Sitting in the consultant’s office, Davina Hall took a deep breath and gritted her teeth in a vain attempt to steel herself against the words she knew were coming.
‘I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid you have breast cancer,’ the consultant said. ‘We need to start treatment immediately.’
Davina had feared the worst when she first discovered a thickening of the skin on her left breast three weeks earlier. Her family history left her in little doubt, but the words still hit her like a juggernaut. She had cancer. And it was no less terrifying because she was expecting it.
‘I was shocked, but despite everything, I didn’t cry,’ recalls Davina, 38. ‘I just don’t think the reality of the news hit me. Cancer had always been a sceptre hanging over our family, and I remember overhearing stories about relatives battling the disease since I was a little girl.
‘It wasn’t just distant relatives either,’ she says. ‘My aunt Margaret, my dad’s sister, died of breast cancer when she was just 31, and my dad Ian was just 66 when he died of bowel cancer, just months before my diagnosis.
‘So my first thought when I heard the words were, “Now it’s my turn”. This was quickly followed by worries of how on earth I was going to break the news to my mum Sylvia, 69. She’d just lost her husband to cancer. Now she would have to sit back while I went through the same thing.’
Despite her family history and the high likelihood that she carried the BRCA1 gene – which puts people at an 80 per cent increased risk of developing cancer – Davina, a primary school teacher from Hornchurch, in Essex, UK, had chosen not to take the test three years earlier to find out if she was a carrier.
‘I’d decided I’d rather not know,’ she says. ‘I’d figured that even with the gene, there was no guarantee that I’d develop cancer and I hadn’t wanted to live with it hanging over me in a state of constant paranoia.
‘But I didn’t just bury my head in the sand. I was very breast-aware and I checked for changes constantly – something that probably saved my life.’
Within days of discovering the thickening skin on her breast had developed into an unmistakable lump, Davina, who doesn’t have children, had been referred to hospital for a biopsy, where she received the news she’d been dreading her entire adult life.
‘I couldn’t help thinking, “Why me? Why my family?” It felt like we were under attack. I was still grieving for my dad and now, here I was, facing the same battle he’d had. It just didn’t seem fair.’
Two weeks after the diagnosis, Davina had a lumpectomy to remove the 7cm tumour from her left breast, which was followed by months of chemotherapy, which left her at the lowest she’d ever felt.
‘My body rejected the chemotherapy drugs and I reacted so badly to every round that the oncologists were puzzled,’ says Davina. ‘My blood count would plummet to levels so low that I was hospitalised time and time again, but doctors had no idea why I was reacting that way.
‘I had countless tests and scans, but they could find no reason as to why it wasn’t working as it should. It did mean the dose had to be reduced by 20 per cent, which meant I needed to continue the course for longer than I’d otherwise have. Ultimately, when my body still wouldn’t accept it, my doctors changed the type of treatment and administered it weekly in small doses rather than the usual high doses every three weeks, which prolonged the ordeal by four months and delayed my recovery.
‘It was an awful time,’ she admits. ‘I lost my long, brown, curly hair, something I’d always been complimented on, not once, but twice, as the dosage of chemotherapy kept changing, and I put on about 10kg. I felt I’d lost all my femininity, and my confidence disappeared with it.
‘I’ve always loved singing and I’d always dreamt of performing, but my work was so all-consuming I never had the time or the energy to do anything else. Now, with my confidence gone I felt I’d never be able to realise my dream.’
Even after the gruelling chemotherapy, Davina’s treatment was far from over. She then had to endure a month-long course of radiotherapy.
‘It was around then that I started to rethink my decision to keep myself in the dark about my BRCA1 status,’ she says. ‘I’d been through so much. I couldn’t stand the thought of having to do it all again if it ever returned.’ Davina was screened for the gene with a blood test and, sure enough, was found to be a carrier.
‘It was just as I’d suspected all along, but at least now I was armed with the knowledge and could make an informed decision about what to do next,’ she says. ‘I decided to play it safe and have a double mastectomy to reduce the risk of the breast cancer returning.
‘I was worried about how it would affect my body image and my feelings of self-worth, of course, especially after the blow to my confidence before, but after everything I’d been through, it really was a no-brainer.
‘If I valued my life at all, which I discovered I really did, I had to go through with it. What other choice did I have?’
Davina planned to have reconstructive surgery at the same time as her mastectomy, but because of the radiotherapy treatment she’d been given, there was a high possibility she wouldn’t be suitable for implants.
‘My consultant explained that radiotherapy can affect the elasticity of the skin to the point where it wouldn’t support implants alone,’ Davina remembers.
‘It was devastating news – I thought I’d never feel feminine without breasts – but ultimately it didn’t affect my decision. I wanted a better chance of finally moving out from under the shadow of cancer, whatever it took.’
Luckily for Davina, her consultant at Barts Hospital in London had heard of a pioneering technique called a strattice graft, where animal skin that had been stripped of its DNA is inserted under the implant to act as scaffolding.
‘At the time, it was very new and, when we were discussing it, my surgeon had never performed the procedure before,’ says Davina. ‘She told me she was going to shadow someone carrying out the surgery to see how it was done, and asked if I’d then be willing for her to try it.
‘I was to act as her guinea pig , but I was happy to give it a go.’
By the time Davina had her double mastectomy, in 2012, her surgeon had actually performed the procedure on one other patient. ‘I wouldn’t actually have minded if I’d been the first though,’ admits Davina. ‘I was just grateful for the chance to feel normal again.
‘It turned out to make all the difference to my approach to life.’
Once Davina had recovered from her major surgery, she discovered the reconstructive element had a surprising side effect – the return of her confidence. ‘It took me about a year to feel like I’d completely recovered, but once I started feeling 100 per cent well again, I noticed I could finally look in the mirror without feeling shocked and disgusted by what I saw looking back at me.’
‘For such a long time, I’d felt ugly, unfeminine and fat, because all the drugs pumped into my body had left me bloated, but I’d lost all the excess weight and my hair had grown back. I had my spark back.’ With her new-found confidence, Davina began to reassess her life, and found she’d become stuck in a rut.
‘Like most people, I’d found myself just going from day to day doing the same old things and never challenging myself or doing anything out of the ordinary,’ she says.
‘I love my job as a teacher, but I was working long hours and I was permanently stressed and tired. I’d get up, go to work, come home, eat the same meals, crash out in front of the TV then go to bed, ready to do exactly the same thing the following day. I felt like I was on a hamster wheel.
‘But if my cancer diagnosis taught me anything, it was that life is too short to waste. I decided I needed to shake everything up so I could feel like I was really living instead of just surviving.’
Davina decided to go part-time at work, freeing up her time to pursue other things.
‘I’d never have had the confidence to do anything about my love for singing and performing,’ she says. ‘But I’d started going out to see friends instead of just staying at home and one night, when were just having fun singing karaoke, I was approached by a music producer who asked me to record some tracks in a studio with him.
‘I’d have just laughed and turned him down before, thinking, “I could never do that,” but instead I thought, “Why not?” It turned out to be great fun, and something to tick off my list of things to do with my life.
‘It led me to thinking I wanted to pursue it further, so I answered an advert for a singer in a jazz band, called The Joe Henderson Jazz Band, something else I’ve always wanted to do. We’re currently rehearsing for our first gig and I love it.’
Davina has even done a spot of modelling. Initially it was for a friend’s clothing website, but that too led to other work.
‘I’m no Kate Moss and I don’t even have an agent, but it’s been great fun,’ she smiles. ‘I’ve learnt to open myself to new experience and never be held back by my own self-doubt again.’
‘I’d rather not have had cancer, obviously, but I’m so very grateful for the extra lease of life it’s given me. I really feel like I’ve been given a second chance – and I’m not going to waste it.’
Davina Hall, 38, lives in Essex, UK