Women form 17-year friendship during breast cancer treatment

Zoe Winters explains how to check for breast cancer

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Two women with incurable breast cancer formed a 17-year friendship over more than 600 rounds of chemotherapy between them. Margie Shields, from Knotty Ash, saw her mum and sister go through breast cancer, so when she felt a pain “like a nagging toothache” in her breast, she “just sensed there was something wrong”. After a visit to the Royal Liverpool Hospital, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer.

She was “devastated” and was only expected to live another year or two, but after 20 years, more than 300 rounds of chemotherapy, and the removal of both her breasts, she is still going strong, the Liverpool Echo reported. 

Her breast cancer, which spread to the bones in her chest and shoulder, is incurable and requires lifelong treatment, but she credits constant developments in medicine for keeping her alive.

She has also had 88-year-old friend Ann Hannah, from Liverpool by her side. They met on Ms Shields’ first day of treatment and have been fast friends ever since, scheduling chemotherapy on the same day so they can spend time together. 

While she was initially “petrified”, Ms Shields, now 72, said there was community to be found on the cancer ward. 

“It was always full of chatter because we sat close together and we could mingle. You’d be singing and laughing, and somebody would come in and tell us funny things that had happened to them over the weekend.”

The pair have been dubbed the ‘Terrible Twins’ by their oncologist “because they are always winding each other up”, but Ms Hannah prefers ‘Chemo Queens’.

She said: “I’ve just had my 310th chemotherapy treatment and the nurses here are amazing. 

“I have a laugh and a joke with them every time I come. Laughter brightens everyone’s day and it’s wonderful to be able to have my treatment with Margie.”

Speaking of her friend, Ms Shields said: “She’s an amazing lady, absolutely. And for 88, she’s grand. She is what I would call an inspiration. I actually class her as family.”

Both women are among the 30 percent of people diagnosed with breast cancer who develop secondary cancers, which reduces the five-year survival rate from 98 percent to 25 percent.

In 2019, Ms Shields had treatment for an unrelated stomach cancer, meaning the Terrible Twins were separated. For two years, she had to go through “very, very strong” rounds of chemotherapy that left her feeling “really ill” before having an operation on her stomach, all without the regular companionship of her fellow “Chemo Queen”. 

She said: “The surgeons have done a fantastic job, I have to say. It was gruelling because I had reconstruction for my stomach, and I had it all done at once. 

“At the time, obviously it’s hard going, but then as you’re feeling a bit better, you meet the ladies, I always remember meeting a lady when I was started in chemotherapy, and she was such an inspiration.”

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Dr Farida Alam, consultant in clinical oncology at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, told the Liverpool Echo the pair were “inspirational”. 

“They really are a great example of how cancer can be managed, if not cured, and the fact they have both been having treatment for 17 years and still arrive with smiles and such positive energy is wonderful to see.”

“There is a variety of treatments for metastatic breast cancer and while there is no cure, treatment may control it for years at a time, enabling people to live relatively well for longer. Patients work closely with their doctors and nurses to manage any symptoms or side effects as well as possible.”

The friends shared their story in the hope of alerting others to the signs of breast cancer so they can catch it early when it’s easiest to treat. 

The earliest sign of breast cancer is usually a lump or area of thickened tissue on the breast, according to the NHS, and can also include a change in the shape or size of the breasts, discharge from the nipples, or a rash around the nipples.

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