Mother-of-two Tracy Pigott, from Hemel Hempstead, was 46 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2014 after being selected for a routine mammogram. She went on to have surgery, gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but when the medical treatment finished family and friends expectations of her were in stark contrast to the way she really felt.
A period of family therapy with Hospice Director of Supportive Care Kimberley McLaughlin helped her and husband Mike to accept how they were feeling and make sense of their new ‘normal’.
“I was called for a mammogram as part of a pilot scheme that was being run by the local breast screening service involving ladies three years either side of 50 to 70. They were asking GPs for names and then randomly selecting half of them, so it was a fluke when I got called up,” Tracy recalls.
“A couple of weeks later I was called back. The doctor showed me what they were concerned about and they did an ultrasound and a biopsy. A week later I got the diagnosis - it was breast cancer.”
Tracy underwent a lumpectomy at the end of July 2014 but when she went back for the results she was told the tumour had actually been twice the size they expected. They had also taken random samples of breast tissue and found cancer in other areas.
“That moment was a kind of game changer,” she recalls. “Every time I went to the hospital the news got worse and worse. We had to decide whether to go ahead with a mastectomy or try another lumpectomy.”
Their children, Natalie, 25, and Sam, 22, were very supportive and both urged her to have a mastectomy. The operation was a success and she recovered well. Then in October 2014 she started having chemotherapy.
“I had six cycles, over 18 weeks. The first three weren’t so bad. I lost my hair, my eyebrows and my eyelashes. The second type hit me like a train. It was quite aggressive and I hurt all over. I got an infection and was admitted to hospital on Christmas Eve.”
In March 2015, after steadily making a recovery, Tracy began having radiotherapy after which it was all about getting back on track.
“It was at that point, both mentally and emotionally, that I hit rock bottom,” she says, “and Mike too was in a dark place. Everyone was saying ‘Last chemo! Last radiotherapy! You must be really pleased!’ Actually, I was terrified.
“While I was having chemotherapy they were giving me stuff that was killing the cancer, but suddenly when that’s done with you think ‘what now?’ I still didn’t feel well but now it was down to me to work out if there was something wrong.
“Everyone expected us to be feeling chipper but as far as I was concerned, I still felt and looked awful. Mike wasn’t sleeping and I was worried about him too. We did talk to one another about how we were feeling but we kept some of it back as we didn’t want to worry each other.”
Tracy and Mike were referred to the Hospice by Tracy’s Macmillan Breast Care Nurse when it became clear they were struggling to cope. At first they were reluctant to become involved with the Hospice but eventually it became a place of safety.
Recalling his first impressions of the Hospice, Mike, 52, says: “It was different to what I’d expected. I thought it was going to be very hospital oriented, without all the comfort. I was fearful of intrusion at what was a bad time for us. In fact, the Hospice became a place we looked forward to coming to.”
Between March and September 2015, Tracy and Mike had family – or systemic – therapy, which is based on the principle that nothing happens in isolation and everything in a person’s life is connected. The focus of the sessions was to understand Tracy and Mike’s life together, how Tracy’s illness had affected them and how those changes could be managed in the future.
Tracy says: “The therapy sessions were a turning point. Kimberley gave us strategies to help us cope with our feelings and allowed us to see that it was okay to feel as we did. When I started seeing Kimberley I’d lost the essence of who I was. I remember her saying ‘We need to find Tracy’. She helped us to make sense of it all and to piece all the bits back together.
“If I was worried about something like going back to work, instead of seeing it as one huge problem she helped us break it down into little bits and deal with it bit by bit.”
Mike says: “Kimberley used the metaphor of a waterfall with our family bobbing along in a boat. Suddenly we had this drastic drop down the waterfall and found ourselves in the rapids. We were still together in the boat but everything around us had changed. That’s what other people don’t always understand – that you won’t be who or where you were.”
The family therapy helped put everything in perspective and the couple now appreciate spending time with friends and family more than ever.
Mike says: “During Tracy’s illness we were fairly insular, it helped us cope, but that in itself has changed because now we hugely appreciate our friends who were fantastic throughout.”
Tracy also attended Tai Chi at The Spring Centre which improved the range of movement in her arm as well as her overall wellbeing and she joined the Hospice’s HOPE (Help Overcoming Problems Effectively) course. She found the experience of being part of a group of people who’d shared a similar experience therapeutic.
“I always left the sessions feeling relaxed and calm. It was very peaceful and no one cared how you looked. When I was at home or with friends I didn’t feel normal but when I came to The Spring Centre I was with other people going through a similar experience.
“I don't think we would be where we are now without the additional support of the Hospice. We are so grateful that provision is made beyond the medical care of hospitals and that places like the Hospice exist,” she says.
Tracy and Mike are now getting their lives back to their new ‘normal’. They recently went on holiday to Marrakesh and are planning to go to Las Vegas later this year to celebrate Tracy’s 50th birthday.
Tracy is also back at work, albeit in a different job. Deciding she was not physically or mentally ready to return to her job as an outreach worker at an educational support centre, she took six months out before taking a new role as a part-time receptionist at a local GP surgery.
“Kimberley helped us to understand that it was okay to feel low or uncertain about the future. Although it was very emotional at times, coming to the Hospice was a very positive experience. Now, whenever I hear of someone who is struggling with cancer or who is unwell, I tell them about The Hospice of St Francis. I can’t recommend it highly enough,” she says.