Actress Rebekah Gibbs on her breast cancer battle

Rebekah Gibbs and Gigi (Photo: Grant Triplow)

Rebekah Gibbs and Gigi (Photo: Grant Triplow)

I have been reading an interview with the former Casualty actress Rebekah Gibbs, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just nine weeks after her baby’s birth. Ironically her character Nina in Casualty had to deal with her sister’s breast cancer and in one scene cried as she shaved her sister’s long hair in preparation for treatment. Eighteen months later she found herself crying in real life when her own waist length hair was shorn in advance of chemotherapy.

Rebekah first discovered the lump in her left breast in December 2007, when she was 35 and seven months pregnant.  Now comes the scary part and this is not the first time I have heard of this happening to pregnant woment with breast cancer. In Rebekah’s own words:

“I had never checked my breasts before, but I instantly felt cold when I felt this lump. I hadn’t been feeling unwell, but something made me worry so much that I went to the doctor the next day. She diagnosed a blocked breast duct, something that’s very common in pregnancy, and offered me antibiotics. I didn’t take them, as I didn’t want to take any kind of medication while I was pregnant.”

But Rebekah continued to feel uneasy about the lump. ‘I avoided touching it. I just wanted it to go,’ she says.

Even after Gigi was born in January 2008 and Rebekah began breastfeeding, the lump remained (blocked ducts usually resolve themselves once breastfeeding starts). But a locum GP assured her it was nothing to worry about.

‘But I had a friend who’d had blocked ducts and, unlike her, I didn’t have any pain, and that worried me. So I insisted on a referral to a specialist – just in case.

‘The appointment wasn’t for another seven weeks, so I just had to sit tight and wait.

‘I tried not to think about the lump, but occasionally my hand would stray across it and I would start to worry about it again.’

A few weeks later, and still several weeks before her specialist appointment, Rebekah learnt a friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Worried, she went back to her GP.

‘This time, my GP said the lump felt different and she wanted me to have a scan straight away,’ says Rebekah.

‘I knew then by the look on her face that it was cancer, but she couldn’t get me seen by a specialist until the next day. I was out of my head with worry. I was standing in the corridor with Gigi, crying, and all I wanted was someone to tell me there and then if it was cancer.”

Things happened quickly after that. Rebekah was diagnosed with grade 3 cancer, underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was discovered that her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She says that she was scared but also very angry that the cancer had not been caught sooner. And I can certainly identify with that, having had the same experience with my GP dismissing my lump as a cyst and the length of time between first presenting to her with the lump and seeing a specialist being four months – four crucial months lost while the cancer grew rapidly in my breast.

‘I respect my GP and think she is great, but I now know that any suspicious lump should be referred to a specialist. ‘My anger is gone now, but I would urge other women to insist on a referral if they’re worried.’ says Rebekah.

Rebekah is one of around a fifth of patients  who have HER2 breast cancer, a faster-growing form of the disease. HER2 is a protein found naturally in the body. It is also found on some gastric and breast-cancer cells. It attracts a chemical called human epidermal growth factor, which stimulates the cancer cells to grow more quickly than normal. Even after treatment, women with this form of cancer are at greater risk of the disease recurring.

To prevent this, they are given Herceptin, a drug that effectively stops the HER2 protein. It has a considerable success rate, reducing the risk of the cancer returning by half. However, Rebekah has opted for another approach. Last November she became one of 400 British women taking part in the trial of new treatment, Lapatinib. This drug is already used to treat women with advanced breast cancer who no longer respond to other treatments, but it’s thought it could also be more effective than Herceptin in reducing cancer recurrence.

The results of the trial – which involves 8,000 women in 50 countries – won’t be known for two years, but oncologists believe it could prove a breakthrough.

This is not the only thing Rebekah is doing to reduce her risk of the cancer returning. She and her fiancÈ Ashley, 42, have also taken the heartbreaking decision not to extend their family. 

Although pregnancy doesn’t increase the risk of cancer, some tumours can be encouraged to grow by the presence of oestrogen, which is in abundance during pregnancy.

‘None of the doctors will tell us for sure that the pregnancy is what triggered the cancer, but there was no strong history of it in my family.

‘If I became pregnant again, I would be worried all the time that there was a ticking time bomb inside me. Every time I had an energy drop, I’d worry the cancer had returned.’

But the decision not to have more children has clearly not been an easy one, and Rebekah had gone to great lengths to protect her fertility during her cancer treatment.

Before each dose of chemotherapy, she was injected with a drug called Zoladex to shut down her ovaries – cancer treatment targets fastgrowing cells, which means it would affect the ovaries, too. 

‘My periods started again two months after the chemotherapy stopped, so I am pretty sure I could have more children if I wanted to,’ she says, adding: ‘We didn’t intend for Gigi to be an only child.’

She says: ‘Sometimes I look at her playing alone in her Wendy house and think “Oh poor thing, all alone”, but I remind myself we are lucky to have one healthy child.

‘We would consider adopting – I think that would be a brilliant thing to do – but only after I have gone into remission.’

‘Cancer has changed me, that’s for sure. I never used to have down times, but now I do. On the other hand, if there is something to celebrate then I really go to town, because life’s too short.

You can read Rebekah’s interview in the Daily Mail today.