Breastfeeding mum's 'mastitis-like symptoms' turned out to be breast cancer

‘My world stopped,’ says Helen Stuart-Jones, of the moment she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The mum-of-three had found a lump while breastfeeding her son, Finlay, then seven months old, but had simply been given a course of antibiotics.

When breastfeeding mums find lumps and bumps in their breasts, it is often assumed that they have mistitis – a condition where the breast becomes swollen, hot and painful.

But determined to get a second – and third – opinion, Helen, 38, was eventually referred for a biopsy, which confirmed that she had triple-negative breast cancer.

‘I immediately thought I was going to die, and my boys were so young I feared they wouldn’t even remember me,’ adds Helen.

Helen, a lawyer from Tadcaster, who is also mum to Jesse, five, initially found the lump in August 2021.

She says: ‘It wasn’t a small pea-sized lump like the ones I had read about before. It was large and I felt like it had just come on overnight.’

‘I called the national breastfeeding helpline, who told me that, as I hadn’t had mastitis before when breastfeeding my older son, I would be unlikely to get it now.

‘They said I needed to go to the GP and ask for a referral to the breast clinic.’

But when Helen visited her doctor, she was frustrated with the care they offered.

‘They said they had a policy that a breastfeeding woman with a lump in her breast had to take a course of antibiotics for ten days before they could be referred to the breast clinic,’ she explained.

‘I wasn’t happy with this. I queried after how many days it would take the lump to shrink with the antibiotics and I was told four days.

‘I went back on the fourth day to say the lump had gotten no smaller, and a different GP said that they would refer me to the breast clinic.

‘But both GPs told me it would not be cancer.’

Thankfully, Helen was in the fortunate position of having private healthcare through her position as a partner at a law firm. She was able to get an appointment at the breast clinic within three days.’

At the appointment, when the lump wouldn’t drain – indicating it wasn’t a cyst or an abscess – Helen had a biopsy. Helen had gone to the appointment alone, without husband Kamran, as doctors had been confident the lump was nothing sinister.

‘During the appointment I could hear the nurses discussing me and I became worried,’ Helen says.

‘The nurses asked if anyone could could accompany me to see the doctor to discuss the biopsy, as he had a lot of information to give me.

‘It was then obvious it was not going to be good news.

‘When we went back in to see the doctor, he explained that while we couldn’t be 100% until we got the results of the biopsy, he was 99% sure that it was cancer based on the size and shape of the tumour.

‘I immediately thought I was going to die, and my boys were so young I feared they wouldn’t even remember me.

‘It was the worst day of my life. I knew I probably had cancer but not how bad it was or what treatment I was going to have to endure.’

A few days later, the biopsy confirmed Helen’s worst fears. She did indeed have triple-negative breast cancer – considered to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer – and an MRI showed that the tumour was more than 5cm in size.

Helen then embarked on gruelling treatment. She underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 11 months of immunotherapy, and a lumpectomy, as well as 10 sessions of radiotherapy.

Thankfully, the care she received work, and Helen is now cancer free. However, there is still a chance it could return.

‘I finished immunotherapy in October and had my port removed,’ Helen said.

‘As my breast cancer is triple-negative and not hormone receptive, there is no further treatment I can have now to try and prevent reoccurrence.

‘The first few years are the highest risk of reoccurrence, so I try and mitigate the risk with diet, exercise, stress management and reducing alcohol intake.

‘The fact that the chemotherapy and immunotherapy worked so well on the tumour, also gives me a much better prognosis in terms of reoccurrence.’

Helen also still experiences the after effects of her treatment.

‘I still have side effects,’ she says. ‘Mainly fatigue and brain fog, which has made going back to work difficult.

‘I also don’t know whether the treatment has sent me into early menopause. Only time will tell.’

Now, Helen is passionate about raising awareness for pregnancy-related breast cancer and encouraging other women to advocate for themselves. Two people every day are diagnosed with cancer in or around pregnancy.

Helen says: ‘Breast cancer occurs in 1 in 3000 pregnancies. It is rare but it does happen. Research also suggests that, temporarily, your risk of breast cancer slightly increases after you give birth, regardless of age.

‘Mums-to-be need to recognise any symptoms, get them checked out, and advocate for yourself.

‘Coppafeel is a great resource for information on how to check your breasts, and symptoms to be aware of, and has tools like a reminder service, and Mummy’s Star is a charity that specialises in helping women diagnosed with cancer in or around pregnancy, and does a lot to raise awareness generally.’

Helen has also feed back to her GP that they should change their policy in regards to breastfeeding women.

‘Breastfeeding women are unfairly penalised by delaying their referral. Also, my treatment ended up including immunotherapy and the advice is to avoid any antibiotics, unless absolutely necessary.’

Now, Helen is also looking to the future.

‘I’m most looking forward to a day when I don’t have to worry about the side effects of treatment or reoccurrence, and I can just live life to the fullest,’ she says.

‘Mainly I worry for my boys. I want them to have a healthy worry-free mum growing up.

‘I truly believe you can take positives from every situation life throws at you.

‘I got to spend more time with my kids, friends I hadn’t seen for years got back in touch, and I made new friends too. It was the toughest time of my life, but I learnt so much from it.

‘Cancer is such a scary word. I hope that by talking about it more and more we take some of the fear away. It may not be a death sentence. It may just be a blip in the story that is your life.

‘You don’t need to lose your sense of humour or zest for life once diagnosed. If I can get through all this, you can too.’

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