Interview: Harriet Close
I think you know when something’s wrong. It’s like the mother’s instinct of knowing there’s something wrong with your baby. I just knew.
‘I discovered it myself, a small lump in my breast. It was in January, well, to be honest, it was just before Christmas, but I decided to have a happy millennium and waited until the first available day in January to call up for an appointment. I was very lucky because it was very noticeable, I’m afraid I wasn’t one of those people who check regularly. It felt like a little pea. I rang up my girlfriend who happened to be gynaecological surgeon and she recommended that I go and see a specialist. Luckily, I have medical insurance, and I saw him within three days.’
‘The specialist said he didn’t think it was anything particularly sinister. He took samples with a needle which was, I have to say, the most excruciating part of the whole thing, worse than having a baby. About four days after I saw him, I had a mammogram. Nothing showed up on the mammogram, but I had an ultrasound immediately afterwards and it showed up there. The doctor who was taking the ultrasound felt it was cancerous. Then I went back to see the specialist and, sadly, he confirmed it.’
‘That was on the Friday and on the following Monday I was in for a day’s surgery. I had the lump removed. I was in the morning and out in the afternoon – no ill effects at all. I was very, very lucky. Then I had to wait and go in the following week to have more tissue taken out, and all my lymph nodes taken out as well. And I had to wait for the results of that. There were two nodes they were slightly worried about. I discovered later that they were slightly infected by something I’d probably got from a cat scratch. That whole process took about a month. They let me rest for a while, then I had six weeks of daily radiotherapy every day. I didn’t have to have chemotherapy. I was lucky. From start to finish from the January check-up, I was finished with radiotherapy by the end of March. I have since gone back for a three-month check-up. So far so good.’
‘I was very scared, but I wouldn’t show anybody. I’m a single mum, I have a 15-year-old son, and I didn’t want to frighten him. But I was honest with him about everything I was going through. I told him I had cancer and about the treatments.’
‘The cancer came without any warning at all. I’m adopted so I have no medical history. They felt that my breast cancer was probably very much hormone-related. But I have no idea, because I don’t have any history. It’s strange, but as soon as I found the lump, I thought it was going to be cancerous. I think you know when something’s wrong. It’s like the mother’s instinct of knowing there’s something wrong with your baby. I just knew I had to have the lump checked out. I wasn’t scared though until they actually told me. I just thought: "I think this is going to go wrong. I think this won’t be a happy outcome." Having said that, I’ve been very lucky because I caught it terribly, terribly early.’
‘Because I haven’t had a huge amount of breast tissue taken away there’s not a dramatic difference in the way my breasts look. At the moment because it’s still quite recent, my left breast is quite swollen with the scar tissue and everything, In fact, that breast is looking better than the other one. Time will tell.’
‘I was going out with somebody at the time (the cancer was detected) and I was very scared about showing him what I was going to look like. I wasn’t sure how he’d react, and I was scared of that. Probably he was scared of the whole idea, I had to stop going out with him. But I have found that it has enriched my life. It made me realise who my real friends are. Nobody reacted negatively. There were people I hadn’t seen for ages and had lost touch with, who heard about it and came to see me in hospital. "I had to come and see you." That sort of thing. It made me feel: "Right you’ve got to evaluate your life. You’ve got to see what’s important." In the scheme of things, so many things are unimportant, but we get so wound up by them. Stress can be so much part of getting cancer. I’m much more relaxed these days. I used to be the sort of person who’d get worried about stupid things. So it has been quite cathartic.’
‘After the surgery, almost as soon as I could, I was on the phone to them saying: "How can I help? How can I do something?" I just wanted to help one way or another. It’s not such a terrifying thing – cancer – these days, but it still instills fear in a lot of people. And I just wanted to show that you can still be there, positive about things and still attractive. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I get a little fed up with these beautiful people with perfect breasts in Breakthrough advertising. I know they want to make people aware of breast cancer, but I think "Well what the hell are they doing it for?"’
Harriet Close, a former model, who now runs an agency for older models, has supported Breakthrough, the fashion industry’s campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer, for many years.