“Around 250 people under 30 in the UK get diagnosed with breast cancer each year”: Meet Alex Barnao
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50, but younger women can also get breast cancer. Alex Barnao, communications manager at Imperial College Healthcare, shares her experience this Breast Cancer Awareness Month to encourage other women – and men – to regularly check their breasts and/or pecs and to seek help if something doesn’t feel right.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed on 8 June 2022 – two days before my partner’s 30th birthday!
What led to your diagnosis, had you felt a lump, were you experiencing any pain? Did you check your boobs regularly before your diagnosis?
It was during Easter weekend in 2022 that my partner Ben and I were off making the most of the bank holiday weekend – this time travelling to Copenhagen and Amsterdam. I remember just lying down on the hotel bed and doing a little self-check. I've always been health conscious and do random checks every now and then – even though we have no history of breast cancer in the family.
On this occasion, I felt a little lump on the upper right side of my right breast. It was about the size of a grape. I thought it was odd as I've never felt anything before and got my partner to check too. We both thought it could be a bit of muscle wear and tear as we're both very active and do resistance training at the gym.
We decided I'd book a doctor’s appointment when we got home to get it checked. And at this stage, we both weren't overly concerned. The next week, I go and see my doctor. She too thought it was nothing to be worried about – likely benign or my breast tissue changing due to my age (at the time, I was approaching 30) and she said it was very common. Because she could feel the lump, she referred me to the breast clinic to be on the safe side – but said because of my age, I could be rejected. I get my appointment and two weeks later, I'm being seen at Charing Cross Hospital for an examination and a biopsy.
What treatment have you had to date?
My type of breast cancer is hormone receptor-positive and hormones like oestrogen and progesterone encourage it to grow. I was lucky to catch it relatively early. In saying that, the consultant said I’d probably had it for 2-3 years. After diagnosis, one of the first questions I was asked was whether I want children – at the time we weren’t sure whether I would need chemotherapy or not which can impact your ability to have children.
My partner and I have always wanted our own family and within two weeks, I was at the Wolfson Fertility Centre starting IVF treatment. The first month was consumed by every possible scan and test imaginable. Even though the initial diagnosis was tough, the results from the scans and tests slowly started to come in and things began to feel more positive. We could see that it hadn’t spread, and it wasn’t genetic – meaning that it was just a serious case of bad luck! I remember being told around 250 people under 30 in the UK get diagnosed with breast cancer each year – and I just happened to be one of them!
One month after my IVF procedure, came surgery. I had breast conserving surgery which meant the surgeons removed the tumour and margins around it and gave me a little reduction on both sides, so they were still even! I then went on to find out that I wouldn’t need chemotherapy – which was the best possible news, and I could go straight on to radiotherapy once I had healed. I went on to have three weeks of radiotherapy at Charing Cross.
For the next 10 years, I'll be on hormone therapy – a little pill called Tamoxifen that I take every day to prevent the oestrogen in my body connecting to any cancer cells. In a way, I’m lucky that my type of cancer was hormone positive – because it means I can have targeted treatment to reduce the risk of recurrence.
How does it feel to have recently had your first annual check-up?
I’ve just had my very first annual check-up which included a mammogram and an MRI. Because of my age, mammograms may not always show everything due to breast density, so I have an MRI as well to be on the safe side! When I saw my consultant – he said this is a really important milestone for recurrence so I’m extremely grateful and happy to be all clear one year on!
How has your experience changed your outlook on life?
I don’t sweat the small stuff as much now. I’ve also realised how resilient I am – and my experience with cancer has put the typical day-to-day challenges into perspective. When I was diagnosed – my first question was “am I going to live?” And I think we all know we want to live, but an experience like this reminds you how much you want to live and how important it is to be present, enjoy today and find happiness in the small things.
What is your message to other women and men based on your experience?
What I’ve learnt, is that you’re never too young and while you think it’s never going to happen to you – it could. Early detection with a disease like cancer is key. So please always check out those little niggles that are hopefully nothing but could be something. Finding them early can make a world of difference in the long run!