Edinburgh woman diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 after finding 'lump under arm'

-Credit: (Image: Maggie's Edinburgh)

An Edinburgh woman was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer just weeks before her 30th birthday after noticing a small lump under her arm.

Katherine Crowson, now 34, didn't feel a lump on her breast until she attended her local GP practice and had to wait six weeks to get a referral to the breast clinic.

Throughout those six weeks, the former management consultant "kind of knew" she was going to receive bad news and prepared for the worst. Four years later, Katherine has only just finished three years of maintenance treatment and has gone through an induced menopause - the outcome of which she described as "debilitating."

READ MORE: Heartbroken Edinburgh couple furious as £1,000 fence 'bends like a bow'

READ MORE: Young East Lothian mum's new home 'ruined' moments after she moved in with baby

As Katherine was diagnosed just days after the country went into lockdown, she was forced to attend appointments on her own and had to give her friends and family the news over the phone.

Throughout her battle with cancer, Katherine was a frequent visitor at Maggie's centre - a vital facility providing advice and support for those diagnosed with cancer, as well as their friends and family.

Last week Edinburgh Live visited Maggie's and spoke with visitors as well as co-centre head Anna Clarkson while experiencing first hand the service staff provide for those who find relief in expressing their feelings and concerns about the life-changing illness.

"I've been in remission for about two and a half years but have just finished three years of maintenance treatment which has been extremely debilitating," Katherine revealed.

"I'm now in the process of thinking about returning to work and looking at jobs. I had to give up my job as after two years off I really struggled getting back to work and decided to just focus on getting through treatment and not stressing about work on top of everything else."

Prior to Katherine's diagnosis, she discovered a small lump under her arm and attended her GP practice where the doctor discovered another lump on her breast which Katherine had not noticed, despite checking.

"I noticed a lump under my arm which prompted me to go to my GP surgery. I couldn't feel a lump on my breast which I was checking but they referred me to the breast clinic as the doctor could feel something there," she continued.

"At that point I knew it was most likely the diagnosis.

"It took six weeks to get my referral which should have been more urgent as I was showing signs of it spreading. Throughout those six weeks my friends and family were telling me it probably isn't cancer and people get cysts all the time.

"I guess you use all the evidence you can to rationalise and think rationally but with two weeks to go I started to panic as the lump under my arm started to get bigger and everything was getting a bit too much."

Katherine's diagnosis came at the worst possible time as the Coronavirus began to spread throughout the UK and restrictions were put in place in hospitals. As a result, the 34-year-old attended most appointments on her own - something she says became normal to her and has stuck with even since restrictions were lifted.

Katherine continued: "I was diagnosed just days after lockdown so it was a crazy time. The NHS was starting to prepare for the worst. There were no face to face appointments so it was difficult to chase things up.

"The majority of people knew I was going in to the appointment but obviously I couldn't tell everyone about my diagnosis face to face so it had to be over a Zoom call. It was my 30th birthday two weeks after I was diagnosed so when people were reaching out to ask how I was I had to tell them I'd actually been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I wanted to freeze my eggs as I didn't know what the future would look like. I then started chemotherapy six weeks after, then I had surgery and a full axillary clearance which removed all the lymph nodes underneath my arm to my collarbone.

"Then I had four weeks of radiotherapy as my cancer had spread above my collarbone making it more complicated. It was the worst type of stage three. A new type of drug had just been approved in Scotland at the time so I then had 10 months of chemotherapy which lasted until October 2021.

"After that I've had just under three years of maintenance treatment which has been equally debilitating."

Katherine said the side effects of maintenance treatment, including fatigue, brain fog and bone pain have made it difficult to "function like a proper human being."

Maggie's is located within the grounds of the Western General Hospital.
Katherine was forced to attend the majority of appointments on her own due to restrictions.

As the side effects were so severe, Katherine had no option but to succumb to them and rest often. Katherine, as a result, has been so exhausted she has been unable to work regular hours, cook dinner or clean her flat.

"After such a length of time I just wanted a bit of my normal life back. I just wanted to look after myself so I sacrificed work. The treatment has basically been making me medically menopausal.

"It's like an extreme menopause. You don't start it gradually, it chucks you in at the absolute deep end with chronic side effects instantly. I'm on so much codeine to manage my bone pain. It's a four-weekly injection so maybe five days either side I can be ok but the rest of the time is hell.

"I would also experience problems recalling words. It's hard to explain but brain fog is like being so tired you can't verbalise something in your head and you keep stopping in the middle of sentences as you forget what you're trying to say."

Katherine has visited Maggie's cancer centre at the Western General Hospital on numerous occasions since she was diagnosed after initially speaking with the team over the phone for advice and support.

"There would be times where I thought I couldn't do it anymore but when I called they explained it and gave me words of wisdom. Having that rationalisation was definitely grounding. I would come from a meeting with my oncologist and go straight to Maggie's if I didn't understand anything I was told.

Join Edinburgh Live's Whatsapp Community here and get the latest news sent straight to your messages

"Sometimes just saying things out loud helps you understand your feelings. I did quite a few course Maggie's run which were very useful, especially the menopause course as the number of elements and side effects we talked about were really quite sobering.

"I'm in a really good place now because of Maggie's. I know that if I was ever upset and needed a friendly call to say I was having a wobble they would be there."

Lesley Howells, Maggie’s Lead Psychologist, said: “Maggie’s really has been a pioneer of providing support for people post-treatment. We first started developing Where Now? 15 years ago, after our Chief Executive Laura Lee spotted a need for a course which helped people to adjust to life once they have left the endless round of appointments and treatments.

Sign up for Edinburgh Live newsletters for more headlines straight to your inbox

“Regardless of prognosis, life post-treatment can be hugely challenging. Many people are left with physical and emotional side effects which can impact the quality of their lives, while for others though it can simply be about readjusting to normal. Maggie’s Where Now? course can help with many aspects of this.”

Those who wish to find out more about Maggie's and what support is available can do so by going online or dropping in any time throughout the week to chat with a member of staff.