I was given all-clear from rare breast cancer – only to be diagnosed with a different type in my other breast just weeks later

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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After nearly 18 months of gruelling breast cancer treatment, Jess Parsons finally got the news she hoped for late last year – her tumour was gone.

‘It was an incredibly emotional moment,’ says the 38-year-old who works in human resources. ‘I was crying bucketloads. It had been touch-and-go, a year-and-a-half of not knowing if I would see my two children grow up, go to university or get married.’

But just five weeks later, in early January, Jess, from Bath, was given devastating news. She had developed cancer again, this time in her other breast. What’s more, it was a completely different cancer and unrelated to her first diagnosis.

Jane Murphy, senior clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Now, says: ‘Getting breast cancer before the age of 50 is uncommon in itself, so to get a diagnosis twice in such a short time is extremely rare. I have never seen a case like this.’

Not only was the event a medical anomaly, it was also a crushing blow to Jess and her family, who had only just celebrated her clean bill of health and begun to plan for a cancer-free future.

After nearly 18 months of gruelling breast cancer treatment, Jess Parsons (pictured) finally got the news she hoped for late last year – her tumour was gone

Just five weeks later, in early January, Jess, from Bath, was given devastating news. She had developed cancer again, this time in her other breast

Just five weeks later, in early January, Jess, from Bath, was given devastating news. She had developed cancer again, this time in her other breast 

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‘It was awful,’ says Jess. ‘I thought there must be some mistake. Even my surgeon couldn’t comprehend how I had got cancer again so soon and that it was nothing to do with the first tumour. My husband, Matt, was shocked. Nobody could believe what was happening.’

About 55,000 women and 400 men in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year – about one case every ten minutes. Huge advances in treatment in the past decade mean nine out of ten are still alive five years after being diagnosed.

However, survival rates tend to be lower if the tumour – known as the primary cancer – has migrated to other parts of the body, such as the other breast, lungs, liver or brain. This is known as a secondary cancer, and is not the same as developing a new type of cancer.

Some research suggests that people who have previously had cancer have a heightened risk of developing a second primary tumour at some point later in life, but cases where this occurs within months are almost unheard of.

Jess – who has an eight-year-old son, Stanley, and a two-year-old daughter, Ines – was only 36 in 2022 when she discovered a lump in her right breast while nursing newborn Ines. She raised it with her GP but, at the time, was not worried that the lump could be cancer. ‘I thought it was probably a blocked milk duct or a cyst – I was way too young for it to be cancer,’ she says.

But a biopsy at the Royal United Hospitals Bath confirmed that not only did Jess have breast cancer, but it was a very rare type of tumour. Called metaplastic squamous cell carcinoma, the disease accounts for less than two per cent of breast cancer cases. The causes are largely unknown. ‘It’s so rare that I got scared they might not know how to treat it,’ Jess admits.

What makes Jess's case even more remarkable – and terrible – is that she has no family history of breast cancer, which is a key factor that determines the likelihood of cancer occurring

What makes Jess’s case even more remarkable – and terrible – is that she has no family history of breast cancer, which is a key factor that determines the likelihood of cancer occurring

What makes Jess’s case even more remarkable – and terrible – is that she has no family history of breast cancer, which is a key factor that determines the likelihood of cancer occurring. Subsequent DNA testing also revealed no obvious genetic mutations that increased Jess’s risk of the disease.

What followed was a tough treatment regime of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy – drugs which train the immune system fight off the cancer. Jess also had a mastectomy – the surgical removal of her right breast.

By the time the tumour was removed, it had grown to about 7.5cm – roughly the size of a peach.

‘I found the chemotherapy really tough. I managed to avoid losing too much of my hair but the fatigue was crippling. I’d be talking to Matt on the sofa one second and zonked out the next. It was so bad I couldn’t be left alone with Ines, who was a baby at the time.’

A CT scan in November brought the news Jess had longed for: the cancer was gone. ‘It felt like I had been suffocating for 18 months and I could breathe again,’ she says.

She was so relieved she almost didn’t attend her annual breast cancer screening on her remaining left breast a few weeks later.

As people who experience breast cancer early in life are deemed at risk of recurrence, they are invited for an X-ray to screen for it, called a mammogram, every year after their treatment until they reach 50. They are then invited for routine screenings, offered to all women aged 50 to 71 every three years.

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Younger women are not offered mammograms as their risk of developing the disease is low, but are encouraged to regularly check their breasts for lumps.

Jess changed her mind about not attending the screening after a cancer nurse explained that a mammogram can often spot cancer cells missed by a CT scan. The decision may have saved her life.

‘A week or so later I got a letter from the NHS breast screening service to say it had highlighted something suspicious in my left breast that needed investigating,’ she says. ‘I started hyperventilating. It was a really tough moment.’

Jess underwent another biopsy, and in January was given the gut-wrenching news that she had breast cancer for a second time.

The new tumour is different from the first – a ductal carcinoma in situ, a very early form of the disease which affects milk ducts.

Jess has now undergone a second mastectomy and is about to embark on chemotherapy. ‘I’m still in a state of shock but also hopeful as it has been caught early,’ she says.

Experts say it is crucial that women who have had breast cancer do not put off screening.

‘Anyone who’s had breast cancer in one of their breasts has a slightly higher risk of developing a new primary breast cancer,’ says Sally Kum, associate director of nursing and health information at Breast Cancer Now.

‘That’s why it’s vital that they continue to check their breasts and get anything unusual checked.’

Jess agrees: ‘I’m so glad I had my mammogram. I’d urge all women who get the chance to do so and anyone too young for screening to check their breasts regularly.’

To take part in Breast Cancer Now’s Pink Ribbon Walk go to breastcancernow.org/prw

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