"Grow through what you go through" is the affirmation that Mikki Phipps has chosen to be on this year's Tickled Pink T-shirt designs. It's a phrase that's particularly poignant for her given everything she's been through – and is still going through – over the past five years.
The 30-year-old from West Sussex says breast cancer has enabled her to have experiences and meet people she wouldn't otherwise have met.
"I'm someone who used to get so stressed about work all the time. And most of it was stress that I placed on myself unnecessarily and that's completely changed for me. My priorities have changed and I am actually a lot more content than I ever used to be.
"I think everything is an opportunity to develop as a person and life is what you make it. You can take opportunities and choose to see the positive in them and the chance to grow and the chance to take any goodness that you can out of it. Or you can let it affect your life in a negative way.
"I could waste my time feeling sad about everything that is happening to me and everything that I'm going through, but I'd much rather try and spend my time trying to make memories with people and use the new perspective that it's given me on things."
Mikki has been supported by Breast Cancer Now. For this year's Tickled Pink campaign, Breast Cancer Now asked supporters to share their confidence-boosting slogans or positive affirmations that have helped them through their breast cancer diagnosis. From the many affirmations sent in, Mikki's phrase was one of the final three chosen to appear on a T-shirt.
Along with Mikki's "Grow through what you go through" message the other two chosen were, "I am a beautiful masterpiece" and "Tip toe if you must but take a step".
The T-shirts are available in selected Asda stores and online here at George.com. Ten percent of sales will be donated to Breast Cancer Now and CoppaFeel!
Mikki was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2018. At the time she and her husband Tom had started trying for a family and so Mikki chose to have her eggs frozen through IVF before starting her treatment.
Around 15% of breast cancers are classed as triple negative and this form of breast cancer can be more aggressive than other forms of the disease. There are currently limited targeted treatments available for triple negative breast cancer and treatment is mostly limited to a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, which can come with gruelling side effects.
Although the initial diagnosis was a shock it wasn't entirely unexpected. "There's a lot of breast cancer in my family. My nan had breast cancer twice at that point and my mum had had her first diagnosis. I carry an altered BRCA gene so I knew there was a possibility I would be diagnosed too, but I didn't quite expect it as young as I was."
Mikki had chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy and in June 2019 she was told she had no evidence of disease. Then in early 2020 she found another lump in her breast.
"At first the doctors thought it had just come back just in the same area and they did scans just to be sure it hadn't spread any further. We had a plan in place for my recurrence, but that was when we found out the cancer had spread to my lungs. And that happened right at the beginning of March."
Mikki was diagnosed with secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer. Secondary breast cancer is not the same as breast cancer recurrence, it occurs when breast cancer cells spread from the first (primary) cancer in the breast through the lymphatic or blood system to other parts of the body. While secondary breast cancer can be treated, it cannot be cured.
The news was devastating in itself but was made worse by the timing of it – at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. Mikki was told to go home and self-isolate with her husband, just days before the whole country went into lockdown.
"I'd usually have had a chance to talk with a breast care nurse after being diagnosed, but they wanted to reduce my amount of time in hospital as much as possible, so they said, "We'll give you some information booklets and some contact details, but you need to go home."
"It was quite tough because for a very, very long time, I actually wasn't allowed to see any of my friends and family after my secondary diagnosis, which is obviously a time when you'd call on all of them. I think it was just as difficult for them not being able to be there for me.
"My mum did drop off a few care packages to us – she fed us for the first month because my mum takes care of me with food! And we kept in contact as much as we could virtually, but it was a very long time. And during COVID-19 was when my mum got diagnosed with breast cancer again, so she was going through chemo at the same time. So actually, the time when I came off treatment was when my mum went onto it. We were like ships passing in the night!"
As a result of her experiences, Mikki now has a very different perspective on time and on life in general.
"I think in my case, with my cancer being incurable, it kind of gives you that extra perspective, which I try and use to help keep me focused on not wasting time. That might mean going off on big holidays or it might just mean spending quality time with family at home. For me, it's about sort of having that balance and having a bit of a normal life as well, in between all of the chaos. It's pushed me to do things I wouldn't have done otherwise."
Mikki works in learning and development, creating training resources and says her work colleagues have been really supportive in giving her the time off and the flexibility she needs.
"I pretty much live from scan to scan because, obviously, if I get a scan and it shows progression, then it's straight onto the next line of treatment, which means that everything changes. The maximum amount of time I have where I have an idea of what I'm doing in the future is about three months."
Mikki spends much of her time creating memories with family and friends and has amassed loads of photos and videos she can look back on.
"I have a board in my chill-out room which only has on it things that have happened since my secondary diagnosis. It's a huge pinboard and it's already mostly full, so it's quite good for putting things in perspective. It means that at those times when I'm maybe not able to do so much, I can look and just remember all the things that I have done and say, well, actually going through treatment is allowing me to have those moments on my good days with the family. So one is necessary for the other."
Mikki also actively campaigns to help others living with triple negative secondary breast cancer. She was part of Breast Cancer Now's successful campaign to make the drug Trodelvy available to NHS patients throughout the UK.
Trodelvy is an effective new drug that could give certain women living with incurable triple negative secondary breast cancer the hope of more time. More time to enjoy with loved ones and to do things that matter most to them.
"It was literally a lifeline," says Mikki, who found out about it on social media.
Last year the drug was licensed for use across the UK, but was provisionally rejected for use in England because it wasn't deemed "cost effective" at its current price.
Mikki was among those who argued passionately that patients with secondary breast cancer deserved better and, thanks to her and Breast Cancer Now supporters who backed the Time For Trodelvy campaign, the decision was reversed in July 2022. Trodelvy will now finally be available on the NHS to the women who could benefit from it.
"This was a big one, because there are so few treatment lines that have come around for people with triple negative secondary breast cancer. Trodelvy is a huge lifeline for people and it's shown to be quite effective. For it not to be cost effective, that even an extra three months isn't worth it for us, that didn't sit well with me!
“I have had two doses and apart from navigating the new side effects, all is going well so far.”
Mikki's treatment also involves cyberknife surgery, a targeted form of radiotherapy, also known as radiosurgery. It's a relatively new treatment that involves sending beams of low radiation across the brain in ways that crisscross at key points to deliver higher doses of radiation where needed to reduce the tumours, minimising risk of harming healthy areas of the brain.
For Mikki, one of the hardest things she has had to come to terms with is that she will never have children.
"When I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer, we underwent fertility preservation before treatment. They collected my eggs so I could have a family one day. They advise you to wait for a period of time after finishing treatment, to make sure the cancer doesn't come back, before you start a family. And mine came back relatively quickly. With my secondary diagnosis, I am no longer able to start a family. The idea of not having a family has been very, very difficult, especially at my age when I have so many friends who are all having their children. That's been really difficult. And there's certainly been a grief with that.
"That's probably been one of the hardest things to cope with as well as the thought of the impact on my family afterwards. Because while I'm around, I can spend quality time with them and I can do things with them, but I lose control of what happens after I'm gone. But I trust that they'll be okay. They're all very close together and are some of the strongest people that I know."
Mikki believes communication is the key to getting through the toughest of times. She urges everyone to check their bodies regularly and to see a doctor if they're concerned about any possible signs of breast cancer.
She also has this advice for anyone who has recently been diagnosed: "Everyone will experience everything differently. There's no right or wrong way. That's something that I wish I had learned from the outset, because it's common to wonder whether you're being a "good cancer patient", whether you're doing the right thing. It's really bizarre, but it's very common and it's something that I went through. I think it's just about finding your own way and taking each day as it comes. You really do grow through what you go through.”