Personal stories

Cancer: the birthday present no one wants

Posted by Emma Herring on 06 April 2021

Emma Herring is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017.


My cancer was the birthday present you never want to receive. Having reached the age of 50 and celebrated in style with my husband in New York, I went for my first ever mammogram. Having no symptoms or concerns, I was shocked when I was recalled to the breast clinic.

A distressing afternoon spent having more tests and biopsies led to an initial diagnosis of high-grade DCIS and I was told I would need a mastectomy. It was hoped that the surgery would be all I would need.

But 15 August 2017 is a date that neither I, nor my husband, will ever forget. It was the day I was told that the results from the pathology revealed a grade three tumour, along with cancer in a lymph node, and it was also HER2 positive. I think everyone heard my screams. I spent days in shock and was so scared.


Next followed chemotherapy which I found a great struggle. I had to have a port fitted as the chemo nurses struggled to access my veins for blood tests and chemo. Losing my hair was awful. I refused to have it cut short, but after my first dose it came out in handfuls and my husband and I both cried in the kitchen as he cut off my remaining hair. I always wore a wig, or a scarf, and my husband was the only person who ever saw my bald head. I also reacted badly to one of my chemo drugs which led to a change to a weekly chemo regime.

After chemo I had further lymph nodes removed – luckily all were clear of cancer – and then 15 sessions of radiotherapy and my dose of Herceptin every three weeks.


I didn’t cope well with my treatment. I just about managed a short walk most days and was grateful for friends and family who helped and walked our puppy who arrived the day after I had biopsies at the breast clinic. We had wondered if we were doing the right thing getting a dog – but our lively cocker spaniel was such a brilliant distraction. For my husband she was great company and an opportunity to get out for a walk when he had to cope with my fear and steroid rages! For me it was good to walk around the fields close to our house and not think about cancer and laugh at her enthusiasm and excitement for life.


I found concentrating very difficult and reading and writing hard. As a writer by profession, it made working tough. I managed to do small amounts, but the cancer treatment had really dented my confidence. My sister was a great support and brought me novels to read and a book of writing prompts to help me. I had support from the charity Maggie’s and did its ‘Where Now?’ course after my treatment ended. I also discovered the Ticking Off Breast Cancer website and reading about others who had come out the other side of treatment and having the tips and advice was a big help.


Coming to the end of treatment was hard as I had terrible fatigue and although I’d had immediate reconstruction with an implant, I still had to wear an infill prosthesis to balance me out. I hated it and found it very uncomfortable and was so pleased when I could have symmetrising surgery in 2019 and I could do away with the prosthesis.

I had read stories about people who after having cancer re-evaluated their lives and made big changes, learnt new skills and changed jobs. But I was so tired and beaten that just getting through each day was an achievement. I was trying to work but the fatigue was an issue so was pleased when I got some work coaching from the organisation Working with Cancer. My coaching sessions gave me a real boost and helped me get back my confidence and start working again with some new clients.


It’s only now that I can look back at what happened and think about what I went through. I’m really pleased to be part of the Ticking Off Breast Cancer team and look forward to helping others as they navigate breast cancer treatment.

April 2021


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