In the wake of Sarah Harding’s death from breast cancer, fellow sufferer Nina Lopez, also 39, shares her own experience to mark Breast Cancer Awareness month
One summer evening in 2018, Nina Lopez put her six-year-old daughter Ilani to bed and decided to have an early night herself. ‘I took my laptop and a bowl of popcorn to bed and watched a movie,’ she recalls. ‘A piece of popcorn fell on to my breast and, when I picked it up, I felt a lump.’
It wasn’t her only symptom, but it was the only one stark enough to warrant a trip to her GP. In the previous months, Nina, then 36, had started to feel increasingly rundown. ‘It was something I put down to being a busy working mum, so I didn’t think anything of it. Until I found the lump.’
Nina saw her GP, who told her it was nothing to worry about and probably due to her time of the month. ‘She told me that women often have lumpy breasts, so I went away reassured.’
Over the next few weeks, however, Nina experienced sharp pains in her chest and could no longer sleep on her stomach because it hurt her breast. ‘I felt the lump again and, this time, it was harder, so I went back to my GP. After examining me again, she issued an urgent referral to hospital. She couldn’t even look me in the eye,’ remembers Nina.
Two weeks later, she was seen by a consultant at her local hospital, who also found another lump under her armpit. ‘At one point a nurse gently touched my arm and told me everything was going to be OK. And it was then that I knew it wasn’t.’
On 26 July, Nina called her GP to chase up the results and was told she had triple negative breast cancer (a type that’s more common in women under 50) and had to go straight into a treatment plan involving a lumpectomy and chemotherapy. ‘My
mum was with me in the kitchen and my daughter was playing in the next room, and that day was the first time I cried in front of either of them,’ she says. ‘I broke down in tears and couldn’t speak. At 36 I had to think about my losing my fertility, losing my hair, losing my life.’
The treatment was successful but, having spoken to her consultants, Nina was aware of the chances of her cancer returning. ‘Years two to three, post-cancer, were the danger zone; after five years I knew my chances of survival would increase.’
In July this year, Nina, who lost her job in fashion during the pandemic, and her private healthcare along with it, had a routine MRI scan and discovered the worst possible news – that her cancer was back, this time in her sternum and lymph nodes. It was stage 4 and it was incurable. ‘Even harder to get my head around was the fact I was becoming increasingly breathless and had been having pain in my neck and spine for some time, which should have been red flags, yet I was just given painkillers. In a very small way, the diagnosis was a relief because it meant all these symptoms weren’t just in my head.’
Nina, now 39, is calling for more awareness of secondary breast cancer (SBC), where cancer spreads to other parts of the body, and as such leads to symptoms other than a breast lump; and for GPs to pay more attention to young women presenting with breast cancer symptoms. ‘Doctors are so quick to dismiss us, but it’s killing young women.’
In a YouGov poll released three weeks after the death of Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding, who died of SBC aged just 39, it was found 38% of people don’t know what it is. In the same poll, 44% of people believed young women have the best chance of survival from breast cancer, while it’s actually women aged 60-69. Breast cancer in young women, meanwhile, can be more aggressive because their cells grow faster.
Better still, says Nina, would be a system whereby GPs aren’t always the gateway to cancer referrals.
Earlier this month, research found many GPs are failing to urgently refer patients with red flag cancer symptoms, despite early diagnosis and treatment being crucial to survival rates, with each four-week delay increasing the risk of death by 10%.
‘I’ve asked how long I have left but they don’t know,’ says Nina. ‘But I can’t spend every day thinking I’m dying, otherwise you fall down a black hole. I’ve been honest with my daughter, who is now 11, right from the beginning. We’ve had lots of beautiful conversations where we talk about Mummy dying, we’ve cried together, and it’s made our bond even stronger.
‘It’s so important to do things like take her to school and pick her up. To show her that life goes on, even when you feel like you can’t. After a particularly tough chemo session I somehow got out of bed the next day, gave her breakfast and took her to school. As mums, you always find that last ounce of strength you didn’t know you had.’
Nina is raising awareness for the breast cancer charity Black Women Rising; blackwomenrisinguk.org.