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'My cancer diagnosis saved my mum and sister's lives'

Mirror logo Mirror 06/10/2019 Fiona Duffy

April Chitty, 31, an administrator, lives in Horsham, West Sussex, with her fiance Richard Bunce, 34, an operations manager.

I was in the shower when I first noticed a lump in my left breast.

I’d found lumps before that turned out to be blocked sweat glands, but this felt different so I booked an appointment with my GP.

“You’re so young, it’s unlikely to be anything to worry about,” the doctor reassured me.

But seeing I was worried, she referred me for tests.

I was just 25 and the prospect of having cancer so young was unthinkable.

So I was left reeling when I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before my 26th birthday.

I remember firing questions at the team of specialists: “Am I going to die?”, “Will I lose my hair?”.

The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, meaning it was grade three. I needed chemotherapy to shrink the tumour, then surgery and radiotherapy.

I was also offered screening to establish if the cancer had been caused by a genetic mutation.

Tricia Fox holding a dog posing for the camera: April with husband Richard and their dog Biscuit © Provided by Reach Publishing Services Limited April with husband Richard and their dog Biscuit

I assured my family everything would be fine, but deep down I was terrified. A few weeks into treatment, I learned I had tested positive for BRCA2 – a similar genetic mutation to the one Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie has.

This meant I needed a different type of chemotherapy, and due to the risk of developing ovarian cancer, doctors would have to ‘shut down’ my ovaries until I could have them removed.

Next, I had to find out which parent I’d inherited the genetic mutation from.

I insisted on going with Mum for her results. When we heard the word ‘positive’, she sobbed, saying it was her fault. But I told her it was like blaming herself for giving me brown eyes.

On New Year’s Eve 2015, I had a double mastectomy and five lymph nodes removed from my left armpit. It was lovely to wake up in 2016, knowing I was free of cancer.

Radiotherapy was a breeze compared to chemo and I was over the moon when my hair grew back. As time passed, I allowed myself to hope I’d beaten cancer forever.

I took up swing dancing and met Richard on a dating website. On our first date, I told him I couldn’t have children, while he said he never wanted to get married. Things couldn’t have been more perfect.

Everything was going brilliantly until last August, when I found a tiny lump on the left side of my neck. When doctors broke the news I had secondary cancer, and that there was no cure, I was so shocked I fainted.

a little girl wearing a hat and smiling at the camera: April during chemotherapy © Provided by Reach Publishing Services Limited April during chemotherapy

But my consultant explained there were treatments to keep the cancer at bay for as long as possible and I was put on a trial of the drug Olaparib.

Two weeks later, Richard whisked me away to a gorgeous hotel in Devon, and stunned me by proposing. We both cried as he slid the ring on to my finger.

I dread the thought of him being a young widower and I’ve given him the opportunity to walk away, but he says he’s going nowhere. I’ve found a very special person.

After six months of treatment, the tumours in my chest have vanished. And despite having another lymph node removed recently, I’m doing OK.

I look at my cancer as something like diabetes – I have to take medication to keep it at bay. I might not live as long as everyone else, but I’ll be all right for a little while.

Knowing that my mum and sister are going to be OK is wonderful.

I’m so grateful that technology has evolved to make this possible.

I hope my niece doesn’t have to go through what we have, but who knows what brilliant treatments will be available when she’s older.

I’m so looking forward to our wedding day later this month, and married life with James. We spent our honeymoon money on a cockapoo puppy called Biscuit, and we adore her.

During one low moment, Richard asked me to tell him everything I’d like to do – from taking my nieces and nephews to a theme park to trying the dog-racing sport Flyball with Biscuit – and covered a wall in Post-it notes.

We’re working our way through them, so we’re not focusing on the cancer, but making happy memories.

I felt so guilty for passing on gene

a group of people posing for the camera: April, left, with her mum Sally and sister Zoe © Provided by Reach Publishing Services Limited April, left, with her mum Sally and sister Zoe

April’s mum, Sally Fellingham-Huggett, 58, a training course organiser, lives in Brockham, Surrey, with her husband, Jim, 67, a plumber.

Discovering I was the one who had passed on the BRCA2 gene made me feel terribly guilty.

As a parent you do everything you can to protect your children. Knowing I’d inherited it from my parents and couldn’t have done anything about it didn’t take away that horrible feeling.

April being April just kept saying: “Mum, it’s not your fault.”

Having my ovaries removed via keyhole surgery was straightforward – and it turned out to be a lifesaver as a biopsy revealed that my right ovary was emitting rogue cells.

Then, in March this year, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction after a mammogram revealed early signs of breast cancer. It’s astounding to think that, thanks to this incredible research, my life has been saved twice and it’s given us all more precious time together.

It’s lovely to see April happy, she is the kindest, loveliest person. I know she worries about leaving people behind, particularly Richard, but he will be looked after by us and will always be our link to her.

No one deserves this lovely wedding more than them. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.

My sister is a real inspiration

a little girl posing for a picture: April and her sister as children © Provided by Reach Publishing Services Limited April and her sister as children

Teaching assistant Zoe Davies, 33, is April’s older sister. She is married to Lewis, a PE teacher, and they live in Dorking, Surrey, with their three children.

April’s first diagnosis was a massive shock – especially because she was so young. They say you go through stages dealing with cancer and there was a time when I was so angry as it was just so cruel. Although Mum went for screening immediately, I spent a year considering my options.

I suffer from health anxiety and had to know what my response would be either way.

Even then, the decision to have a double mastectomy wasn’t straightforward. The genealogist and surgeon couldn’t have been more supportive, but I felt awkward discussing preventative surgery when April never had that option.

I’m looking into a trial where rather than removing the ovaries and Fallopian tubes, surgeons just remove the tubes as it has fewer side effects for pre-menopausal women.

We’ll give our children the option of being screened when they are older, but I’d never force them into it. I can only support them.

If April hadn’t found the cancer so early, we could be facing a lot less time with her. She has a lot of options and we’re so proud of how well she is living with this.

She is a massive inspiration and couldn’t be more loved.

WHAT IS GENETIC SCREENING?

BRCA1 and 2 are the most common inherited altered genes that increase the risk of breast cancer developing.

Children have a 50% chance of inheriting these genes, but need to be aged 18 before they can undergo a risk assessment.

Anyone with concerns can ask their GP for advice and a referral to a genetic screening centre where experts can establish their risk level.

Options include regular breast screening, risk-reducing drugs, genetic counselling and genetic testing, plus surgery for people at high risk.

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