Published in the Sunday Express 2019
This week we will share the story of this amazing women, mum, and wife who took a difficult decision which led her into early menopause. For the love of her family, mum-of three Dani Binnington took the brave decision to have a double mastectomy and her ovaries removed.
“I am taking positive steps towards good health and a happy life”
“It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I wake up in recovery to the distant bleeping of monitors, the nurse checking in on me and me worrying if everything had gone well. When I finally come around enough to ask, the nurse reassures me that the surgical removal of my ovaries (oophorectomy) had gone as planned. After a moment of relief, I just feel numb. Physically and emotionally.
It’s been a long journey.
I was going from being a healthy 39-year-old to a fully menopausal woman. Within hours of the surgery my sex hormones dropped to almost nothing. But it has meant I have drastically reduced my risks of ovarian cancer – the same cancer that took two of my aunts, a grandmother and a great-grandmother much too early.
As I lay there in recovery I knew it was the right thing for me to do. However, women who undergo surgical menopause before their natural menopause period, are at an increased risk of health problems, including heart disease and osteoporosis. In some cases, the effects of the menopause can be debilitating and only the future will tell how I’ll cope with it.
Six years ago, I discovered a cancerous lump in my left breast. This led to a lumpectomy to remove it, an axillary clearance to remove my lymph nodes, chemo and radiotherapy, while added complications meant stays in intensive care.
Although I had the most amazing support from my family and knew I was one of thousands of women who are diagnosed with cancer every day, I felt so alone. Alone with my fear that I would not see my little daughters grow up and start school. My twin girls were two at that time, my older daughter was four.
Between then and now lies a long road of transformation and recovery. Although there were always a few days in between chemo cycles that totally wiped me out, I think as a family we did pretty well. I made a pact with myself that I would get up every day and take my girls to nursery.
At that time, I received a book about how to manage the many side-effects of cancer treatment through diet. It was the first time I realized the link between the foods I ate and what’s happening inside my body. And although at that stage I only dipped my toe into the water, I felt I personally could do lots to support how I was coping and that felt great.
A blood test confirmed that I carry a mutation in my genetic make-up. I tested positive for the mutated BRCA1 gene – the so-called Angelina Jolie gene. The mutated gene means an increased risk of breast cancer of up to 85 per cent and an increased risk of ovarian cancer of up to 60 per cent from the age of 40.
Although I knew the chances that I was a carrier of the faulty gene were high, I remember being so upset when I found out. I felt disappointed, angry and low. Instead of focusing on finishing radiotherapy then getting on with the rest of my life, I knew I had another journey to embark on. A journey that I knew would be another “biggie”.
The mutated gene means an increased risk of breast cancer of up to 85 per cent and an increased risk of ovarian cancer of up to 60 per cent from the age of 40.
Although my genetic mutation had thrown cancer at me once, the chances of more breast cancers are high. So, two years after my diagnosis I underwent a risk-reducing double mastectomy. It took quite a while to recover from and it was painful. But on the upside, it did teach my girls to carry their own school bags from an early age. By that time, I was lucky enough to have seen my three girls start school.
Although I tried to carry on with life as normally as possible, I was mentally at an all-time low. I was incredibly anxious that my cancer could return, I obsessed over every little pain, always thinking it was more cancer. It was so hard for me to move on. By then I had changed my diet. I had tried lots of different things, went on the clean-eating bandwagon, went sugar free, dairy free, gluten free, cut out alcohol and anything else that I thought was ‘unhealthy’.
Weirdly, when my diet seemed the most healthy, my mental wellbeing was at an all-time low and I knew food alone wasn’t going to be enough for me to regain some strength.
After my mother-in-law ushered me to her weekly yoga class I kept going back. Yoga taught me to cultivate an awareness of my present moment. The times on the mat seemed like bliss – no worry about the future and not as much dwelling on my past.
I got hooked, so much so that today I teach classes and host retreats myself.
Aside from yoga I went to counselling and hypnotherapy and the simple principles of mindfulness helped me to start feeling better mentally.
I made another big change in how my family and I eat. After a nutrition course at Leiths School of Food and Wine, I shifted my focus on to all the amazing foods I wanted to eat. No more “free from” – just lots of family-friendly dishes with lots of vegetables that are full of nutrients to nourish us.
I believe it is this positive approach to food, in combination with my yoga and mindfulness practice, that has led me towards a full recovery. It seems as if I now have a toolbox of strategies I can use when times get tough.The decision to remove my ovaries long before I would naturally enter menopause was no light one to make. But since I have taken control over my own mental and physical wellbeing I trusted the process a lot more.
I trust that just like before, I will find ways that suit me and my body. I knew I would bounce back from surgery pretty quickly. I was back teaching my yoga classes within four days after the op.
After careful consideration with my medical team I’ve decided to go on hormone replacement therapy to minimize the effects of the menopause. This is not an option for all women, especially with a history of breast cancer.
But my specific type of breast cancer and the fact that I had a double mastectomy means it is safe for me to do so. Of course, that’s not ideal and it won’t suit everybody, but for me, for now, that’s a good thing to do.
I also know that by actively taking part in my own wellbeing I gain the most important thing – HOPE.
Here I am doing everything I can to decrease my risks of more cancers. I am living an active life and taking positive steps towards good health and a happy life.
Years ago, I felt hard done by that I had cancer at the age of 33 and a genetic mutation that massively increases my risks of more cancers.
Today I feel so lucky to know – and lucky that science gives us all these facts. And what’s more, that I am strong enough to deal with them and make informed decisions.”
Author and wellbeing expert Dani Binnington is the creator of online lifestyle site healthywholeme.com.