Young breast cancer survivors urge women to seek help if worried

Girls Aloud in concert at Holkham Hall in 2007, with Sarah Harding centre.

Girls Aloud in concert at Holkham Hall in 2007, with Sarah Harding centre. - Credit: Paul Hewitt

It was Sarah Harding’s mum who told us that her fabulous, famous, gifted daughter was dead. Every death from breast cancer (and around 10,000 people die from breast cancer ever year in the UK) is a tragedy for friends and family left behind, but Sarah’s death is a public tragedy too. No mother should have to announce her daughter’s death and the loss of a woman who should be so full of life casts a terrifying shadow for other families coping with cancer. 

Sarah achieved 20 consecutive top 10 singles and won a Brit Award with Girls Aloud – Britain’s biggest-selling girl group of the 21st century. She was also an actor and model and won Celebrity Big Brother four years ago.  

In her autobiography she explained how she first found lumps under her arm in December 2019 – and initially delayed seeking medical help. Eventually a doctor recommended a scan but coronavirus hit. By March 2021 she knew she was unlikely to see another Christmas.  

Sarah died on Sunday September 5, aged just 39. 

Girls Aloud From Left: Sarah Harding and Cheryl Tweedy play at Time Night club in Norwich

Girls Aloud From Left: Sarah Harding (left) and Cheryl Tweedy performing with Girls Aloud at Time nightclub in Norwich in 2004 - Credit: Steve Parsons

Carolyn Atkins is the support and volunteer officer for Keeping Abreast – the Norwich-based charity which helps women with breast cancer across the country, with a particular focus on those considering reconstructive surgery.  Carolyn is also a breast cancer survivor.  

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“I thought Sarah Harding’s death was a tragedy and incredibly sad for her and her family,” said Carolyn. “She was so young, and the really sad thing is that her breast cancer may have been preventable if she’d been diagnosed early enough. I think for people like me who have been through breast cancer and come out the other side, news like this just makes us feel lucky to be alive, as we could so easily have been in her situation too.  

“It also makes me want to spread the message about checking your breasts, chest and armpits regularly for any signs of change – lumps, bumps, puckering, oozing etc – and to remind everyone that if you spot anything unusual, you should go and see your doctor immediately. Don’t worry about bothering them or being a nuisance; you’re not, and they will be more than happy to see you.” 

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She described how she found her own cancer, eight years ago. “I noticed an indent above my left breast when I was in the bathroom,” said Carolyn. “It looked like a bra strap mark, but when I pressed it, I could feel a small, hard, marble-sized lump underneath which didn’t feel right. I showed it to my husband and then I called my GP’s surgery as soon as it was open in the morning to make an appointment to come in. We have had breast cancer in our family before; my grandmother died of it in her early 60s, so fortunately I was aware of the importance of getting checked out by a medical professional straight away.” 

Within two weeks, and after a battery of tests, scans and biopsies, Carolyn, then 45, was told she had cancer in her left breast and abnormal cells in her right breast.  

“I was terrified, to be honest, as I thought that I might die,” she said. “At the time, my son was only five and I was worried that I might not be able to be there for him and my husband. I was determined to do whatever it took to stay alive and to do whatever the doctors told me to do.” 

She was told exactly what the treatment would involve – chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiotherapy and, eventually, breast reconstruction. “The whole procedure involved a series of operations which took place over several years, but I’m absolutely fine now, and I’m so glad that I went to see my doctor when I did,” said Carolyn. 

“The things that got me through the treatment were definitely my husband, family and friends, as well as my work colleagues. To be honest, all I wanted to be was normal and to carry on doing as many normal things as possible, rather than being wrapped up in cotton wool.  

“Fortunately, my son was too young to really understand what was going on at the time, so I was able to hide the illness from him. 

Carolyn Atkins

Carolyn Atkins - Credit: Supplied

“Carrying on working, which I did from home, and continuing with family life as much as possible kept me going. I love swimming, so as soon as I was able to get back into the pool – with a special post-surgery costume – I also did that. Everyone is different, but for me I just wanted the breast cancer to go away so that I could get on with my normal life and I didn’t want to be consumed by it. My family and friends were fantastic and so was the team at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – really kind and professional.” 

She said taking part in the Race For Life gave her something to focus on and added: “I found that people really want to help and that the worst of times, such as being diagnosed with breast cancer, can also bring out the best in people. It’s other people who get you through. 

“I feel really lucky to be alive and am so grateful to everyone who helped me.” 

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith discovered she had breast cancer in October 2020. This summer the 39-year-old mother-of-two, and Conservative MP for Norwich North, confirmed her treatment, including chemotherapy and surgery, had been successful. 

But she was immensely sad to hear of the death of Sarah Harding, who was also 39. “It’s awful for her family and friends. It’s always particularly terrible when somebody dies so young,” said Chloe. 

“In some ways I think of myself as very lucky. I had a diagnosis in which doctors were very clear that it was treatable and there for the curing.” 

She said that when she was diagnosed she was quite calm, and determined to let the doctors do their job – and keen to carry on doing her own job too. 

Chloe Smith

Chloe Smith - Credit: Neil Didsbury

“Everybody’s story is very different,” she said. “One in two of us, through our lifetimes, will suffer from cancer and all of these cases are different.” 

She said family and friends had helped her through and she had also been particularly touched by the kindness of strangers, across the political divide.  

And she urged people to check themselves – and contact their doctor if they find something unusual.  

“The NHS is there for you. It will care for you. “I would really emphasise this. Please contact your GP and if you think you have a symptom of cancer or something very serious you must insist on being seen.  

When Oa Hackett found a lump in her breast while showering she didn’t think it was anything serious and put off going to see her doctor for several weeks. Then came the shocking diagnosis. She was just 28.  

As she underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy Oa, who lives with her husband near Norwich, was buoyed up by the thoughtful gifts friends sent – little treats specially chosen to help her through. As she began to feel better she decided to put together similar boxes of carefully-chosen treats for other people affected by breast cancer.  

Since 2017 littlelifts has given out more than 2,700 boxes packed with practical products to alleviate the side-effects of treatment, mood-boosting luxuries – and kindness.  

Oa Hackett, founder of littlelifts with the chemotherapy box. 

Oa Hackett, founder of littlelifts with the chemotherapy box. - Credit: Katherine Mager

What's inside a Little Lifts box

The contents of one of the littlelifts boxes - Credit: James Rouse Photography

Now the charity sends out more than 3,000 boxes a year to people undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, including those treated at hospitals in Norfolk and Suffolk. 

“Each littlelifts box is carefully hand-packed with love and contains over 20 carefully chosen items. They include a heat pack to help with joint and muscle pain, a soft toothbrush to be kind to more sensitive gums, and chilli oil and herbs to bring flavour to foods that may taste a little different, and moisturiser to help with sensitive skin,” said Oa.  

“But it’s not just what’s inside the box that’s important. Many people experience breast cancer treatment as a lonely and difficult time. Our recipients tell us that the sense of solidarity and kindness they experience when they receive their littlelifts box is just as valuable as the contents.”  

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:  

A lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit. 

A change to the skin, such as puckering or dimpling. 

A change in the colour of the breast – the breast may look red or inflamed. 

A nipple change, for example it has become pulled in. 

Rash or crusting around the nipple. 

Unusual discharge from either nipple. 

Changes in size or shape of the breast. 

On its own, pain in your breasts is not usually a sign of breast cancer. But look out for pain in your breast or armpit that’s there all or almost all the time. 

See your GP if you notice a change Most breast changes, including breast lumps, are not cancer. But the sooner breast cancer is found, the more successful treatment is likely to be.  

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