”
With most of her fellow cancer patients much older, Lesley often felt quite alone. “Breast cancer can be a very lonely experience; you become isolated from normality and people struggle to know what to say to you,” she explains.
Lesley has since been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but has had tremendous support through Maggie’s Cambridge, where she continues to receive counselling.
“I have vivid nightmares and terrible anxiety, which I’d never experienced before. If it hadn’t been for Maggie’s, I’m not sure how I would have coped. They have been a lifeline.”
The other lifeline – and Lesley’s face lights up when she begins to talk about them – is the friends she has made through her involvement with Cambridge Breast Cancer Appeal’s Fashion Show held in the Grand Arcade. Lesley saw the event - which raises money for Addenbrooke’s Breast Cancer Unit and features breast cancer survivors as catwalk models - on Facebook, and mustered up the courage to get in touch.
“I initially offered to help because I wanted a distraction from the cancer. It was so nice to meet other ladies of a similar age to me who had been through breast cancer,” she enthuses. “It was somewhere where it was okay to have bad days, where these weren’t considered to be a weakness or ungratefulness. Somewhere that I could be Lesley that had experienced the most horrific thing I had ever had to deal with and which would often be in the forefront of my thoughts.”
As her friendships grew, so did her confidence, and Lesley found herself on the catwalk, arm in arm with husband Chris, stepping out to a sea of encouraging faces.
“It was an amazing experience. We had hair and makeup done and I wore the most beautiful sequinned Phase Eight dress, plus stunning underwear from Rigby & Peller which made me feel amazing. The atmosphere was something else; you could really feel the love.”
When Lesley takes to the runway this month, it will be her third year sharing the spotlight with the models who – along with her family – she credits with bringing her back from the abyss.
“These brave ladies helped me find my feet again. They understand that if you get a headache, in your mind, it’s brain metastases. Cancer never really goes away; you always feel like you’re just waiting for it to return. You’re never the same once you’ve had it, but at least now I have a group of friends who understand what I’ve been through and vice versa. That is such a precious thing.”
Diary date. . .
Cambridge Breast Cancer Appeal Fashion Show takes place at Grand Arcade on October 17. The showcase of autumn/winter 19 trends was founded six years ago by Natalie Emuss, following her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2013. Last year’s show raised over £11,000 for Addenbrooke’s Breast Cancer Unit. Buy tickets at cambridgebreastcancerappeal.com or pop into Rigby & Peller, Grand Arcade, Cambridge, which is the main sponsor.