I was on the honeymoon of my dreams when I discovered a lump

Out of fear, I kept my discovery to myself. Months later, my husband told me he thought from my silence that I was having doubts about marrying him. 

I was on the honeymoon of my dreams when I discovered a lump
Emma Barker in a hospital chair, with tubes going into her left hand/arm, propped on a pillow.
I knew finding a lump could mean bad news (Picture: Emma Barker)

On my honeymoon in Thailand in December 2018 with my new husband Tom, I was looking forward to a day of snorkelling.

It was a holiday we’d been planning for months – the perfect start to our new life together.

But as I adjusted the top of my bikini, I froze. Because there, on my right breast, was a lump. It was about the size of a marble. I stopped and felt again – it was definitely there.

Immediately, I felt sick.

My mum had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006 and in 2016, it was confirmed that I’d inherited an altered BRCA1 gene, which can increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

I knew finding a lump could mean bad news.

Not wanting to ruin our break, I decided not to tell my husband Tom. But there was no way to hide my worry and distraction.

‘Is everything OK?’ he asked me whenever I’d fall silent. I’d assure him that it was, when in my head, I was terrified.

Months later, he told me he thought I was having doubts about marrying him. 

Emma Barker and her husband, Tom, on their wedding day standing in a grey stone courtyard in front of a grey stone wall.
There was no way to hide my worry and distraction (Picture: Emma Barker)

I told Tom the morning after we got home, just before Christmas.

He tried to remain calm and practical, assuring me that it could be harmless. We went straight to the GP and started the process of tests, biopsies and scans. I was worried about bothering them so close to Christmas, but Tom made sure that I called.  

Christmas was very difficult that year. I tried to enjoy myself, but I couldn’t relax.

And, in January 2019, I got the news I was dreading. I was diagnosed with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer. I’d just turned 29 and was three days into a new job. 

Following my diagnosis, I went into shock. I left the hospital and went straight back to work to distract my mind with meetings. Tom was with me when I was diagnosed, though unfortunately they needed the room back immediately for the next patient, so we had to console each other in the corridor. 

Emma Barker in a purple hospital chair in front of a lilac wall, with paper chain decorations running overhead. Emma is wearing a pink party hat and has a white pillow on her lap.
The surgeon described the cancer as very aggressive (Picture: Emma Barker)

It was only when I was on my way home that night that I began to process the magnitude of what I’d been told.

I was a newlywed, about to embark on a new chapter of my life with the man I loved. We’d bought a house and were talking about having children. But now, my whole life had a huge question mark looming over it.

Tom was obviously devastated, but he shut down his feelings to support me. He spent a lot of late nights researching everything and looking for ways to help.

Just as decisions were being made for my treatment, I found a second lump and tests showed it was triple negative breast cancer. The surgeon described the cancer as very aggressive, and I remember them telling me I needed the ‘strong stuff’. 

My GP diagnosed me with PTSD, and I decided to take a year off

On Valentine’s Day, I began my treatment with a mastectomy with reconstruction, and lymph node removal on my right side.

Over the next six months, I underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy, and 15 rounds of radiotherapy. I knew I wanted children one day so I also went through fertility preservation.

The preservation needed to happen before I started chemotherapy, so I had my mastectomy and then two weeks later started the preservation process. We only had one shot as there was only time for one cycle before I needed to start chemotherapy.

I almost felt hollow, however I mainly felt guilt that I could be stopping Tom from becoming a father.  

The most difficult part of the journey was the IVF fertility preservation. People around us were excited at the opportunity of becoming parents, whereas we were preparing for a future where we didn’t even know if I’d be around to embrace being a mum.

Emma Barker wearing a pink tutu while running a 5k along a canal while raising money for Breast Cancer Now as part of their wear it pink day.
I ran the 5k down the canal wearing a pink tutu (Picture: Emma Barker)

Having such a serious diagnosis, and the gruelling treatment that goes with it, was completely overwhelming. I tried to take the treatment in steps and ticked off the weeks. This made the whole process less daunting.

We tried to find humour wherever we could. I found it very entertaining to whip my wig off in the car if anyone gave us road rage!

I finished my treatment in September 2019 and set myself a challenge of running 5k.

It doesn’t sound like a lot but I couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping for breath.

It was good motivation to regain my fitness, while also raising money for Breast Cancer Now as part of their wear it pink day in October. People donated money for pink bows so I could decorate my estate and I ran the 5k down the canal wearing a pink tutu. Tom ran alongside me as motivation.

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My treatment – aside from the hormone therapy, which I take to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back – ended just before the pandemic started.

It was really tough timing. For so long, I’d felt like my world had paused while everyone else was moving on. Yet when I was ready to get on with my life, everything had stopped.

My GP diagnosed me with PTSD, and I decided to take a year off. I wasn’t the same person as I was pre-treatment and I needed to work out what I wanted to do. I chose to have a career change and re-train as a primary school teacher.

I stayed on hormone treatment until January 2022 when my doctors agreed I could take a break to try for a family.

As my body had gone in and out of the menopause during treatment, I was told that the chances of a pregnancy without IVF were very slim.

Emma Barker and her husband, Tom, standing in front of a dark background. Tom is wearing a black t-shirt and Emma is wearing a long green dress - she's pregnant and holding a pair of tiny baby's shoes over her stomach. Tom's arms are around Emma.
The most difficult part of the journey was the IVF fertility preservation (Picture: Emma Barker)

Incredibly, I fell pregnant quickly and my little girl, Autumn, was born healthy in November 2022. She’s our little miracle baby.

As I cradled her in my arms for the first time, it felt surreal. I cried my eyes out and couldn’t thank the doctors and nurses enough. Holding her against my chest was such a full circle moment. 

While I feel very lucky to be where I am today, I’m very aware that there will be very limited treatment options if the cancer does come back.

Not just that, but there is a chance that my daughter could also be an altered BRCA1 gene carrier, and this is a big worry.

For me, her and the millions of other people affected by cancer, I’d do absolutely anything to ensure that more treatments could be found.

Emma is supporting new research funded by Breast Cancer Now to discover why some triple negative breast cancers spread to other parts of the body.

Breast Cancer Now is the research and support charity here for anyone affected by breast cancer. Call their free helpline on 0808 800 6000 to speak to their expert nurses or find out more and donate at breastcancernow.org

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