When Angie Lavelle reflects on her long battle with breast cancer it could almost be a storyline from a TV soap series.
For Angie, a script supervisor on Emmerdale at ITV Yorkshire, her four-year experience of cancer has changed her life.
She now aims to live each day as if it was her last and every year she sets herself tough physical and fundraising challenges.
“I‘ve been extremely lucky in my cancer journey. I have many friends who have not been so fortunate,” said Angie. “It hasn’t been a bed of roses, and it’s not over yet, but I’ve made the most amazing friends and done things I never would have done before.”
Angie, 54, who is divorced and lives in Guiseley near Leeds, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2011. Since then she has had numerous treatments at Spire Leeds Hospital including chemotherapy, physiotherapy, mastectomy, breast reconstruction plus implant and nipple reconstruction.
She first noticed a lump in her breast one morning during a shower at home. “It was not painful but felt slightly sensitive. I didn’t go straight to see my GP as I was in the middle of filming a block of episodes for Emmerdale. I work long hours and am responsible for continuity in the programme, so it’s difficult to slot appointments in,” said Angie.
“When I eventually saw my GP she thought it may be a cyst as I’d had a clear mammogram a few months previously. However, just to be certain, she made an appointment for me to get it checked the following week.”
Angie had a further mammogram, ultrasound and several biopsies in March 2011 and was told the same day it was almost certainly cancer.
“I was totally numb. I'd gone alone to the appointment. I sat in my car and burst into tears. When I got the official diagnosis, Mum was with me and I was more prepared, though it was a lot to take in at the time. I was told I had grade two invasive lobular cancer. It was 60mm with margin, and one out of ten nodes was cancerous.”
She was referred to Mr Kieran Horgan, breast care and general surgery consultant at Spire Leeds Hospital, who discussed Angie’s various options in depth with her.
“I decided on a mastectomy and I wanted to have the procedure done straight away. I was determined to get back to normality as quickly as possible,” she said.
Two weeks later, on 9 April 2011, Angie had a mastectomy and full armpit lymph node removal. “Mr Horgan and the breast cancer nurses were superb - reassuring and supporting me all the way. I could call them at any time with fears, questions, doubts,” she said.
The following month Angie underwent a course of chemotherapy. She opted for the cold cap in the hope of preventing total hair loss. “However, by the third chemo it was obvious I was losing my hair anyway and I made the difficult decision to have it shaved off,” she said.
During the most difficult times Angie found the strength to carry on, drawing from inner reserves and the support of family and friends. “My lowest point was probably during chemo. Not only was it painful, it was so depressing. I'd lost my breast, felt sick, and now all my hair was falling out. I felt a complete mess. But friends, family and colleagues kept me going. I made an effort; put make up on, nice clothes. It really helped my self-esteem.”
During her chemo treatment Angie did not feel well enough to work full time and her company allowed her to work from home when she felt up to it. “This was an enormous help as it gave me a purpose and helped me feel that the cancer hadn’t taken over my life.”
After a lifetime of regular gym visits she was keen to resume her exercise regime. Following chemo she pushed herself physically by walking every day no matter how tired or ill she felt. She built up her stamina and after three weeks started going to the gym.
By April 2012, Angie felt ready for reconstruction. Mr Horgan carried out an LD flap* and inserted a breast implant. The following year she opted to have an implant in the other breast to match the reconstruction.
As part of her recovery Angie decided to set herself an amazing range of personal goals. Three months after reconstruction surgery she climbed Mount Snowdon with 40 other breast cancer patients in a charity fundraising venture.
Her team was called Lifeclimb. A few months later she and a friend organised a charity ball at the Hilton Hotel in Leeds, again in the name of Lifeclimb, raising over £50,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support from the two events.
In May 2014 she was ready for nipple reconstruction surgery, again at Spire Leeds Hospital. “Mr Horgan referred me to Mr Chris Fenn for this operation, which was amazing, and I later had it tattooed by medical aesthetician Tracey Ager.”
“I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve had the most wonderful team at Spire looking after me, and Mr Horgan has performed all - bar one - of my surgeries. I cannot thank him enough for rebuilding me.”
Angie’s next venture involved a skydive in July 2014, raising over £500 for cancer. This year she has set herself a personal challenge to tackle the Velocity Zip Wire in Snowdonia. “My energy levels are not as great as they were pre-cancer but I don’t allow that to stand in my way. I push myself physically, which I feel has really helped me battle my disease. Cancer has changed me totally, I live for the moment and am not afraid to try new things.” At her annual checkup and mammogram a few weeks ago Angie was given the NED (No Evidence of Disease). The all clear is usually marked after five years of treatment.
Mr Horgan added, “Angela has met her diagnosis of breast cancer head on and decided she would actively do all she could to try and limit the possibility of the cancer returning. She made every effort to cope with the treatments and made a rapid recovery from each surgery. She has an infectious positive nature that has shone through on every occasion.”
Angie added, “I have always been positive and optimistic, even when there's been a glitch and there's a worry at the back of your mind. But negative emotions fuel the cancer I believe, so I never dwell and try not to worry. The cancer was not going to control me or my life.”