When Donna Crous rang the bell, knowing she was cancer-free, she did not imagine ending up with incurable, secondary breast cancer. Donna shares her story
My journey through the health industry began just over ten years ago when I went from being a full-time, stay-at-home mum to qualifying as a Primal Health Coach and running an award-winning health blog. I then went on to have a successful food photography business where I was appointed a Nikon Europe Ambassador for Food Photography. I had also signed a deal to write my own cookery book, "A Healthier Family for Life", which is currently on bookshelves worldwide. I always used to consider myself to be in great health, so much so that I would proudly tell my friends that I'd never met my GP in the seven years I'd been living in the UK after having relocated from South Africa.
I'm sure you're familiar with the famous saying "touch wood"? Well, I should have been practising what I preached as things took a turn for me in September 2019. I started to feel the strangest tingling, itchy sensation in my left breast. After a few weeks of ignoring it, it was still there, and my gut instinct told me to book an appointment with my doctor. I had always attempted to do regular self-breast checks as the adverts tell you to do, but truth be told, I had no idea what I was checking for and if everything was the way it was supposed to be. The night before my appointment, I was lying in the bath and thought I should maybe have a feel. I instantly felt it. This tiny little bump that felt like a little stone. It was, without a doubt, something that was different and not in a good way.
The next day, my doctor checked my breast and recommended an appointment with a breast consultant. Although my doctor maintained a rigid poker face, I knew something wasn't right. A week later, my mammogram and ultrasound turned into numerous biopsies on both breasts. It was clear what sort of outcome I was facing.
After what felt like the longest waiting period, the diagnosis was confirmed, and surgery was planned. I had a bilateral lumpectomy and four lymph nodes removed, followed by twenty radiotherapy sessions over six weeks. At my final session, I was allowed to ring the "bell" that I had eyed so longingly whilst in the waiting room for each radiation therapy session. This bell, rung by many others before me, represents the end of one's treatment. When I rang that bell, I knew my therapy had ended, and I was free to go out and live my life cancer-free and forever!
During this time, life went back to normal for my family and me. I carried on working and continuing with writing my book. My two daughters moved out of home, and we decided to make another big relocation and move to Jersey from the UK. My plans for my future were to publish my book and then set about working with local Jersey farmers promoting their produce through my photography. I also planned to potentially begin working with local food businesses, helping them develop their brands, and teaching photography to local Jersey residents. Alongside Nikon, I discussed running food photography retreats to Jersey for people across the UK and the world. The universe had other plans for me.
"My doctor sat me down to have the dreaded conversation and told me it's incurable and inoperable."
According to my oncologist, lightning doesn't strike twice. Unless you are me, because in August 2021, after a few months of pain and a rather large and angry lump that appeared on my manubrium (the bone under my collar bone), it was confirmed that I had secondary breast cancer. Not only was it in the place where I could feel the pain, but also in six other spots that I couldn't feel: my spine, ribs, two in my hip and one in my shoulder. The cancer was diagnosed as stage IV. My doctor sat me down to have the dreaded conversation and told me it's incurable and inoperable, but thankfully NOT terminal! We had caught it just in time.
I was so confused. If it's breast cancer that isn't in my breast but my bones, surely then it's bone cancer? I'd never heard of secondary breast cancer and definitely had never been warned about it from previous oncologists or doctors. That's where my research into it began. Secondary breast cancer (also known as metastatic) is not the same as breast cancer recurrence. It's when breast cancer cells break away and travel via either the lymphatic system or the bloodstream and settle elsewhere, typically in the bones, brain, lungs, lymph nodes, liver or spinal cord (but it can also affect other areas). It is treated as breast cancer using hormone-sensitive medications. However, the treatment for secondary breast cancer is never-ending, so the relief of ringing that bell and knowing I'm cancer-free is something that will just be a memory.
My life has been completely uprooted and spun around these last few months, and it has taken me quite some time to process. The hardest pill to swallow was that I had made all the changes I needed to and was praised by doctors and friends for being so healthy, so how did it all go wrong? I then did the thing we've all fallen victim to when something horrific happens. I looked back and questioned every little thing I had ever done that could warrant this awful thing happening to me. I questioned all the junk food I had ever eaten, every party I got horribly drunk at in my teens and twenties, and everything I had learnt, lived and written about following a healthy lifestyle at the start of my health journey. Was it all just a waste of my time?
Statistically, the average survival rate of secondary breast cancer patients after their diagnosis is between 2-3 years. However, these numbers can be totally inaccurate and very much out-of-date. With the advances of new and improved medical and cancer treatments, patients are living longer, healthier, and more comfortable lives. I am determined to not be in that statistic.
I now work closely with an oncology-specialised nutritionist, who helps me make tweaks and changes to my already healthy diet. We have focused on hormone regulation and reduction as nourishing my body is crucial for healthy cell division, creating a hostile environment for cancer cells to live and grow. I've had to adopt a more active lifestyle which involves mainly spending quiet alone time walking on our spectacular beaches with my new puppy, Bonnie. This not only helps my mental health and controls those pesky run-away thoughts, but it also helps to minimise the side effects of some of the treatments and medications.
I regularly spend time at Macmillan Jersey, an incredible charity offering cancer patients and their families emotional, practical and social support. Joining a support group on Facebook called "Stage 4 Deserves More Secondary Breast Cancer Support Group UK" has brought me closer to other ladies walking along the same journey as myself. We discuss our side effects, diagnoses, and treatments. We have our 3am chat sessions (treatments can make sleeping difficult) and generally support one another with anxiety, worries or fears, but, most importantly, we celebrate good news in a safe environment with people who understand just how momentous these wins are for us.
My latest scan shows shrinkage in my biggest tumour, which is a huge win that I'll accept with open arms. I had very little knowledge of cancer before I was diagnosed, but since then, I have been reading and educating as much as I possibly can about my specific cancer. I began by learning what foods and supplements are needed to nourish my body. I am supported and work closely with my brilliant oncologist and incredible breast consultant, who are with me every step of the way as I undergo my monthly blood tests, hormone targeted therapy and regular scans.
My book, "A Healthier Family For Life", was launched worldwide on December 16th 2021 and has been really well received based on online reviews. However, I don't want to lie. I've had many moments where I find myself suffering badly with a form of imposter syndrome, as I've written a book that promotes a healthy lifestyle for life all whilst I was dealing with cancer. It's taken time for me to process and overcome these feelings and understand that a cancer diagnosis could potentially happen to any one of us. Looking back now, I don't think my years of learning about health and being in the industry was a waste of my time. I now know that following such a healthy lifestyle made the detection of my cancer that much easier as I had developed a hyper-awareness about my body and immediately knew something was wrong and needed to be checked. A strong, healthy body and immune system keep my cells strong and allow me to lead a normal life (well, as much as I possibly can).
Life is all about learning, whether in an academic, emotional or health sense. The main thing I have learnt from my story, and I want to pass on to other people, is that early detection is essential. We have gut instincts for a reason, and we should learn to trust them more when something doesn't feel right and getting it checked as soon as possible can make a huge difference. If your doctor says everything is fine, and you know, deep down, that something is wrong, then get another opinion. I didn't stop fighting till a doctor heard my cries, and my belief in my gut instinct is what saved my life and allowed me to get the help I knew I deserved, I now see life in high definition clarity. My family and friends are everything to me, and I never turn down invitations to spend time with anyone. My new aim is to encourage people to shop as local as possible, buying fruit and vegetables from farm shops or honesty boxes. It's almost like adopting a climatarian approach to shopping, sourcing food, developing self-awareness of how your food is packaged, and getting to know (and thanking) our local farmers. I'm already planning a new book sharing my recipes for vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian diets.
Most importantly, I consider myself to be living healthy with cancer and trust me on this, I am very much following my own advice now and "touching wood".