‘I can’t believe the journey I’ve been on’ - Norwich salon owner defies the odds to celebrate nine years cancer free
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Sitting in her serene city salon, Sue Leeming looks the picture of health, with the only clue she was ever ill being the two pink breast cancer ribbons tattooed on her left wrist.
But Ms Leeming now say she wakes up every day 'in awe' as she celebrates nine years free of cancer, after she thought the aggressive disease would take her life, as it had her mother's.
Ms Leeming, 51, was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 10, 2008.
Following her mother's death from the same cruel illness in 2001 she was strict about checking her own breasts. And one morning, June 28, 2008, she felt something.
'I knew what it was,' she said. 'I had felt my mum's lump, and there it was an inch by an inch just below my right breast.'
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For the previous few years, Ms Leeming had lived what she admitted was a party lifestyle, working as a hairdresser and 'living the dream' on the Spanish Costa Del Sol.
Even when she and her husband returned to live in Norwich, she took a busy management job in the city.
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After a doctor's appointment the next day, Ms Leeming had an appointment at the Norfolk and Norwich University hospital on July 10 where they confirmed the lump was cancer.
'I knew I had it anyway,' she said. 'I just knew.
'At that moment, I thought I was going to die. I thought mum died so I'm going to die.'
And she is convinced her living such a stressful, full-on lifestyle, including the chemicals used in the salon she worked at, played a part in the development of her cancer.
'It was an answer to how I'd been feeling for so long,' she said.
Consultants told Ms Leeming, who lives in the Golden Triangle, she would need a mastectomy.
'But they told me I was very lucky to have caught the lump as it was weeks from spreading. I knew years of checking myself regularly had paid off.'
By August 18, Ms Leeming was back at the hospital ready for surgery. But afterwards her surgeon, Maged Hussein, told her things had not quite gone to plan.
'He said 'I'm so sorry we've had to cut you further than we thought to get rid of the cancer. You're so slim, at one point we didn't know how we were going to sew you up'.'
Ms Leeming was left with a 10in scar, when she expected one of three or four inches. The severity of her cancer was truly shown when consultant oncologist Dr Daniel Eperescu told her it was grade three. Had it been found weeks later, it could have killed her.
And tests showed her particular type of cancer was oestrogen-receptor-positive, which meant the cancer cells, like normal breast cells, may receive signals from oestrogen that could promote their growth.
'My oestrogen levels were 195, when the average is 35, and I was told levels of oestrogen like that had never been seen before,' she said.
Next came a gruelling course of chemotherapy, but Ms Leeming also sought out alternative treatment which saw her give up dairy, meat and live a healthier life - a complete contrast to how she previously lived. At the same time she returned to work, but this was not without a struggle. At one point she was washing her hair when it started to come out in clumps.
'But I thought I was a strong person before cancer, and I knew I could be a strong person after cancer too.'
By March 2009, Ms Leeming started injections every 11 weeks to control her oestrogen levels and stop the cancer coming back. But she was told she would have to take these for five years.
'I didn't even think I was going to live another year, let alone five,' she said.
Ms Leeming was working in a city salon. But she soon began to feel restless, and followed her dream of opening her own salon.
'Everyone thought I was mad,' she said. But the salon opened in March 2010, focused on being more eco and environmentally friendly.
By 2013, Ms Leeming said her marriage of 14 years had sadly broken down. Throwing herself into her work and dedicating herself to her dogs Tea and Coco, by November last year she was ready to stop the injections and start on a drug called Arimidex.
'But because I've survived so long now they don't have anyone to compare me to,' she added.
Now, she's looking towards the future, with new opportunities. She said: 'You never get over having breast cancer, you never get over having a 10in scar. I can't believe the journey I've been on. I love every day.'
Now, Ms Leeming feels she is strong enough to give back and lend her experience to charity the Big C and to help at a new wellness centre set up by Norwich model Kerri Parker and her mother Kathleen.
But this meant she would have to cut down her hours at the salon, FresHair and Barbers.
Drawing on her own experience, Ms Leeming previously trained with Trevor Sorbie in London, specialising in styling wigs for women who lose their hair through chemotherapy
'It was something I wanted to do, but when three people who had come to me for wigs died it knocked me for six. I was still going through it and thinking it was going to come back.'
But now she feels as if she's ready. She said: 'Now I want to go out and help women who are dealing with same thing I've dealt with.'
Ms Leeming thanked her friends, family and clients, and especially her oncologist Dr Eperescu and surgeon Mr Hussein.