A great-grandmother who developed an overwhelming urge to breastfeed ahead of her eightieth birthday has revealed the mysterious symptom was a sign that she had cancer.
Barbara Harvey, 85, who lives in Plymouth, Devon, spent a year forced to secretly ‘tweak’ her ‘tingly’ left nipple while out in public to relieve the tingling and itchy sensation she was suffering from.
After several ‘frustrating’ trips to her GP revealing her baffling symptoms, including an urge to breastfeed, doctors declared she was lump-free and that nothing was wrong.
It was only when the retired business owner who hasn’t breast-fed since 1966, visited a locum doctor that she was referred to hospital for a mammogram.
Barbara Harvey, 85, (pictured) who lives in Plymouth, Devon, revealed she was diagnosed with breast cancer after experiencing a bizarre desire to breastfeed ahead of her eightieth birthday
Barbara was so stunned she broke down in tears when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer – bizarrely in her right breast rather than her itchy left one.
She underwent surgery in April 2015 to remove the tumour and a lymph node – weeks before her 80th birthday.
Now aged 85 and cancer-free, Barbara is sharing her experience to make other women aware of symptoms to look out for.
Barbara said: ‘All the health campaigns talk are about searching for any lumps or other changes, but they never mention the unusual symptoms I had at nearly 80 years old.
‘Over the course of a year I experienced an itchy tingling feeling in my nipple that soon spread to the whole of the breast.
‘I found without consciously being aware of it I was tweaking my nipple, I wanted to squeeze it as it felt as though I’d got milk in there, and sometimes a clear liquid would come out.
‘As time went on the irritation was driving me mad, it felt like I wanted to feed a baby from my left breast.
‘When you are breastfeeding a baby you do get these feelings in there.
Barbara admits she thought her initial symptoms were related to her hormones and didn’t expect to have cancer. Pictured: Barbara in the 1970s, in her 40s
‘The symptoms first started in 2014, at the time I just thought “Oh it’s something to do with my hormones”. I never dreamt it was going to end up being cancer.
‘When the consultant sat me down and gave me the news I was a bit numb, I was in total shock.
‘I left his office, got in my car, drove to my son’s, walked through the door and burst into tears.’
BREAST CANCER SYMPTOMS
The first symptom of breast cancer most people notice is a lump in their breast or some thickening.
Breast symptoms to look out for:
- A new lump or thickening in your breast or armpit
- Change in size, shape or feel of your breast
- Skin changes in the breast such as puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness of the skin
- Fluid leaking from the nipple in a woman who isn’t pregnant or breast feeding
- Changes in the position of nipple
Source: Cancer Research UK
Barbara who last breastfed her youngest child 54 years ago in 1966, said she went to the doctors a number of times desperate to get to the bottom of what was causing the bizarre sensation.
Despite being declared lump-free several times, Barbara was unconvinced that all was well.
The final straw came when she was unable to enjoy her regular knitting group meet-ups after being plagued by itchiness she was desperate to relieve.
Barbara said: ‘I’m a very sociable person and I run knitting groups, and have done for ten years.
‘What worried me was the fact that I suddenly realised I was sitting there with other people and tweaking my left nipple because it was irritating me.
‘It was very embarrassing trying to relieve that itch in public, I managed to keep it under wraps so nobody commented on it, but it was very frustrating.’
Fed up of being fobbed off, Barbara returned to her GP and was relieved when a locum doctor suggested a referral to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, where she underwent a mammogram.
Barbara said: ‘I’d been going backwards and forwards to the doctor because it felt like I wanted to feed a baby from my left breast.
‘The doctor would examine me and say there were no lumps, it was frustrating being told there was nothing wrong.
‘A locum lady took a look and said although I had no lumps it was worth investigating and that she would request I have a mammogram.
Barbara (pictured) was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast after a hospital mammogram, despite her symptoms being in her left breast
‘I went along to the hospital where they did the mammogram and I was told I had cancer.
‘The specialist described it as being shaped like a fried egg – the ‘yolk’ being the cancer and the ‘white’ being the oestrogen that the cancer feeds on.
‘He took a biopsy and very soon after that I was told I had to go in and have it taken out.
‘I found this fascinating, all the feeling was in my left breast but the cancer was in the right breast.’
Barbara underwent the operation to remove the tumour and a lymph node, which came back clear showing that the cancer hadn’t spread elsewhere.
The grandmother-of-seven now has hormone therapy, annual mammograms and avoids products containing oestrogen.
Barbara said: ‘During the operation they took away the cancer and one of the lymph nodes.
Barbara (pictured) who is now on tablets to prevent her body from producing oestrogen, said she’s always been conscious of her breasts
‘That was clear, which was great news, and I was discharged the same day. After the op the tingling sensation disappeared.
‘I’m now on tablets that stop my body producing oestrogen and I also carefully avoid anything with oestrogen in it, such as soya.’
Barbara who breastfed all four of her children, said she was always aware of her ‘big’ boobs, but never suspected that it would be such a serious diagnosis.
Barbara said: ‘I was always aware of my breasts because they were very big, I didn’t struggle feeding any of my four children.
‘I’m 85, so my boobs are almost down to my knees now, but there was a time when I was only 8st something but I was a 34HH.
‘I’ve always been conscious of my boobs but I never gave it a thought that it could be cancer.’
Barbara (pictured) revealed she’s sharing her story because it’s important not to just look out for lumps and dents as signs of cancer
Barbara is now sharing her experience so women know to look out for other less well-known symptoms, as well as checking for lumps.
Barbara said: ‘When I first experienced the symptoms I had I put it down to the fact that my breasts were so big, it wasn’t something I thought I could take a trip to the GP about.
‘I’m sharing my story so people know that this can be a symptom of breast cancer and not to just look out for lumps and dents.
‘It is vitally important that women of all ages, not just the young but the elderly too, should seek medical advice as soon as they experience any changes – especially once regular breast cancer screening stops after a certain age.
‘If you experience any changes at all, just go to the doctor.
‘It’s better to go to the doctors, have it investigated and be told it’s nothing than to leave it.
‘Fortunately I did recover from it, I feel lucky the operation got rid of it and the odd sensation stopped.’