BLOG: Mayor Joanne’s breast cancer message

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Mayor Joanne Anderson reveals she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer and urges women to make sure they go for a mammogram when they are invited…

When I became Mayor of Liverpool, I knew there would be challenges ahead. But one personal challenge I wasn’t expecting was to be diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.

Returning home from work one evening in May, I opened a hospital letter, it was recalling me after my mammogram. I hadn’t thought much about the routine screening – after all, I didn’t have any symptoms.

A biopsy followed before those terrifying words that no one wants to hear were uttered. Suddenly, life was vastly different to the day before. I had cancer.

When your mortality stares you in the face, it’s true that you suddenly have a different view and perspective on life. You don’t take things for granted or worry about the little things that once seemed so huge.

But amid all the emotions that came up during that time, the overwhelming one was gratitude. I was told that the cancer I had was Stage 1 and treatable – basically, it was the best case scenario. Soon after, I was having an operation to remove the tumour which would be followed by a course of radiotherapy.

During the operation, the tumour was found to be larger than previously thought with additional pre-cancerous cells surrounding it. The cancer was re-classified as Stage 2 – but luckily – still treatable. Had I not been for that mammogram, the story I’m writing today could have been vastly different.

Early detection and diagnosis are absolutely key to giving people the best chance of survival. Yes, mammograms aren’t comfortable – but a few minutes of discomfort are certainly worth your life. We are so lucky in this country that the NHS offer us this chance to spot and stop these bad cells in their tracks.

Recent figures show that in Liverpool, only 57.5% of women took up their invitation in 2021/22, versus the rate for the rest of the county of 64.1%. Of the 2.12 million people who did get screened in the UK, over 17,000 had cancers detected – a stark message to make sure you make that appointment.

Numerous studies have also found a link between a lower uptake of breast screening in areas of social deprivation and in ethnic minority communities, particularly South Asian women. Women with a learning disability are also far less likely to attend breast screening, even though it may save their life.

I am ashamed to admit that up until this point, I had been very naive about breast cancer. Neither my mum, nor her six sisters had suffered from the disease, so I didn’t see myself as high-risk. But in fact, researchers estimate that only 5-10% of breast cancer is from inherited faulty genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2.

I am also ashamed to admit that I had only just started to check my breasts. An informative card from a retailer had arrived in a package during the pandemic and I put it on a mirror as a reminder to check myself after a shower. Even though I had been doing this, there were no visible signs.

Being Mayor is a tough job and the timing of this diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time. It came amid one of the most difficult periods Liverpool City Council has ever been through, and after the departure of our former Chief Executive, I was acutely aware of the need for stability.

I was signed off for three months, but my job is not one you can take time off from. I took the recommended two weeks off after the operation but needed to get back to work to deal with important issues in the city.

After attending a full council meeting, a wake-up call arrived when I was struck down with a virus. Clearly my body was telling me I was trying to do too much and that it was owed more respect. I knew I needed to incorporate more balance into my life if I was going to have the best chance of recovery.

This meant taking some real time to rest during my two-week course of radiotherapy. It also meant stopping working 60-hour weeks, late nights and external visits, to prioritise the crucial work that was going on internally at the council.

I will be forever grateful to the NHS staff who treated me during this time. The speed with which I was diagnosed and treated was incredible and their compassion, skill and knowledge reassured me throughout that I was in good hands and that everything was going to plan.

The experience also made me realise the kindness of strangers, particularly women who I had never met. They reached out offering support after going through the same thing – this was both powerful and humbling. Hearing about other people’s experiences and stories gave me comfort during such a difficult time.

There are 55,000 new cases of breast cancer in the UK every year and it’s the most common cancer worldwide. If I can leave you with one message, it would be to please, please attend your breast cancer screening when you are invited. You’ll automatically get your first invitation for breast screening between the ages of 50 and 53. Then you’ll be invited every 3 years until you turn 71.

However, breast cancer can affect women – and men – of any age. It’s really important that you check your breasts regularly and if you notice anything unusual such as a lump, discharge or changes in the size/shape of your breast, then contact your GP. Most of the time there will be nothing to worry about – but we know our bodies best and to be blunt, time really can mean the difference between life and death.

As for the future, I will be Mayor until May and I’m determined to get the job done that I set out to do. So it will be full steam ahead and I am committed to making sure I leave the council in a much better position.

But I have a new found respect and gratitude for my body and will be making lifestyle changes as well as considering preventative treatment. I will have to live with the fact that it may return, but this cancer was never a life sentence, and I will be living my life more fully and with more appreciation than ever before.


Breast Cancer Screening, Signs and Symptoms

You automatically get your first invite for breast screening between the ages of 50 and 53. You’ll then be invited every 3 years until you turn 71.

Make sure you’re registered with a GP, and that they have your correct address – as this is where your breast cancer screening appointment letter will be sent. 

Attend your breast screening appointment – find out what happens at a breast screening mammogram here.

Remember that most cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women aged 50+, but it can happen at any age – which is why it’s important to check your breasts regularly for any unusual changes and contact your GP if you find any unusual lumps. Visit the CoppaFeel! website for advice on how to check your breasts

If you or someone you know has received a breast cancer diagnosis, support is available to help you navigate what happens next…

Macmillan Cancer support are the UK’s leading cancer care charity

Cancer Research UK also have a freephone number where you can speak to a nurse – 0808 800 4040

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