35-year-old Samantha Vale was at the top of her game working in the performing arts industry. And life as a choreographer and movement director had never been so busy. She had just booked a flight to do some choreography work in Vietnam and was busy packing when she absently ran her hand over her chest and felt a lump in her right breast. Although she called the doctors straight away, the follow-up breast unit appointment was not available for two weeks so she decided not to cancel her trip.
Samantha had been dancing since the age of seven. Her career took off after she left school, as she became an accomplished dancer and performer, often on TV and film, with the occasional BBC Top of the Pops appearance thrown in. As a single parent to her two children of 6 and 8, she’d recently been focusing more on choreography and found her skills much in demand.
When she returned from Vietnam she booked in to have the lump examined and went through the usual ultrasound and biopsy. She had been warned by Clinicians at the breast unit that it probably was a small cancer but, not to worry, they had caught it early. And despite finding 9 more hidden tumours in both her breasts, Samantha was told her cancer, which was a mixture of grade 1, 2, and DCIS cancers, was treatable and a double mastectomy was scheduled. When the surgery had taken place, doctors confirmed it had not spread into her lymph nodes, so Samantha decided to decline chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
It was a tough time after the mastectomy, especially when her mother died five days after her operation, but Samantha carried on with life as best she could, going back to work despite knowing deep down she wasn’t over it, emotionally. “I didn’t consider my headspace, I just went into survival mode,” Sam said. The only cathartic process she could manage at that stage was to document her breast cancer experience through photography. “I guess I was a little bit in denial, but perhaps, deep down, I knew it wasn’t the end,” she said.
And unfortunately for Sam, she was right. About six months after her mastectomy, when scrolling through Instagram, she found a post urging women to check their armpits. “It wasn’t even something I’d considered,” said Sam. But when she checked she found a lump and called her consultant who reassured her it was merely scar tissue. But Sam was not convinced and insisted they were checked. “Thank goodness I did. I knew it had already gone into my lymph nodes.”
Unfortunately, this meant having chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, during which Samantha lost her hair. She took the decision to shave her head before the chemotherapy, so her children could see it was a personal choice, rather than a result of treatment. She found the chemotherapy very tough and had quite bad reactions to some of the drugs.
Sam, having only recently finished her treatment after eighteen months, is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the reason she wanted to become a Breast Cancer UK Ambassador and help others who are going through the same journey. Sam is passionate about prevention and feels it’s crucial. “It’s important to feel that you, yourself, can make some kind of difference. You don’t always have to rely on someone in a white coat.”
These days you’ll find Sam not only doing her regular job but also busy helping others with Breast Cancer. She’s started the Boobless website, to shine a light on people who, like her, choose not to have a reconstruction. She also formed the Bounceback Club aiming to support women who have been through any kind of adversity. “It’s not necessarily to help women bounce back to where they were,” said Sam, “because that may not be realistic. But just to help them bounce back up.”
Breast Cancer UK is working to prevent women like Samantha from having to go through the devastating effects of this terrible disease. We can only do this with your support, please donate today to support our work, thank you.
Photography credit: Amy Cassidy