31st October 2013 is a date Julie Ainger will never forget. It was the day the moving story that has been her battle against breast cancer began.
Just two weeks earlier, the 34-year-old from Kirkby had been devastated to be diagnosed with vascular invasive Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) after the discovery of a tumour that measured 22mm. Her whole world was turned upside down.
How could this be happening to her? Wasn’t breast was something more commonly associated with the older generation? Not only that, but she had breast-fed daughter Cassie, which was supposed to decrease the risks.
Yet there she was, sat in a hospital bed, having been told she had the dreaded ‘C’ word and readying herself for a life-changing operation.
“When I had the ultrasound and I could see a big black lump and I had watched enough Holby City and Casualty to know that was not good news,” said Julie.
“But even then, as I went on to have a biopsy, I was still in denial. When I was told I had cancer the first two things I thought was that I was going to die and what was I going to do about Cassie?
“The doctor was talking about the procedures that I could have, but I felt like a rabbit in headlights and I just couldn’t take it all in.”
Having found a lump ‘like a conker’, Julie went straight to her doctors, and initially her fears were allayed as the lump was expected to be confirmed as non-cancerous tissue known as confirmed as a fibroadenoma.
Horrifyingly, though, tests concluded she was one of only a few hundred of 30-somethings nationwide to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
It left her with two treatment routes - to remove the breast completely - known as a mastectomy - or remove the lump and some surrounding tissue - known as lumpectomy. Both had their advantages and disadvantages, but Julie opted for the latter.
She explained: “Emotionally I couldn’t cope with the thought of losing my breast and with the survival rates similar for both procedures I went for the lumpectomy. They told me they would cut out the cancerous tissue and a clear margin of 1cm all around it, as well as remove four of the closest lymph nodes, which is how it can spread.”
Two weeks later, on 15th November, came the results Julie had been praying for. The operation was deemed a success and the cancer was gone.
“When I was told they had got it all out and it had not spread I was so relieved and I cried,” she said.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of my daughter not having her mum around when she was still growing up.”
Even then, former Ashfield School pupil Julie’s treatment was far from over. Six rounds of intensive chemotherapy followed, along with six cycles of abdomen white blood cell injections, six rounds of Zoladex injections and four-and-a-half weeks of radiotherapy.
It has been a long road to recovery and an experience Julie hopes that no-one close to her ever has to repeat.
She said: “I had to decide whether or not to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy as a preventative measure to try to stop it coming back - and I’d heard all the stories about how ill chemo can make you feel, even if I didn’t know what it was.
“There was only a six per cent chance of that treatment working, but a doctor pointed out that some patients wanted to give it a go if there was only a one per cent chance of it working, which stayed with me. I knew I had to give myself the best possible chance.
“The after-effects of my first session of chemo, where they basically pump you full of poison, was awful. I couldn’t stop being sick all night and in the morning I had to be re-admitted to hospital because I had lost so much fluid.
“With each session, the first week you felt really poorly and could not get off the sofa, the second week you would start feeling better and the third you were almost back to normal - but then it would start again.
“The other thing that was hard to deal with was losing my hair, even though I knew it was going to happen. I had a wig, but, with hair dropping out everywhere, I went around to my friends, who is a hairdresser, and got her to shave it off, which was quite liberating.”
Finally, the chemotherapy ended on 1st May and the radiotherapy treatment followed which was ‘a breeze’ by comparison. Julie’s active treatment came to an end last month.
Throughout her ordeal, she has drawn strength from close friends and family, particularly partner Craig Robinson, 32, and daughter Cassie, now six.
“Craig supported me every step of the way and has always come with me,” said Julie. “He has been brilliant and it’s a big thing having someone behind you like that.
“With Cassie, I didn’t initially mention that the lump was cancer, as I was worried she would find out how serious it was, and I didn’t want her to be frightened.
“When I got my wig, I took Cassie along so she could feel included and to understand what was happening. We made it fun as she got to try it on.
“I don’t know what I would have done without either Cassie or Craig - they have been fantastic.”
Now Julie simply hopes to get back to something like a normal life. Yes, she will have to take Tamoxifen medication for the next five years and have a check-up and mammogram once a year, but she is nevertheless thankful to have a ‘second chance’.
She has started back in her job with a local authority, is back swimming, hopes to return to watching her beloved Nottingham Forest and is likely to try for another baby with the help of IVF treatment in the future.
As a thank you to the encouragement she has received from those closest to her, she has also organised a fundraising party for Cancer Research UK at the Rushley pub, Mansfield, on Sunday 31st August between 2pm and 6pm.
The event will include a raffle, face painting, glitter tattoos and a bouncy castle, with the hope of raising £500.
Julie said: “They say if you can stay clear for two years, then the odds of it coming back are drastically reduced, and it will be my first year in October.
“When it first happened I did think ‘why me?’ but then you have to get on with it. People say I’m brave, but I’m not - there have been plenty of tears.
“But I have always tried to be open and public about it and tried to laugh and joke about it on Facebook, rather than be downbeat. And I have always looked forward to things - like the holiday we went on in March.
“Most days now I feel absolutely fine, although when I see people like Stephen Sutton, or others with cancer, then it’s obviously upsetting.
“The whole journey has made me think that I don’t want to waste time doing things I don’t enjoy. I don’t worry about money anymore and I have a positive outlook as well as a desire to be healthy and exercise, which I took for granted and had no interest in before.”
Julie’s advice to others when it comes to any form of cancer is simple - woman or man, young or old.
She said: “I think there is an invincibility factor sometimes, especially with younger people. Like me, they think it’s about lifestyle, or it runs in the family, and that it won’t happen to them.
“But it doesn’t run in my family and I have been one of the unfortunate ones. I didn’t used to check for lumps, certainly not like I do now, and didn’t think I needed to.
“I can’t stress the importance of checking your body regularly and going to the doctors if you have any concerns - it really could make all the difference.”
Despite her protestations to the contrary, there’s no doubting Julie Ainger’s bravery. Opening her heart about her cancer fight can’t have been easy, but if it saves just one life, she will deem it entirely worthwhile.
To give to money Julie’s fundraising initiative, go to: https://www.justgiving.com/Julie-Ainger