‘Dawn, can I tell you something?’
A woman stopped me while walking down the street in March this year. She smiled as she told me that I was the reason she went and had her mammogram.
At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision in being open about my breast cancer diagnosis.
I’d already had three friends go and get screened after I spoke to them about my cancer, but hearing this was an incredible feeling.
It’s not easy being open about what I’ve been through but now I know the impact it can have, I feel like I have no other choice.
I got a letter in October 2021 letting me know it was time for my routine mammogram. I’d initially put it to one side, but as my mum, sister and male cousin all had breast cancer, I wasn’t going to miss my chance to get screened.
I’d been regularly checking my breasts and had none of the warning signs – like lumps, inverted nipples or leaking breasts – so I wasn’t particularly worried.
The thing I was most anxious about was the mammogram itself. I’d had them before and knew it’s not a pleasant experience! During the screening, they squash your breasts between two plates and then you have to move around and stand in awkward positions – it’s painful.
But when it was over, I put it to the back of my mind. That was until a couple of weeks later.
I was early for an event at a local school – I always like to be early – and I had this private number call me.
I wasn’t going to pick up because I thought it was probably a journalist and I didn’t want to get distracted before I went into the assembly, but as I had a bit of time on my hands, I answered.
I immediately recognised the woman’s voice from the breast cancer reception. After confirming I was Dawn Butler, she told me I needed to come in on Friday (it was Wednesday at this point) for a biopsy.
‘A biopsy?’ I said. ‘Why do I need a biopsy. If I need a biopsy, that must mean you’ve found something.
‘Have you found something?’
She started to stutter on the other end of the phone, before checking that no one else had been in contact yet.
I said that this was the first I was hearing about my mammogram results and that I was in shock.
The words ‘is it my left breast’ escaped my mouth before I’d had a chance to think about them. I don’t know why, but I just had this gut feeling it was.
She stumbled, before confirming it was. Then she looked into the computer and said, ‘Oh, what we need to do, we can’t do Friday. We’ll need you in this coming Tuesday instead’.
At that moment I thought, ‘So it’s really bad. It isn’t just a routine biopsy; they need additional expertise.’
I didn’t have time to process any of this as I had to go into the school. I composed myself before watching a lovely assembly; the children were wonderful.
Afterwards, one of the teachers said a little girl wanted to come and say something to me. I thought it was going to be a normal, ‘thank you so much Miss for coming to our school and watching our assembly’, but it wasn’t.
Instead, the cutest little girl stood in front of me and said: ‘Dawn Butler, thank you very much for rescuing me from Afghanistan’.
And I just burst into tears, in front of all these kids. It was just an overload of emotion.
That was basically how I found out I had cancer.
On the Tuesday, I had my biopsy, and I spent the next week trying to distract myself. My thoughts flitted between, ‘S**t, I have cancer’ and ‘Don’t think like that, be positive’.
I didn’t tell anyone except my other half and my sister-in-law because I didn’t want them to worry and stress themselves out. So it was just a week of hell, really – and a few glasses of wine.
I was early for another event when I got a phone call, from another private number, with the results. They told me I needed to come in and see my surgeon the next day.
Like the first call, I replied with: ‘Surgeon? I’ve got a surgeon, so I’ve definitely got cancer. Are you telling me I’ve got cancer?’
While they couldn’t confirm it on the phone, I put two and two together. I then had to go to this event with that news hanging over my head.
First thing the day after, I went to the hospital. I thought I was dying and had 24 hours left to live because a next-day appointment seemed very serious.
When the nurse came out to collect me, she looked up and down the corridor and asked if I was by myself. Because of Covid, I hadn’t been allowed to bring anyone with me to other appointments, so I thought this would be the same. It wasn’t – but even still, I hadn’t told anyone.
The nurse then turned to the surgeon inside a room and said, ‘She’s outside but she’s by herself’.
Of course, I thought: ‘S**t, I really must be dying’.
I had my tissues at the ready as I sat down, prepared for the bad news.
The surgeon – who was this no nonsense, straight-to-the-point woman – told me I had a DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) which is 0-1 stage breast cancer.
‘If you have breast cancer, this is the best type to have’, she said. Almost immediately we were talking about checking my lymph nodes for cancer (all clear, thankfully), cutting the bad cells out of my breast, and next steps. It was a lot of information to take in.
She then started asking me lots of questions about my sister who had breast cancer. I didn’t know the answers, but as I picked up my phone to check with her, I realised I hadn’t told her.
I went into another room and called her from there.
It was tough. I composed myself, started speaking when she answered, and then just broke down. My sister started crying too, although she didn’t know why as I hadn’t even managed to get the words out.
Thankfully, my breast cancer nurse Amy came in afterwards and was there for me as I came to terms with the news. She was super – breast cancer nurses are just amazing.
My surgery was booked for February and in the lead up there were so many decisions to make – about my body and what it was going to look like afterwards.
They had these pictures of what different options looked like, and I remember asking ‘haven’t you got any pictures of any Black women’, which thankfully they did.
I had to choose what I wanted for after my mastectomy; I could leave it flat, opt for reconstruction or an implant.
I knew I didn’t want to have an implant – my body doesn’t react well to anything like that. Even getting my ears pierced twice and healed up was an ordeal!
I settled on a reconstruction. What they do is they take fat from your belly and build a boob.
It’s not like a tummy tuck, but to make myself feel better I told myself that’s what I was having, so I could eat whatever crap I wanted to up until then.
I had McDonald’s, Kentucky’s, everything! My credit card even got declined one time because I’d never used it on so much food like that before. It was a bit embarrassing!
Right before the surgery, I spoke to one of my other surgeons – who was just the funniest man with the best bedside manner – and said I was nervous about what a big surgery it was.
He replied with, ‘What do you care? You’ll be asleep. I’m the one doing all the hard work’.
It was exactly what I needed to hear.
The operation took 10 hours and afterwards my surgeon was waiting by my bedside for me to wake up to tell me it had been a success, but I was just out of it.
I was in intensive care for three days and was in a lot of pain. I wanted to get up and walk but I just couldn’t – my legs weren’t working. It took a lot of time for my normal bodily functions to return.
In this period, I also found out that when they removed the cancer cells, they’d found additional ones underneath. If they had been left untreated, it would have developed into a very invasive cancer.
And that is why I’m publicly speaking about this, because the earlier you catch it, the less harsh the treatment and the better your chances of surviving.
Due to Covid, Breast Cancer Now estimates that there’s around a million women that haven’t gone for their mammogram screening. They also believe that there could be as many as 11,000 women living with undiagnosed breast cancer in the UK as a result of disruption caused by the pandemic and the underfunding of the NHS.
I’m launching a campaign today called A Million Missed Mammograms to find these million women and implore them to get screened.
Mammograms are the gold standard of breast cancer screening so it really is so important that everyone who gets a letter makes and goes to their appointment.
It doesn’t matter if you have symptoms or not, or whether you check yourself regularly, in cases like mine you can have cancer regardless.
A Million Missed Mammograms
After being diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram in November, Dawn Butler MP was grateful to find out it was caught early.
However, she learned that a million women missed out on their mammograms due to the pandemic, with an estimated 10,000 currently living with undetected breast cancer.
Determined to change that, Dawn has launched a campaign with Metro.co.uk to get a million women to book their missed screenings.
Mammograms are uncomfortable – but some things in life are uncomfortable. If, at the end of the day, it means doctors find your breast cancer early and you’re not going to die, or lose your hair, then surely that’s worth the 30 minutes of pain.
I especially want to ask Black and Asian women to make sure they get screened. For us, the mortality rate is higher and there are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, many of us put off our appointments so cancer is found later.
Women of colour are often incredibly busy – whether that’s working two jobs, caring for families or both. We so often put ourselves low down on the list of priorities.
But the longer cancer is left, the more invasive it becomes.
Another reason why our odds of fighting this disease are worse is because we’re often not taken seriously when we go to our GPs.
My sister, for example, went to hers when she started experiencing symptoms. Her doctor told her it was just a cyst, even though my sister knew something was wrong. She ended up going to hospital a couple of months later in agony, where they told her it was advanced breast cancer.
She’s OK now, but it is so important for us to get tested and fight to be seen.
Breast cancer impacts everybody. You can say, ‘I’m fit, healthy, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink; I’m fine’. But that’s not how it works.
I’m lucky that I’m well now. All the cancer has been removed and I’m on Tamoxifen – to help stop cancer cells growing – for five years and hopefully after that I’ll be given the all clear.
My mission now is to find the missing million mammograms. I want to find the women who have been sent letters and have put them to one side.
Life is only going to get more stressful with the cost of living crisis and what I don’t want is for people to put their health further and further down the list.
The NHS screen people aged between 50 and 70 – so they will be the ones receiving the letters – every three years.
But if you have a lump – or anything like that – you can call up and book an appointment. You don’t need a letter.
We shouldn’t be embarrassed talking about our bodies or what happens to them. Breast cancer effects everybody – men, women, trans men, trans women, non-binary people.
I’m an activist, I always have been, and so if something happens to me, I always want to make it better or easier for the next person coming behind me, no matter what that is. It just so happens that my latest campaign is breast cancer.
When I heard that woman say she got screened because of me, it was emotional but I felt a sense of purpose.
I recently took my mum with me on a visit to Whipps Cross Hospital and she was so proud, showing off to the doctors that her daughter is an MP. One doctor looked at me, looked at the name, and said, ‘Are you the one that told people to go for their mammograms? Thank you.’
If you’ve missed your screening, it’s not too late – just call and make an appointment.
I’m going to have a counter on my website, and with the help of Metro.co.uk, we are going to find the missing million.
I know we can do it.
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