A woman has described the devastating “ripple effect” her 2020 cancer diagnosis could have on her family.
Charly McNelis, 37, of Corsham, found a lump in her left breast just before the first coronavirus lockdown last year and underwent a mastectomy.
She had a triple-negative strain of breast cancer, which is very rare and not triggered by hormones, so the mum-of-two was tested for a gene that may have caused it.
In October, her test result came back positive and – just when she was getting back to normal – another bombshell was thrown her way.
She said: “There’s a 50 per cent chance my daughters and siblings could have the gene, and I’ve found myself dealing with the ripple effect of that test result.
“That was challenging mentally, it was the next piece to deal with.
“I am one of 12. If my brothers have the gene, it can increase the risk of prostate cancer, and their children will have to get tested as well.”
“I have five sisters, aged between 21 and 30, all waiting on their genetic test result and none of them has children yet. They will have some very difficult decisions in the future if it comes back positive.”
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When she visited GP in February last year, Charly was told she had an inverted nipple and this, together with the lump, made a cancer diagnosis likely.
Just a few days later, the ex-army woman found another lump under her arm and said she knew then what she was “dealing with.”
On March 10, her suspicions were confirmed and Charly learned her cancer was more aggressive than others and spreading quickly.
“Going into March the pandemic was really impacting the hospital staff and it was all very chaotic in the first few weeks.
“My treatment path did a turnaround as they didn’t what the impact of having chemotherapy in a pandemic would be because it makes your immune system so low.
“I decided to go down the lumpectomy path and, on March 23 when the country was going into lockdown, I went into surgery on my own. It was an overwhelmingly emotional blow, but it saved my life,” she said.
Charly’s left breast was removed, along with some of the lymph nodes under her arm (where the second lump was).
Over the next six months, she and her husband Mark went on to juggle her chemotherapy and homeschooling their daughters, Phoebe, six, and Annabel, five.
Charly said: “I went through 18 weeks of chemo and I had one hospital visit when my white blood cells dropped very low and I got a high temperature.
“My poor husband dropped me off at A&E and I had to go in on my own again. Doing it on your own is pretty challenging, but we got through it, we survived.”
After the chemo, Charly had radiotherapy and, just as things were settling down in October, her gene test result came back.
The extra risk carried by the gene means the mum-of-two is still prone to developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer, even though she is currently cancer-free.
She admitted it was a blow – especially as she was just getting things back on track working as a personal trainer. After discussing her options with her doctor, Charly chose to go ahead with preventative surgery.
In three week, she will have her remaining breast, and her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed, in a single operation.
She said she had accepted that “if the breast had to go” for her to survive, then that was what she would do.
Charly added: “It’s the prospect of early menopause that I have struggled with. It feels like another thing cancer has thrown my way
“After it all the ups and downs of last year, it will be sudden and extreme. It’s that physical impact and all the hormonal changes.
“I went through that last year on chemo and I have got to go through it again.”
But, always an exercise-lover, the mum-of-two has given herself a goal for after her recovery.
In September, she plans to take on the Coast to Coast Rat Race, a 105-mile running, cycling and kayaking challenge across Scotland.
She said: “I decided I needed something to challenge me and I could put all my energy into something that wasn’t cancer treatment.
“I struggled with exercise over chemo because it wiped you out and even walking the dog was hard, so I wanted to celebrate the fact I could run again but wanted something a bit more extreme.”
Charly is using the race to raise £5,000 for a cancer charity and said: “Because of the genetic test result, I have done a lot with Cancer Research.
“The work they are doing will impact my siblings and their daughters’ future and their work has been massively impacted by Covid.
“The thought of my children having a diagnosis is terrible but so many people have to see their child go through that.
“It was that emotional connection that made me want to raise money for it.”
You can donate to Charly’s fundraiser here.
Of course, when she told her surgeon what she had in mind, Charly said the doctor “rolled her eyes” and said she would need around two months to recover from her operation first.
“I’ve got two months post-surgery to get ready but I would rather train for this than go through 2020 again. If I can survive what I did last year, this should be easy,” Charly said.