After moving to Hong Kong for a dream job, Rachel Glue felt like she had the world at her feet.
But a shock cancer diagnosis a year into her new life, when she was just 32, turned everything upside down.
Within a matter of weeks Rachel, now 34, had to move back to Scotland to prepare for lifesaving surgery and pioneering breast reconstruction.
Rachel first noticed a lump during a self-exam in February 2017 but, being fit, healthy and young, thought there was nothing to worry about.
“Lying on my side in bed one night, I noticed a lump on my left breast,” she said.
“It was quite prominent but I hadn’t noticed it before, so I sat up in the bed and checked the other side to compare. I stirred for quite some time, but decided I shouldn’t worry until I could check it properly.
“The next morning I got up and looked in the shower, and it was definitely clear the left was different to the right. I thought it would be nothing, but I made an appointment with my doctor for the following day.
“At the appointment I was immediately referred to a surgeon for further tests. Lying on the bed getting my examination, the surgeon immediately told me I would need a biopsy and an MRI to rule out that the cancer had spread.
“I had found the lump on the Thursday, saw a doctor on the Friday, and suddenly I was scheduled in for a lumpectomy the following week. To say it all came as a shock is a huge understatement.”
After scans, doctors concluded Rachel’s cancer had not spread, and set out a plan for a lumpectomy followed by recovery time and then radiotherapy. Hoping to deal with her diagnosis and treatment while getting on with everyday life, Rachel went into her operation with a positive mindset.
However, waking up after surgery, she quickly realised it wasn’t going to be so straightforward.
She explained: “I had been given so much detail about what they were going to do during the operation and how long it would take, so when I came round and looked at the time I knew something was wrong.
“I turned to the doctor and just said, ‘You’ve found something.’ During the operation my surgeons found changing cells that had spread up into my armpit, and the lump was also larger than originally thought.
“I was now going to need a full mastectomy, as well as chemotherapy, which was really difficult to come to terms with.”
After speaking to her family back home in Orkney from Hong Kong, Rachel made the hard decision to move back home for more treatment, throwing her world into chaos.
She said: “I was diagnosed in February, had my lumpectomy in March, and then I was back in Scotland by the end of April. It was all very quick. One minute I was living in Hong Kong and the next I was back where I started.”
Although Rachel does not have the BRCA gene – which is an indicator of increased risk of female breast and ovarian cancers – there was a long history of the disease in her family.
Unable to contemplate going through the traumatic process of surgery, chemotherapy and recovery all over again, Rachel decided to ask for an elective double mastectomy.
However, her doctors advised she was unlikely to be approved for the double surgery, leaving Rachel to fight to be heard.
She said: “When I was first diagnosed I didn’t want to lose my breasts, but by the time I was home in Scotland I had gone full circle. I didn’t want to go through this whole process all over again.
“When we looked back at my family tree, there was a black mark on almost every branch where cancer had hit.
“And now it had hit me. There was so much stress trying to make a decision, but I didn’t want to spend my life worrying about whether the cancer would return. I knew I would be able to move on if I didn’t need to look over my shoulder.”
After months of worry and uncertainty, it wasn’t until the week before her surgery was scheduled that Rachel finally found out she had been approved for the double mastectomy.
Due to the change in plan, her doctors now recommended reconstruction instead of implants, leaving Rachel with yet another choice to make. The procedure, known as DIEP-DCIA flap, sees surgeons cut fat, skin, and blood vessels from the wall of the stomach and move them up to rebuild the breast.
Searching for help and advice, Rachel went along to the Glasgow Maggie’s Centre.
She explained: “I only had 48 hours to decide whether I wanted to stick with implants or opt for different surgery, which would involve taking tissue from other parts of my body to reconstruct my breasts.
“I came out of the appointment in a state. I didn’t know what to do with all the information I needed to digest, so I went to the Maggie’s Centre.
“As soon as I walked in the door, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. When I went back to my next appointment I had a huge notepad of questions for the surgeons, which really helped me get my head around the situation.”
Although free flap surgery is relatively common, Rachel was one of the first patients in the UK to have tissue taken from four sections – an operation her surgeon hadn’t performed before.
“They took tissue from my stomach and all the way round to my back – I think there’s only about three inches on my back that hasn’t been touched.
“I was on the table from 8am until 11pm as I had my mastectomy and then reconstruction at the same time. I was marked from head to toe in marker pen, but I didn’t realise quite how extensive the surgery was until afterwards.”
It took Rachel from her operation in October 2017 until March last year to physically recover, and now she is looking forward.
She said: “I was lucky to catch the cancer when I did – if I hadn’t I don’t know what would have happened.
“When you go back to your normal routine it’s very hard to juggle your medical life with working and having a social life, but having a positive attitude really helped.
“It totally puts life into perspective. I definitely worry less about the small things.”