Classed as a vulnerable person, Rhiann Breen must remain home for 12 weeks – which is equal to the prognosis given to her by doctors.
A brave young mum with terminal cancer is to tick off her bucket list at home as she fears the coronavirus outbreak will see her spend the rest of her life in isolation.
When Rhiann Breen, 31, of Newport, south east Wales, first felt a lump in her left breast whilst examining a bruise caused when her son Max, three, jumped on her as they played together, she never dreamed it would be anything sinister.
But in August 2019, when she was still breastfeeding her then three-month-old daughter Isobel, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.
The former retail team leader, who is married to youth worker Gavin, 32, tried to fight the disease with aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy – but tragically, it has now spread to her lungs, bones and brain.
In early March, she was given three to four months to live, and began to put together a bucket list – but her plans were dashed when she discovered that she is considered to be extremely vulnerable, and so must self-isolate for 12 weeks under Public Health England guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than lose her spirit, she is doing all she can to continue to make priceless memories with her family at home, moving Christmas forward to Easter weekend, bringing the aquarium she was due to visit with Max for his birthday in July to him at home, and writing letters and cards for her children to read when she is no longer here.
Last week, she penned a powerful blog post about her situation, saying: “Imagine seeing messages online telling you because you’re in the vulnerable category you’re expected to stay in isolation for 12 weeks – which in my terms is equal to the rest of my life.
“Imagine having to tell an extremely large percentage of your family, as well as your lifelong friends – most of which are front line workers – that you will never see them again, and those that aren’t putting their own health at risk have a list of extremely strict rules to follow if they wish to see you before you pass.
“Imagine using this time to plan your own funeral knowing that nobody will be able to attend.”
She continued: “Imagine craving as much normalcy for your children at this moment because absolutely everything in their innocent, carefree lives is about to have a shift on seismic levels.”
Previously fit and healthy, Rhiann lived an idyllic life with her husband and two young children.
Then, she was playing with Max one day when he jumped up at her, accidentally bashing her in the chest.
A nasty bruise was left behind on her left breast – and, examining it one day, she discovered a 3cm lump.
Tests followed, including an ultrasound, and on 16 August, 2019, doctors broke the news that she had breast cancer.
“At the time, I was still breastfeeding Isobel. It sounds silly now, but one of the hardest parts of the diagnosis was knowing I’d have to stop,” she said. “I felt I’d learned so much with Max. I knew what I was doing with Isobel, and it was a way of bonding.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, Rhiann had a biopsy to confirm exactly what form of breast cancer she had.
The results showed it was triple negative which, according to Cancer Research, is when the cancerous cells do not have receptors for the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, or the protein Her2.
Making up around 15 in every 100 breast cancer cases in the UK, symptoms include a change in the size, shape or feel of the breast, dimpling of the skin, a change in the nipple such as it becoming inverted or irregular in shape, blood-stained discharge from the nipple, a rash or swelling in the armpit.
Rhiann the day after her diagnosis, pictured here with Isobel. Looking back, she can see dimpling in her breast – a symptom of triple negative breast cancer (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I thought it was best not to look up much online, as it wouldn’t be good for my mental health,” said Rhiann.
“It’s such a shame that research into triple negative doesn’t seem to be as far along as other breast cancers. That desperately needs to change so other families don’t go through what we are.”
Next, Rhiann, who has been tested and does not have the BRCA1 gene mutation that can sometimes increase the risk of breast cancer, had a CT scan, which revealed more shocking news.
“There was a total of three lumps in my breast – the one I’d felt, plus two more,” she explained. “The scan also showed up some specks in my lung. They were too small to be biopsied at that stage, so doctors said they’d monitor them with progress scans.”
From there, Rhiann began chemotherapy, which left her nauseous and drained.
“I tried to be strong, but you do get those moments where you ask, ‘Why me?’” she candidly recalled.
“The nausea was overwhelming. The only thing I could do was try and sleep it away,” she continued.
“In the end, I went to my GP and was put on antidepressants. I knew I could get therapy too, but there was a long wait time, and I needed something that could help me right away.
“I still felt physically sick, but with them, at least I wasn’t crying all the time.”
Within two weeks, Rhiann’s long dark hair began to fall out, so, to claw back a shred of control, she decided to shave it off in September 2019, with Gavin doing the same in solidarity.
Little Isobel did not notice the change, and Max soon got used to her new bald appearance.
“When I decided to shave it off, I’d already bought a wig, but I took it off one day and Max said, ‘No, Mummy,’” she said. “He just needed a moment to get used to me, as within a few minutes, he was absolutely fine, toddling over wanting a cuddle.”
Halfway through chemotherapy, in late October, Rhiann had a progress scan which showed that the lumps in her breast had halved in size, and some of the spots in her lung had disappeared altogether.
“It seemed like my body was really responding to the chemo. Everyone was confident I’d be able to survive for many years to come,” she said.
But then, another scan after her final session on 27 December revealed that, tragically, the disease had spread to her breastbone.
For the first time, Rhiann’s life had a time limit as doctors gave her a prognosis of 10 years.
“That was horrific to hear,” she admitted. “I started to think about all the things I was going to miss, all the milestones, Christmases and birthdays.”
To give Rhiann the best chance possible, doctors decided to perform a mastectomy before putting her on a course of radiotherapy.
But, her immune system virtually non-existent, she kept getting chest infections, leaving medics fearing she was not strong enough for surgery, and worrying the healing time could delay the rest of her treatment.
Then, when she felt one of her existing breast lumps growing, she had a scan in February, which found that cancer was active again in her bones and lungs.
“They told me that meant my prognosis was now just one year,” she said. “Just like that, I’d lost nine years.”
She added: “My mastectomy was supposed to take place the following week, but it was decided that I may not be strong enough, and that the healing time would delay everything else, so I pushed straight on with radiotherapy.”
So, Rhiann began having weekly sessions, which meant spending a couple of hours in hospital each time.
Thankfully she was able to stay at home the rest of the time to be with her children. Then, in early March, she started having daily headaches.
“It was like a pressure headache, but just in one area, which was really unusual,” she explained.
Worried, she mentioned them to her oncologist, who arranged an MRI scan – which found the disease had spread to her brain, too.
“The scan of my brain looked the same as the one of my lung – covered in little spots,” she said. “I do worry what the cancer being in my brain will mean for things like my capacity and memory. This disease has already taken so much from me – am I going to turn into a completely different person too?”
Worst of all, Rhiann’s scan results meant her prognosis decreased once again, and now, she has between three and four months left.
She continued: “I was destroyed by that. I can’t get my head around the fact that my children will grow up without me. Isobel is so little that she won’t even remember me, and Max may ask for me at first, but he’s still so small too, so one day, he’ll stop.”
To create as many special memories as possible with whatever time she has left, Rhiann soon set about creating a bucket list, which included things like one last visit to Weymouth, Dorset – a place that holds many treasured childhood memories of holidays with her family – and a trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.
However, as she is still undergoing cancer treatment that has compromised her immunity, she is considered a vulnerable person, and so has been advised to self-isolate for 12 weeks to protect herself from the coronavirus spread.
“That basically means spending the rest of my life in isolation,” she said. “I wasn’t exactly going out much anyway as my immune system is so compromised, but now, people can’t even visit me, and things like trips abroad or family days out are unlikely to happen.”
Now, Rhiann is busy working out how she can tick off her bucket list at home.
Instead of taking Max to the aquarium, she plans to bring it to him by buying him a pet fish and tank to keep it in.
She will also be holding Christmas and Easter over the same weekend, where the family will have a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, as well as an egg hunt in the garden.
She has been buoyed by the incredible kindness of a group of pals, who she has never met in real life, but bonded with over Instagram.
The network of ladies from around the UK have set up a GoFundMe page to help her to make as many special memories as possible, as well as ease the financial burden for her family after she passes away.
“I’ve never even met these women in person. I’ve been so blown away by them,” she said. “The money will really help with things like memory boxes that I want to put together for the children, with cards and presents from me for the birthdays I am going to miss.
“I’m thinking about getting them something engraved for their 18th birthdays.
It would also help if Gavin and the children want a break when they are allowed to travel again, to take their mind off everything.”
Rhiann has also been flooded with support from local businesses, who are sending her things to do in isolation, like craft and activity kits for the children, and helping her out with ways to complete as much of her list as possible.
By sharing her story, she also wants to urge other women to check their breasts and be aware of any changes to watch out for.
“That’s the point in all this,” she said. “I can’t change my own story – but maybe I can change somebody else’s.”
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