Me, My Sister & Her Breast Cancer

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Breast Cancer.  Undoubtedly two of the most frightening words a woman will ever hear. And with over 50,000 women diagnosed each year in the UK, the chances are you will know someone, or are someone, who has looked a doctor in the eye, only to hear them being softly spoken across the desk.

I was with my sister last November when this happened to her.  Sitting in the corridor of PRI Breast Care Clinic, wondering why we’d been called back to the consultant’s room after the mammogram to check a lump she had found only a few weeks previously.  Was it normal to be called back? Was it routine? It couldn’t be anything worse. Things like this happen to other people.  It won’t be my sister.

But of course, it was my sister – things like this happen to every one of us. To me, to you, to our neighbours, colleagues and friends – one in eight of us will develop it.  It is non-discriminatory, seeking out the healthy tissue of women – and around 350 men each year – and tearing through families without so much as a cursory apology or backward glance.

I have thought long and hard about writing this; after all, it’s not my story to tell.   My sister is the 44 year old woman who in January had a double mastectomy followed by a double clearance to remove the cancerous lymph nodes that had spread to her armpits.  She is the one who lurched through summer, on rounds five and six of chemo, hoping for more days when she felt well enough to take my 10 year old twin nieces to the park. 

I was simply the one on the outside looking in, wishing I could do it for her – even if only for a few days respite. I holidayed with her girls in Greece, booked them into summer camps, enjoyed long sunny days and cold ice-creams with them while their mum slept, and forced down food to get the chemo tablets over.  I lurched between being the together, try-hard-to-make-it-all-better-for-them sister and aunt, and behind closed doors, an overwhelmingly helpless, sobbing mess.  

Breast Cancer Now Wee Twinnie N & TBecause you see, my sister’s story is my story.  At only sixteen months older than her, I cannot remember a time when she wasn’t there.  I apparently cried blue murder at the ambulance that took her to hospital as a five month old baby with meningitis.  My mum used to dress us the same, two wee blondies with toothless smiles and skinny knees; to this day people ask her how her twins are. 

In the seventies we were either  fighting like cat and dog or as thick as thieves – I remember one particularly vicious face slapping contest and several thousand laughs and giggles.  We became big sisters to baby Ian, Tracey speaking for him until he was about 5, and mothering him within an inch of his life.  A bit more rough and tumble than either her wee brother or bookish big sister she fought bullies and battles for both of us until secondary school beckoned.

In the eighties we cut our hair super short and dyed it platinum blonde, hitting the beach front of Malia and squeezing into teeny, tiny hot-pants for Friday nights at the Rhumba.  We moved into our first flat away from home together – 33 Dunkeld Road – where I put courgettes into everything (they were free from Grandad’s garden) and we drank Charmaine for 99p a bottle.  In the nineties we had children eight weeks apart (both unplanned, both much loved – my mum’s now famous line ‘this isn’t like dying your hair girls’ breaking the tension of our very surreal situation!)

We raised our babies at the same time, grew a little bit older, a little bit wiser and as life hurled towards thirty Tracey found out she had stomach cancer.  It was the first time anything ‘big’ had happened to one of us without the other.  I looked on in disbelief as she was wheeled along a corridor to be operated on and cried silently for the 13 hours she was in theatre.  It was a brutal year, but after a whipples procedure and six months of intensive chemo she came out of it with an all-clear. Three years later she very unexpectedly fell pregnant with twins and gave birth to my youngest two nieces shortly after her 33rd birthday. It had been one hell of a ride, but she had pulled through in one piece and lived to tell an incredible tale of fortune and miracle babies.  


And now here we are.  

Her story is different to mine. But it is still my story.  This year, my sister - my wee sister - has had surgery, and chemo and scans and more surgery.   In March, post-second-op, we sat opposite her consultant together, hearts racing in tandem, our hands bound tightly into one clenched fist; me silently making deals with powers I don’t believe in in a bid to make it all go away.  Smiling on the outside, reassuring her it was all going to be okay I could never have prepared us for what was coming next.  It was in her bones. I cracked.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  I cried in front of her for the first time, hoping upon hope they had made a mistake.

But there has been no mistake. Tracey has secondary breast cancer in the bone and we have all had to find a way to live in a new state of normal.   She has, as you must, begun to process this knowledge, our sisterly bond strengthened once again through the signing over of legal powers, guardianship and other such unspeakable actions. 

Breast Cancer Now Tracey ChemoShe has just started on a new regime of weekly chemo, her platelets refusing to behave or tow the party line her oncologist so desperately tried to put into place.  This past month has brought an unexpected week in Ninewells, a few thousand tears shed in the remarkable Maggie’s Centre and several conversations with the specialists, none of them ever ending with the words you want to hear. Together Tracey and I faced what has undoubtedly been the cruellest day of my 45 years on the planet and even though we didn’t know how at the time, we woke up the next day, and the next day and the next day and her strength and resilience made it possible for all of us to keep going.

My two youngest nieces turned eleven this week and are currently living between my house and their own.   Together with their big sister these amazing girls remind us that life is here to be lived and that although ours lurks around the darkest of places right now, we have light, love and many, many reasons to sing, laugh and dance – all be it, not in teeny tiny hotpants now. (No one wants to see that!). 

“How are you?” people ask.  I have so many emotions, good and bad, that I have no idea how to answer that anymore.  

All of these things – scared, hopeful, helpless, guilty, courageous, thankful, angry, heartbroken, determined, obsessive and optimistic – are how I am. 

There are days when I've felt the weight of helplessness heavy on my shoulders and I know that I am not alone. The number of people who have looked on at their sisters, mothers, friends and aunts, as I have – frightened for the future, guilty of my own health, impotent in my abilities, desperate in my hope, an obsessive need for knowledge and with a slightly shaky sense of courage  – is staggering.  

And yet as these thoughts go through my head, I know I have only a fraction of the burden she does and with that, my love and admiration for her grows greater than ever before.  Looking in as she jokes with Trish, her wonderful chemo nurse, keeps me strong and determined to make what I can, as easy as I can.

All of these things – scared, hopeful, helpless, guilty, courageous, thankful, angry, heartbroken, determined, obsessive and optimistic – are how I am. 

This is where my unrelenting positivity kicks in. The human spirit is truly a wonderful thing and we are blessed with an amazing family, with wonderful friends, with a rock solid Mum and Step Dad, our brothers (of which there are now two!) and of course, with each other.  People you never thought knew your name will raise you up, will offer you hope and love and reassurance, and ultimately this will all keep your faith in life intact, and your body moving forward.

I see a counsellor every week – Julia at Rowan Consultancy to whom I owe my mental wellbeing – I lean on my amazing partner, I call my best friend and I take another step into our ‘new normal’.  I am aware this story is not the traditionally uplifting tale of ‘and they all live happily ever after’ that we all want and need.   But it is an honest account, not of someone who has cancer, but of someone who loves someone who has cancer. 

We are currently booking a trip to London and Paris with her girls. We plan to see the Northern Lights from Iceland for my birthday next year.  We must finish that gallery of her photobombing minor celebs and I daresay her 45th birthday will turn into a Hello! Magazine worthy event.  

Breast Cancer Now Nicola And TraceyLast week my sister and I were reminded of that time we hogged the mic in the Ring O Bells karaoke (we’re not singers, I promise you), arrived home drunk, broke the key in the lock and spent a week’s wages staying in the City Mills Hotel. 

And we laughed – not small, frightened, pretend laughs – but loud, glorious bellyfuls and we knew that regardless of what is coming, we’re ready for it. Together.  

After all, it will take more than two little words to topple the stratospheric spirit of the Martin Sisters.


Although Tracey is now living with Secondary Breast Cancer, it must be stressed that fundraising initiatives like today’s Wear It Pink and other awareness campaigns are making a difference. Treatments are working better than ever before and with more women (and men) detecting the disease early, more and more people are surviving.

More than 80% of women with breast cancer in the UK are still alive five years after diagnosis. This is hope. Read this week’s Stop Press Story for tips on how to check your boobs and to find out what’s being done in terms of Breast Cancer research and development.

If anyone has a history of breast cancer in their family it is worthwhile speaking to your GP. Your GP can refer you to genetics at Ninewells and they will look into the history of breast cancer in your family. If they deem you at risk you will be elegible for early and regular breast screening.

If someone you love is living with Breast Cancer I would urge you to seek support in order that you might keep well to help yourself and them.   If you would like to be referred, make an appointment with your GP.  Our family has experience of the services below and all have been fantastic. Simply pick up the phone and you will be one step closer to lifting some of that weight.

  • Maggies Dundee – My sister loves these people. They are quite simply, amazing. 01382 632999
  • MacMillan at Cornhill in Perth. My Mum and eldest niece are receiving treatments and one-on-one talk therapy to help them process what’s going on. Invaluable service in Perth City Centre.  01738 413000
  • Rowan Consultancy – A private counselling service which I have used at various points to keep me mentally well. This year more than most. 01738 562005
  • Hair Dot Comb – Offering an NHS wig service for people who have lost their hair due to Chemo. Kim was lovely, Tracey’s wig is FAB! 01738 580098

Big shout out too, to the determined Dr Sharon Armstong, to the amazing team at PRI oncology ward (we salute you Trish, Lee, Susan and everyone else) and to the wonderful staff of Ninewells Ward 32.

We would be delighted for other services to post their details in the space below or to email us on so that we might add you here.

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