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Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Nurse, Flight Sergeant Helen Crawford tells her story of living with Breast Cancer.

Helen has served in the Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service for over 22 years. In 2014, aged only 32, Helen was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and then Stage 2, grade 2 breast cancer.

Image shows Helen with her husband and three daughters in formal dress attire.

She had a lumpectomy, sentinel lymph node removal, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and 5 years of ovarian suppression treatment. This was followed by the news in January 2022, that Helen has developed Secondary Breast Cancer in many bones, as well as in her chest and neck lymph nodes.

The facts surrounding Secondary Breast Cancer include:

  • There is no cure
  • The UK does not collate statistics to determine how many people are living with Secondary Breast Cancer
  • Treatment access varies depending on where you live
  • Current statistics show an average survival of 2-3 years
  • One third of all women who have primary breast cancer will go on to develop secondary breast cancer
  • In the UK, 31 women die from Secondary Breast Cancer every day, 1000 per month, 1 every 45 minutes
  • It is the single biggest killer of women under 50 in the UK
  • Treatment lines are limited, 

Image shows Helen and her husband holding their three daughters on their wedding day.

At no point did anyone educate me about secondary breast cancer, or the fact that, despite my initial lymph nodes being clear, despite surgery, chemo and radiotherapy, some cancer cells may have escaped and be lying dormant in my body. At no point was I given a full body scan to check for the spread of cells. Not once was I prepared for the risk of secondary breast cancer.

I try and live in the present, but it’s terrifying, there is barely an hour of the day I don’t think about cancer, barely a day goes by I don’t think about dying. My beautiful girls, I cuddle them so close, I climb in beside them when they sleep, watch them breathing, dreaming, marvel at them, my girls, so perfect, so beautiful, so innocent. I tell them how much I love them, how much I always will. I watch them play and laugh, the mischievous twinkles in their eyes and my heart breaks, they have no idea of the pain the future is likely hold for them. The biggest pain of all is thinking of a time where I am not in this world with them anymore, I picture their little faces, think of them crying for me, being confused, scared, upset that I am gone, knowing the heartbreak they will suffer if I die and knowing that I am the reason for that pain, and that there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it. I know they will be loved; they will be so cared for by so many people, but it should be me there with them. I haven’t yet told them about the cancer, I just can’t, not yet.

Helen Crawford

Image shows Helen holding her three daughters.

Both Helen and her husband are serving member of the RAF, giving them access to Royal Air Force Charities. These charities provide vital funding to support childcare, comprehensive welfare support, and even help with household chores. The RAF also gave both both time off work and full sick pay; flexibility to attend appointments and claim money back on the cost of travelling to the hospital and parking.

Having chosen to return to work, the RAF enables Helen the freedom to work flexibly around her treatments and symptoms; a luxury not many non-service personnel have.

For civilians the financial burdens of a cancer diagnosis can be terrifying, and I cannot imagine having such fears whilst already dealing with the huge fears posed by diagnosis itself. The fears of not having sick pay or a regular income can threaten your home and make life very difficult, to add these worries to an already incredibly difficult situation would be horrific. Being in the RAF has meant these are not anxieties we have had to even consider. Furthermore, as we all know the NHS is underfunded, understaffed and under resourced. Whilst my oncology team are entirely NHS, my primary care is managed with my medical certain at my serving station. As such, I rarely wait long for a GP appointment or have struggles obtaining prescriptions or appointments for blood tests etc which are crucial in the support of my oncology care. The anxieties of living with an incurable cancer diagnosis are constant and at times overwhelming. Knowing I can quickly access my primary care support relieves a huge burden that unfortunately civilian patients often must face.

Helen Crawford

Image shows Helen standing with her three daughters.

When first diagnosed, I cried in my Mums arms, and said, “I don’t know how to live when I’m dying?”, she said “You must find a way, because what is the point in putting yourself through all the treatments to prolong your life if you aren’t going to live?”. It’s terrifying, and every day I make the conscious choice to carry on, to not dwell on what might be. I received a COS Pers commendation in the Queens Birthday Honours in June 22, this was a reminder to me of my achievements what I can still be capable of, my life is different, but it’s not over. I will continue to shout about Secondary Breast Cancer, work with charities and campaign for more research, advocate for myself and others, fight for more treatment options; my life literally depends on it. Life is not how I ever imagined, there is so much pain, so much fear, but no matter how hard it may be, I must still live my life, especially for my little girls.

Helen Crawford