When my 14-year-old daughter, Gemma, developed a lump in her breast I thought it was just puberty. But it turned out to be something far more deadly…
By Emma Wiltshire, 42, from Bristol
“Mum, I think I’ve found a lump.”
Looking back, those words were the most important words I would ever hear as a mother. However when my daughter Gemma came to me and complained that she had a lump in her right breast, I was quick to dismiss it as a sign of puberty.
She was 14 years old, and she had just began to develop breasts. The lump was the size of a pea, so I wasn’t immediately worried.
“Give it a few weeks,” I told her. “If it’s still there after that, then I’ll take you to the doctors.”
So we waited, but after a fortnight the lump was still there. If anything, it had grown a little – to around the size of a ten pence piece – so as promised, I took Gemma to the doctors.
“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” the doctor said as he wrote Gemma a prescription for antibiotics. “At your age everything is a bit lumpy and bumpy as your body grows and develops. I think it might just be a swollen milk duct – a few weeks of antibiotics should sort it out.”
But two weeks passed and the lump didn’t go anywhere, so the doctor referred Gemma for a scan and a biopsy.
While we were waiting for the results, I started to feel worried, although I didn’t tell Gemma. The lump was growing rapidly – by the time we were called to an appointment to discuss the results, it had swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
In October 2013 doctors dropped the bombshell which changed our lives forever – Gemma had cancer.
I listened in stunned horror as medics explained it was an extremely rare type of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma – a soft tissue cancer usually found in the legs and stomach. For some reason, it had grown in Gemma’s breast.
“So Gemma has breast cancer, at 14?” I said slowly, unable to process the information I was being given.
“No, it’s not breast cancer,” he explained, turning his attention to Gemma. “It’s not as straightforward as that I’m afraid.
“It usually appears in very young children, so it’s rare for it to be found in someone of your age. And it’s even rarer for it to be found in the breast area. In fact I’ve never heard of rhabdomyosarcoma in the breast before.
“It does appear quite aggressive,” he continued. “We are going to have to start treatment straight away if we want a good chance of beating this.”
My world felt like it was spinning out of control at that moment, and I couldn’t help but collapse into tears. Gemma however, stayed strong.
“Don’t worry Mum,” she said with a smile. “I’ll beat it.”
I couldn’t get my head around the fact that my beautiful, intelligent and headstrong daughter had just been diagnosed with cancer.
I knew there would be a long road ahead of us. I wondered if Gemma realised just how hard that road would be. My husband Geoff, 50, and my son Daniel, 19, were also devastated.
Before the news had time to sink in, Gemma was rushed in for intense chemotherapy the very next day.
And while I felt like I was falling apart, Gemma walked straight into the ward with her head held high. I was so proud of her bravery.
After a few days, Gemma asked for her hair to be shaved off, knowing the treatment would make it all fall out anyway.
“I’d rather be in control of it,” she smiled at me when she explained her decision.
It broke my heart to watch her having her lovely long locks cut off, but Gemma handled it superbly.
She remained positive, even when the chemotherapy made her feel wretched and sick. She used her great sense of humour to deal with her changing appearance – on one occasion she stuffed a pillow under her top, put on a pair of glasses and stood proudly next to her balding father.
“Look Mum,” she said, giggling. “We’re twins now.” Gemma’s ability to turn even the darkest situation into a funny one got us through the hardest of times.
In February 2014, a surgeon explained that the next step of treatment would be to perform a mastectomy.
“We want to completely remove your breast to make sure we get rid of the cancer,” he said. “You will be eligible for reconstructive surgery, but not until you’ve finished growing.”
That’s the first time I saw my little girl falter. Gemma looked over at me, her eyes wide with panic.
“Can’t you just remove both and give me the reconstructive surgery now?” she pleaded, but the surgeon shook his head. I could tell the idea of only having one breast filled Gemma with horror.
“Being a teenager with cancer is hard enough without also only having one boob,” she muttered as we walked to the car. I hugged her tightly.
“It’s only temporary love,” I soothed. “We really need to do everything we can to beat this.”
She was only 14 and she was losing a breast – it didn’t seem fair. But we put all our faith in the medics taking care of Gemma and the operation was hailed a success.
She was given a prosthetic bra to wear to even up her chest, so the average person on the street wouldn’t realise. But as a fashionable teen she found it difficult to wear the clothes she wanted.
Despite this hurdle, Gemma’s determination to beat her cancer never faltered. My brave girl received her last chemotherapy treatment in December 2014 and shortly afterwards we finally heard the news we had been hoping for – she was cancer free.
She would still need regular scans, but she was free to live her life again.
There was so much for Gemma to think about when we received the amazing news. Firstly, she had missed a vital year of her education, so she bravely decided to repeat the last two years at school.
The doctors also wanted to talk to her about her fertility, as we don’t yet know whether she will be able to have children in the future due to the chemotherapy treatment.
As a 17-year-old, Gemma found it hard being asked if she wanted children one day – she was too young to think about all that, but doctors needed to know so they could do what they could to try to preserve her fertility.
Thankfully, Gemma was allowed to go with the other pupils her age to the end of school prom in July last year.
She was thrilled, and spent ages agonising over which dress to get. With the help of the nurses at the hospital, we devised a special strapless bra for her to wear to allow her to wear the dress of her dreams.
She chose a beautiful green gown and I beamed with pride when I saw her in it for the first time. She looked like a princess, and the best part is, she gets to go to prom all over again this year with her current year group.
No girl should have to go through cancer at 14, but Gemma fought hard with her head held high – now she has her whole future to look forward to.