Norma MacLeod, 47 from Stornoway was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2020 after feeling a lump in her breast.
The mum of two had a benign (non-cancerous) cyst in the same area 15 years previously. This, combined with the discovery coinciding with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, meant that she initially put off getting it checked.
“I was about to leave my full-time nursing job to launch my outdoor swimming business and was part of the team establishing an intensive care unit at the local hospital to deal with Covid. Everything was chaos at that time and I really did think it was a cyst, so I didn’t get it checked.
“In the July, I literally woke up and thought ‘what am I doing?’, but it had been a surreal time with everything on hold. I got a GP appointment within days and a week later I was in Inverness at Raigmore Hospital getting a biopsy.
“Two weeks later I was told that the consultant wanted to see me. I remember saying ‘just tell me now, I don’t need to go to Inverness’, and my diagnosis was confirmed.
“I fell through the floor for about five minutes, but I did regain myself. You do catastrophize but I think that’s only natural. I suppose you go into heightened fight or flight mode and looking back I was just living on adrenaline, asking what was next, not really questioning anything. I was told it would be curable and I really held onto that.
“Because of lockdown, I didn’t really know where to go for peer support as the Macmillan team in Stornoway were stretched at that time. That’s when I found the charity Breast Cancer Now – they had so much information online and so many forums of people going through a similar thing, it helped me in those early days.”
Three weeks later, Norma underwent a lumpectomy (an operation to remove the cancer) and removal of two nodes to check the cancer had not spread. Results showed that no further surgery was required. She then met with her MacMillan nurse who talked her through her next steps.
Norma then underwent six rounds of chemotherapy in Stornoway starting in October, and then travelled to Inverness for three weeks of radiotherapy, with her treatment finishing in March 2021.
“Chemo was really hard. I know it’s lifesaving treatment but I think I had every side effect I was warned about. I’m very glad that’s behind me. I know others who didn’t have as many side effects as me but it really knocked the socks off me. As my treatment was during the pandemic my husband was really my only support as we were sticking to the rules, which was hard for both of us.
“As soon as I recovered from each chemo session, I needed out of the house immediately. Being an active person going into this, and knowing you’re not going to be able to do the exact same things you used to do, was difficult. I watched wildlife programmes to get my outdoor fix and as soon as I had the strength to move, my first thoughts were to get to the sea. Even if I couldn’t swim, I’d sit at the water’s edge and let the waves come over me. It made me feel like me again, not just a cancer patient.”
A month after her radiotherapy, Norma returned to work as she had a busy summer season booked with her new outdoor swimming business. But after the summer, she hit a wall and took time out, slowly building herself back mentally and physically.
“I was probably being a bit of an optimist going back to work so early and I struggled that summer. The business had really taken off after lockdown and the reality of what I’d been through hit me.
“Cancer changes you mentally - not your personality, but your thought processes. I wasn’t myself for a year after radiotherapy but I’m slowly coming back to the person I was and am starting to recognise myself again.”
Norma is now checked annually and is on Tamoxifen – a hormone therapy used to lower the risk of breast cancer returning.
Speaking about life now, she said:
“Being self-employed, you’re always pushing yourself, but I’ve made a point of being much better at looking after myself, switching off and taking time to realise I’m actually okay. I’m not back doing the triathlons and long swims I was before my diagnosis, but I’m definitely thinking about it now.
“Rather than planning ahead, I live life day to day now – it works for me, and I quite like it. Although work is busy I make time to look after myself, go on holiday at a moment’s notice and focus on living well.”
“If you find a lump, don’t wait. Take no chances. Until I suddenly woke up that day, I was taking a chance each day with my life, and it could have been so much worse for me.
“It’s not easy to hear the word cancer but it’s better to know where you stand and what can be done to treat it, rather than brushing it under the carpet.”