I started chemo on day of husband's funeral

June 05 2016

JENNY was a busy woman. She had a husband, two sons and a high profile job as HR manager for Avon and Wiltshire NHS Mental Heath Trust and, frankly, there were not enough hours in the day to attend a routine mammogram.

Jenny Wookey

JENNY was a busy woman. She had a husband, two sons and a high profile job as HR manager for Avon and Wiltshire NHS Mental Heath Trust and, frankly, there were not enough hours in the day to attend a routine mammogram.
"I told my secretary to cancel it as I didn't have time," said Jenny, 69.
"She said 'We've cancelled it twice already. I think you better go'."
After the X-ray at Tower Hill Clinic, Jenny was called back but she wasn't unduly concerned.
"They told me they weren't sure about my result and I ought to see the surgeon. Off I went to Frenchay Breast Care Centre to see consultant Simon Cawthorn. He put my results up on a light screen and said: "You'll need a mastectomy". I said 'What? You mean I've got cancer?'
"I asked him if I couldn't just have it taken away but as there was cancer in the top and bottom half of my breast he told me I would need to have it removed."
Jenny returned to work the following day but the reaction of colleagues threw her.
"It's very difficult coping with the way other people cope with it. I almost felt everyone was ready to start collecting for a wreath. It's not so bad these days but breast cancer wasn't really talked about back then.
"People still find it difficult to tell others because everyone panics. The connotations are horrendous but actually 80 per cent of people get over breast cancer now."
Originally Jenny was told she wouldn't need chemotherapy, which came as a relief as she seemed more worried about losing her hair than her breast.
"I can't believe now I was so matter of fact about losing my breast and just relieved about not having to have the chemotherapy. I was almost happy."
Within two weeks Jenny had her breast removed and had an immediate reconstruction. But she was dealt a huge blow after her breast tissue was analysed.
"I was told I would now need chemotherapy. I actually burst into tears. The nurse, who had got to know me, told me to pull myself together and that was just what I needed."
Three weeks after Jenny had her breast removed, her husband was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer.
"I tried to put my chemo off a few months until Christmas because I knew my husband wouldn't live very long. I was told if I wanted to be all right for my boys, Nick and Dominic, I needed to start the chemo within six weeks or it would be too late.
"I started the radiotherapy the day of my husband's funeral. It was a difficult time but it's difficult for everyone."
Jenny's fears about chemotherapy proved founded - she suffered from nausea, extreme tiredness and mouth ulcers so severe she couldn't bear to put a cup to her lips.
But worse of all was getting 'chemo-brain'.
"I didn't understand anything. It was as if my brain cells had been thrown in the air and had come back down muddled up. Lots of people get it but are fine after the chemo finishes."
Jenny wasn't fine though and brain scans revealed she was suffering from memory loss, but thankfully there were no signs of dementia.
"I actually felt vindicated. I wasn't stupid - this was something that has happened as a result of breast cancer.
"I can't be sorry about having chemotherapy. It gave me an extra four to five per cent of surviving. It was worth that."
Sadly it meant Jenny could no longer hold down such a responsible job so she took medical retirement at the age of 57. She was left with a void in her life which, unbeknown to her, would quickly be filled.
"One of the breast nurses knew of my background working in the NHS. Suddenly I was asked if I'd like to go along to a BUST meeting and join the committee, which I did. Less than six weeks later, I was the chairwoman."
BUST -  Breast Cancer Unit Support Trust - was set up 25 years ago by three breast cancer patients who were grateful for the treatment they received. They were the first patients of surgeon Simon Cawthorn when he started his consultant post at Frenchay Hospital in October 1990. They asked how they could repay him.
Jenny, who more than a decade later is still chairwoman, said: "I'd lost my husband and career but the work I do with BUST helped me fill that void."
BUST is made up of eight incredible women who give their time to run the charity. They don't even claim expenses.
"No expenses ever. Not for anything," Jenny emphasises.
"Ninety nine pence of every pound people donate to us goes on advanced state-of-the-art equipment not available on the NHS."
To date they have raised, and supported other fundraisers to raise, more than £1.2million.
When BUST members were told Frenchay Hospital was to close, Jenny sat on committees looking at setting up a breast centre at the new Southmead Hospital. The resulting Bristol Breast Care Centre is something Jenny is extremely proud of.
"It is a separate unit at the hospital and everything is in one place. The great thing about the unit is that the nurses get to know their patients very quickly. They work so hard and care so much. It's a lovely place with a lovely atmosphere. It really is incredible."
You can read more about Jenny's story along with the stories of 24 others in the book 25 Stories, 25 Years, produced to celebrate the 25th anniversary of BUST.
Jenny said: "This book shows what it's like to have breast cancer. The stories are so inspiring. The women and men have all had breast cancer, have had treatment and have come out the other side. They aren't celebrities but every single one of them is a star."
25 Years, 25 Stories is available for a minimum donation of £5 from the Breast Care Centre at Southmead Hospital or from Pam @Christine Peters in Staple Hill. You can also obtain a copy by post by emailing details to 25years25stories@gmail.com. There is an additional fee of £2 for books sent via post.