Nicola was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2019. She received post-operative support from Rennie Grove, but also sought counselling support after completing her treatment in May 2020. Having previously worked for us at the charity as community fundraising manager, Nicola knows only too well what a lifeline Rennie Grove is for patients and families. She lives in St Albans with her husband Alan and two teenage sons.
“I’d just left a role in charity fundraising, and was planning to take a month off, when I was first diagnosed with cancer. After finding a lump I went to see my GP and was referred straight away to St Albans’ City Hospital’s breast clinic – literally over the road from Grove House.
“The progression in a single day was scary in itself. I had a physical examination and the nurse didn’t think there was anything to worry about, but to be on the safe side I had a mammogram and then – based on what they saw – an ultrasound. Then they took a couple of biopsy samples.
“The doctor told me he was really quite concerned by what he could see. I had to wait 10 days for the biopsy results, and it just got worse from there.
“In September 2019 I underwent a full right side mastectomy, following by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I completed my course of chemo in February 2020, just before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. I then had radiotherapy at Mount Vernon Hospital during the first national lockdown, which I completed in mid-April. I’m now on hormone treatment.
“For me, the chemo and radiotherapy was the belt and braces stuff. It’s brutal, and I lost my hair, my fingernails and had horrible side effects. The only thing I didn’t have was nausea, because the anti-sickness drugs are now so good.
“During my treatment I was kept really busy. I remember having five hospital appointments in one week, so at the time I was very grateful to be between jobs.”
Nicola says she initially found the idea of having treatment from her former work place, Rennie Grove, challenging, but post op had scar therapy and acupuncture treatment via the charity.
Nicola says: “My treatment had finished by the end of May 2020, and I realised I really needed to talk to someone. I’d been so busy just being a patient during treatment, and then things just hit me. Due to lockdown all my grand plans of celebration parties couldn’t happen and that’s when the downside of being between jobs also hit.
“My hair was growing back, I felt well, but I couldn’t go back to work. I couldn’t even volunteer – I didn’t have a focus. Everyone else around me felt I was okay, because I’d completed treatment, but I felt directionless – had nothing to distract me.
“The boys were treating me like normal which helped but I felt very fragile. I contacted a friend and former colleague at Rennie Grove and said I’d like to speak to someone. My timing was good as it was just at the point that Rennie Grove was reinstating face-to-face counselling following the first lockdown period. I was paired with a counsellor who was just finishing her training and she came to the house weekly over a three-month period. I had about 15 counselling sessions in total.
The counselling was beneficial straight away. Rennie Grove paired me with a counsellor who ‘got me’ from the start. She was extremely insightful and was good at calling me out if I needed to confront something. We’d discuss why I’d said something and drill down into the issue. I needed to work through my feelings about what I’d been through, and to try to work out where my experience with cancer had left me.
“I’m naturally a person who juggles lots of things, but my counsellor helped me realise that it was okay to sit with something and work through it at my own pace. I had to reach a place where I was comfortable with what had happened to me.
“The counselling came to a very natural end. It was when I felt I had nothing new to tell my counsellor. She held on for two weeks after my eldest son went to university, just in case that hit me so hard emotionally that I fell apart again.”
Nicola says being able to speak with a counsellor through Rennie Grove has made a real difference to her.
“At one point I thought I was going mad,” she says. “I felt awful and wanted to cry all the time. I remember speaking to a friend who had gone through cancer five years ago, and she recalled feeling exactly the same when treatment ended.
“It’s so important that Rennie Grove doesn’t just provide bereavement counselling, that it is free at the point of use and that the support will be there for as long as you need it. That’s crucial, as private counselling can be so expensive.
“Rennie Grove wants people to be properly ok. The charity gets people standing upright again – it doesn’t just push them in the right direction.
“You do feel valued through clinical treatment for cancer. I was seen, but to the NHS doctors and nurses you are also a patient. They want to know how you are medically, so to be able to access this incredible Rennie Grove service that ensures your head also feels ok is wonderful. It’s about getting you back to your normal life.”
Nicola also received scar therapy from Rennie Grove in early 2021, accessing virtual appointments, and has found it very useful.
She says: “I think Rennie Grove has adapted so well to the circumstances we’re in. It’s a flexible, adaptable charity that offers an invaluable service. I don’t think people in the local community necessarily know all that Rennie Grove offers and that’s why I’m so vocal about it.
“As a former fundraiser for Rennie Grove, I never thought I would need to use the service when I left my job. But that’s the point, none of us know when or if we’ll need Rennie Grove. The work they do is so important, and my journey would have been so much harder without their support.”