‘I lost my hair and had to quit PSNI, but it’s a small price to pay in cancer battle’

Wendy began losing her hair during her treatment and asked her husband to shave her head
Wendy began losing her hair during her treatment and asked her husband to shave her head

Having secured what she describes as her dream job Wendy Walker was determined to perform her duties as a police officer in Northern Ireland for a full term of 30 years.

However a cruel twist of fate meant her determination was required elsewhere, to get through a highly traumatic chapter in her life which ultimately led to an untimely end to her career with the PSNI.

Wendy in uniform

Wendy in uniform

In the space of four weeks the 53-year-old went through two surgeries to remove two different types of cancer from her right breast. During the second operation another tumour that had not been spotted was removed “by luck”.

Wendy first found a lump on the evening of December 15, 2016 while watching TV at home with her husband Nigel.

Up until then the Co Down mother of two had been on top of the world: “I turned 50 in September 2016. I’d never felt as well in all my life. Nigel and I celebrated my birthday with a lovely 12-night Mediterranean cruise.

“In December our two boys were home from university for Christmas. It was December 15, the nest was full. I was prepping for Christmas. Everyone was happy, I felt great, life was good.

Wendy and Nigel with their sons Matthew (left) and Alexander (right)

Wendy and Nigel with their sons Matthew (left) and Alexander (right)

“Nigel and I were lying in the family room watching a movie, I had a strange feeling in my right shoulder. I ran my hand down my chest onto my breast and found a lump.

“I said to Nigel to feel it. I joke about this, he never misses an opportunity.

“He couldn’t feel anything. A while later I could still feel the sensation. I know my body. I knew it shouldn’t be there. Next time he felt the lump. Calmly as he does he said, ‘I think maybe you should see the doctor in the morning’.”

Her GP recommended a mammogram: “I got an appointment on the Monday night at the Ulster Independent Clinic. I was due to start nightshift on the Friday night, for three nights, three 12-hour shifts. I went to work and I did the three night shifts. I didn’t say to anyone, Nigel was the only one who knew I’d found a lump.

The cover of Wendy's book

The cover of Wendy's book

“I didn’t know then that would be my last shifts with the police service.”

On the Monday night Wendy and Nigel went to the Ulster Clinic for a mammogram which did not pick up anything untoward.

Wendy then had an ultrascan and a biopsy which revealed what she had sensed since December 15, that she had breast cancer.

She said: “My world stopped turning at that point. I looked at Nigel and he was as white as a ghost. We were the last ones in the Ulster Clinic that night.”

Wendy with her husband Nigel

Wendy with her husband Nigel

She said: “Before my diagnosis I just thought breast cancer was breast cancer. I’ve learnt so much. I was diagnosed with ER+ invasive ductal breast cancer. What that means is my cancer is driven by oestrogen.

“At that stage it was going to be a lumpectomy where they remove the tumour and a wide margin around the tumour. They take out your sentinel lymph node to see if it’s travelled to your lymph nodes. They would also be taking some tissue shavings.”

She was scheduled for surgery on the January 23, 2017: “I still had it in my head that we’ll get all that done, get the radiotherapy and I’ll be back to work in three months.

“The big girl will be back to work.”

The results were given to Wendy and her husband on February 8: “It was the worst news ever. I was told that whilst the surgery was a success and they got the tumour away they’d found more cancer, a different type of cancer in the same breast – ductal carcinoma in situ. That’s where the cancer is still inside the ducts but it hasn’t broken out yet. The problem was they couldn’t tell how far it had spread.

“At that point I was given the choice of whether or not to have my breast removed. For me that was the only option.

Wendy's fundraiser for Friends of the Cancer Centre raised �3683

Wendy's fundraiser for Friends of the Cancer Centre raised �3683

“Our world probably stopped turning that day as well.”

Wendy was scheduled for surgery on February 20, four weeks after the first surgery: “They took the breast away and gave me an implant. The surgeon came to my bedside to give me the results. Again he said the operation had went well, but they found a second tumour, it was the same type as the first one they’d removed.

“It was in same breast, round the side. It was the pathologist who found it when dissecting the tissue that had been removed. It had been removed by luck, they didn’t even know it was there.”

Wendy, who is a member of Banbridge Road Presbyterian Church in Dromore, said: “I’ve a really strong faith and I think God was looking after me. I dread to think where I would have been if I’d only had a lumpectomy.”

Instead of getting radiotherapy, Wendy now required chemotherapy.

She still held out hope she could return to her job as a police sergeant: “Even when I was going through my chemo I thought I’d be going back to work. I was a ‘30-year girl’, I joined the police service to do 30 years. I started in 1990, I was going to retire in June of this year.”

Both Wendy and her husband Nigel are former police officers. She said: “We’ve lived our lives in the closet because of Northern Ireland and the way things are.

“My job was so important to me. It was always my dream to become a police officer, I was quite ambitious as well. I wanted to go up the ranks however I became a mummy and things changed. I got up as far as sergeant, I was studying for inspector when I got sick.

“When I realised post surgery and post chemo that my health was so bad I knew I wasn’t fit to go back, I struggled with that. I cried a lot. I didn’t want to go, but equally I didn’t want to go back if I wasn’t able to do the job I did before. “I also didn’t want to have any regrets, if the cancer came back and I should have been at home spending time with my family.”

“I had every side effect that you could think of – I was unlucky that way – but I fought hard, I pushed forward and stayed positive,” said Wendy, who grew up in Rathfriland and still lives in Co Down.

“Losing my hair was huge. I was known around home because of my big hair. I had a horses’s mane, when I went to the hairdresser I needed two people to blow dry my hair. I miss my hair but it’s a small price to pay to be here.”

She explained how she took control of her hair loss: “To give me a sense of empowerment after my first surgery I had it cut shorter, and then before I started chemo I got it cut shorter again, just so I was in control.

“It started falling out at day 15 after the first chemo, it had started to die before that. My head had got so sore – it’s known as inflamed hair follicles – so Nigel shaved it off for me. I became a GI Jane.”

She continued: “I lost my fingernails and toenails and the skin from the soles of my feet. I developed cording in my arm after surgery known as web auxiliary syndrome.

“I always was a strong person, I was so positive throughout. I had some really dark low days. We kept getting things thrown at us, the goalposts kept moving.”

Wendy had another two scares in the shape of a suspected blood clot in her chest and a concerning nodule on her right lung. Since her course of chemotherapy ended she has developed peripheral neuropathy.

She said: “It’s a numbness that doesn’t go away. I’ve had extremely bad pains in my feet and a few falling episodes. I’ve no feeling in my upper arm, you could stick pins in it.

“What I will say is the surgery and chemotherapy have left behind some stuff but for me it’s a small price.”

Her husband Nigel, who retired from the police around 10 years ago, said: “I’ve done a few other jobs since then. I continued to work during Wendy’s treatment for some normality.

“I continued to work until April last year before I called it a day. I’m now at Wendy’s side all the time to help her all through the day and if she needs to get out of bed at night.”

He added: “The only way I can describe chemo is it’s a horrendous fantastic drug. It deals with what it has to do but there are effects from it.”

The day after Wendy was diagnosed with breast cancer she began keeping a journal of her experience.

It had proved extremely therapeutic though she had no plans to go public with her notes until she was guided by God.

She said: “The night I was diagnosed the next day Nigel said to me I think you should write things down.

“Every day for 15 months, from diagnosis to medical retirement, I kept a journal. I wrote it just for me – it was a great friend, I could tell it everything. It was good for the mind.

“As I got a better and stronger I thought if I can help one woman that comes behind me to understand what you go through then it’s worth sharing my journal.

“None of my family have had cancer. If someone had asked me what to expect I’d have said sickness, tiredness and you lose your hair. Well, oh my days it’s 100 times more than that.”

Wendy, who raised £3,683 for Friends of the Cancer Centre via a coffee morning (above), added: “The journals stayed closed for some time while I prayed for guidance. I believe I was guided by God to bring them out. It was painful to read them again.”

Wendy used the journals as the basis for a book called ‘It’s Not The End’: “It’s not just about the women going through it, it’s about the people close to them.

“They need to know it’s not the end. They need to know what it’s really like.”

Wendy had debated with her husband when to tell her family about the cancer diagnosis given that Christmas was approaching.

She said: “I was so conscious of not wanting to upset anyone, the boys would be devastated and my mummy would be such a worrier.It was in my mind to leave it until after Christmas to let everyone have a happy Christmas.

“On the night we got the diagnosis I’d told the boys we were going Christmas shopping rather than the truth. They’d asked us to bring them home some supper so we’d brought home a Chinese. In the midst of the chaos, the boys had to come first.

“After their supper I called them into the room and just told them that I’d been to the hospital and had been told I had breast cancer.

“Well, you could have heard them screaming six miles away. They were hysterical. They hugged me that tight I could hardly breathe. My two boys are my world, the four of us are such a close unit.

“They kept saying, ‘why you mummy, you’re the best mummy in the world’. I never once said, ‘why me’. My friends did, some of my family did, but I never did. I said, ‘it has to be somebody’.

“You know what, I think it has made me a better person.

“I’m now living the new normal, as the new Wendy. Life has changed, I love being at home.

“I’ve started baking, I’ve taken on wee hobbies, I can fill my day the very best.

“Both the boys have graduated and are living over the water. I’m so proud of them, I made them promise me whenever I was diagnosed that they wouldn’t give up on their dreams.

“I have a huge friend network, throughout my whole journey I couldn’t have got through it without my friends.”

Wendy and her husband also paid tribute to her work colleagues who supported her and the doctors and nurses she encountered.

Nigel said: “I know they’re under pressure at the minute but our experience with the National Health Service is that they’re the most fantastic institution that there is.”

Wendy commented: “I was treated with utmost compassion. I was treated as Wendy, I wasn’t a number.”