I joined the army when I was 18 and spent 23 years as a regular soldier before becoming a full-time reservist in September 2019. It’s been a way of life for me and I would recommend the army to anyone. I’ve had lots of great opportunities which I wouldn’t have had anywhere else.
My first overseas tour was to Bosnia in 1997, when I worked as specialist chef and that was quite an eye opener. I did witness some things that were quite traumatic at the time. During lunch breaks, we used to go back to our bed spaces in special containers. The camp itself was surrounded by barbed wire. On one occasion a local man outside the perimeter started firing off an AK47. A bullet went straight through one of the containers and directly over the head of a soldier. They deployed the quick reaction team and took down the guy with the weapon swiftly but it could have been a lot worse for all of us.
The British Army also helped me progress my education and I took NVQs with City&Guilds. Eventually I won a Bachelors Degree in Leadership and Management with the Open University in Northumbria – all the time staying in my post, studying and and doing distant learning modules.
After 22 years, I extended for a further year before leaving the army to take on a role as teacher in a secondary school, but it wasn’t for me. I missed the army life and subsequently applied successfully to come back as a reservist.
Last December, I was working in a business support role at Upavon for 6th Division when I became quite concerned about some changes in my right breast. It wasn’t a lump, more like a thickening of the tissue, but I also noticed a lump under my left arm. My mother had developed breast cancer at a similar age and it did concern me that I could have breast cancer too.
I was seen at Salisbury Hospital soon after and they performed tests including a mammogram and an ultrasound test. They spent a lot of time looking at the scans and then decided to do a biopsy which involves removing a small amount of tissue to check if there are cancerous changes in the cells using a microscope.
Following the biopsy I went to see the consultant who said that she suspected it was cancer, but I would get the final results in early January. I was pretty devastated and it was made harder by the fact that my wife, Abbi was away on a skiing expedition at the time – she is PT instructor in the army. Luckily, my ex-husband was looking after the children, 10-year-old Ronnie, and Reginald, who is 13. Christmas went ahead as normal and it was my turn to have the children for the holidays.
On 3 January, I went back for the results and as we suspected, it was cancer. Apparently I had three cancerous spots in the same area of my right breast but the lump under my arm turned out to be harmless. We decided that a mastectomy, (surgical removal of the breast) followed by immediate reconstruction was the best option and I would also need chemotherapy afterwards to make sure all the cancerous cells were gone. That’s when I told the children, because I knew I would probably lose my hair and I couldn’t keep it from them. I sat them down and told them that I had cancer but I was fit and well and I would get the best possible treatment. I arranged with their dad that he would look after them when I had just had chemotherapy and felt at my sickest, because the less they saw of my suffering the better
All this time, the army really stepped up and supported me. After the operation, which took place on 31 January, I was given as much time as I needed to recover. I returned to work on 24 February and thought that life would resume as normal, like everyone did.
The Covid pandemic didn’t interfere with my chemotherapy sessions which started on 9 March 2020, but it did mean that I had to go alone to the hospital and I couldn’t take my wife with me. There was also a really worrying time when I developed neutropenic sepsis, a blood infection due to the fact that the chemotherapy was wiping out my natural immunity, and I had to be admitted to hospital. The man in the bed next to mine had terrible chest pains and the next day tested positive for Covid-19. Luckily, I didn’t contract Covid, because that would have been very serious given my compromised immune system. Thankfully I was put in my own personal room after that.
The whole experience was lonely and scary – made worse by Covid 19 - but it really helped that the army supported me throughout. I wanted to work to bring back some normality to my life and push cancer to the back of my mind, but I couldn’t physically go into the office. Instead, they arranged for a lap top to be dropped off at my home so I could work remotely. There was no pressure, but I was able to attend Skype meetings every day and interact with my colleagues which was great for my morale.
Now, I’m glad to say I’m back at work and feeling absolutely fine after my brush with breast cancer. It’s a door that I want to close but I can’t just yet, because I still need to go through genetic testing to see if I inherited a gene from my mother which makes me more susceptible. I really do feel that the military took me under its wing at a very difficult time in my life and I can’t thank them enough.