Breast cancer survivor claims fake tan saved her life

Mother, 30, reveals how ‘blocked milk duct’ she discovered while putting on fake tan during her first pamper night after giving birth turned out to be fast-growing breast cancer

  • Lorna Cobb, 30, from Aberdeenshire, found the lump during a pamper session
  • At first the new mum believed the mass could be a blocked milk duct
  • But then doctors diagnosed cancer, and she underwent gruelling chemo
  • Now Lorna wants people to check their breasts regularly as it could save lives

A new mother indulging in her first pamper night since giving birth has revealed how putting on fake tan saved her life – after discovering a lump in her breast that turned out to be cancer.

Lorna Cobb, 30, from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, decided to treat herself to some relaxing ‘self-care’ in June 2020 – two months after having daughter Elle McNelis – and applied a face mask, painted her nails and applied the bronzing product.

As she swept the tanning mitt across her left breast while applying the mousse Lorna, who had recently stopped breastfeeding, was stunned to discover a solid plum-sized lump.

But her initial fears that it was cancer were eased when doctors told her it was a blocked milk duct. 

Aberdeenshire-based Lorna Cobb, 30, celebrates finishing her cancer treatment, which she underwent just months after giving birth to daughter Elle McNelis  

Lorna Cobb, now 30, before her cancer diagnosis aged 29. The new mother from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire says she found the cancerous lump in her breast after applying fake tan during a post-baby pamper session

The student doctor advised Lorna, who lives with fiancé Ed McNelis, to repeatedly apply heat and vigorously massage the lump in her cleavage in a bid to ‘break it down’.

However Lorna, then 29, ended up being rushed to hospital one night two months later when she suddenly fell ill while trying to ‘break down’ the lump.

The senior early years practitioner was stunned when doctors diagnosed her with fast-growing HER-2-positive breast cancer, and told her she would need chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy.

After completing her final session of radiotherapy in July, Lorna is sharing her ordeal to urge people to regularly check themselves and seek medical help if they experience unusual symptoms. 

Lorna started round two of her chemotherapy in November 2020. She went through treatment while studying for a BA in Childhood Studies at the Open University through Aberdeen University.

‘Doing my fake tan saved my life,’ Lorna said. ‘I was applying the tan from my neck down to my chest and as I was doing it I felt something hard, then I took off the mitt and had a feel.   

‘When I grabbed onto it I could feel the lump in my hand, it was the size of a plum. I remember thinking, “Oh my god”, I totally didn’t expect it. 

‘I was meant to be giving myself some self-care to make myself relaxed and I went from super-chilled to super-stressed in the space of five minutes.

‘I was pretty panicked and spoke to Ed about it.

The new mother wearing a cold cap during chemo. Lorna underwent gruelling months of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy after being diagnosed with HER-2-positive breast cancer

‘He had a feel and said ‘you’ve just had a baby, your hormones are all over the place. It’ll probably be nothing but it’s better to be safe than sorry so phone the GP and see what they say’.

‘Then we were on Google all night.’

The first-time mum scoured the internet for answers, finding it could be any number of outcomes.

However Lorna felt comforted when she turned to her mum friends on a WhatsApp group who said it was likely to be a blocked milk duct.

Lorna said: ‘I’m on a WhatsApp group full of mums and most already have kids. They all said it’d be a blocked milk duct as I’d just stopped breastfeeding.

‘I was totally unaware that the milk can get trapped in a duct and it can produce a lump.

‘As soon as I read that I was super reassured and thought that’s what it must be as the timing was too coincidental for it not to be that.

‘Online it mentioned other things – benign cysts, hormonal changes – there were literally hundreds of things it could be – and then obviously there was cancer as well.’

Days later Lorna attended a GP appointment and was assessed by a student doctor who said it appeared to be a blocked milk duct.

Lorna, who experienced hair loss as a result of her cancer treatment, is now calling on others to  check their breasts regularly and ‘know their normal’, so that if they experience any changes they can get medical treatment straight away

Lorna said: ‘I went in and it was a student doctor that saw me. She had a feel about and asked what my main worry was.

‘I said it was breast cancer because I knew they’re associated with lumps in your chest.  

‘I don’t blame her for thinking it was a blocked milk duct. I could have gone to the highest doctor and just because of the timing they would have sent me away as well thinking it was that.

‘She told me to put heat on it as it would break down the blockage. She said to stand in the shower with the shower head pointing towards where it is and massage it out. 

‘I’ve never had a blocked milk duct before but everyone in the mums group was like “Yeah you’ve got to really go for it, massage it and break it down”. 

‘I tried to do it but I kept putting it off because it didn’t feel right poking about at it, it was like my intuition telling me that I shouldn’t be touching it.’   

One evening at the beginning of August 2020, when Ed was working away, Lorna decided to take matters into her own hands and vigorously massage the lump in a bid to shift the blockage. 

Lorna was rushed to A&E after massaging the mass – which she believed to be a blocked milk duct – and  getting odd symptoms, including feeling weak, numb, and dizzy

The brave young woman had called for an ambulance thinking she was suffering from mastitis – only to later learn that she would have to endure months of surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy for cancer

Lorna said: ‘One night I remember thinking, “I’m going to have to go for this” because it was starting to be painful, it was a constant, dull ache. 

‘I got into the bath and massaged it to try and get the lump out. It should just unblock and your milk starts coming out, but it wasn’t. 

‘I remember lying in the bath then all of a sudden I felt really ill, I felt sick touching it.

‘It felt like I was getting a temperature and my left-hand side started to feel really weak and numb. I just felt really uneasy and dizzy.

‘I went onto a mums’ Facebook group and described my symptoms and someone said it sounded like mastitis and to ring 111, which I did.

‘The operator sent an ambulance round as they were concerned about some of my symptoms.

‘When the paramedics had a look they said when you get mastitis your whole breast goes really red and mine wasn’t.

‘They could feel the lump and said because some of my symptoms weren’t sitting right that they were going to take me to A&E.’

Lorna Cobb – pictured with her fiancé Ed McNelis and daughter Elle McNelis – discovered a lump in her breast after applying fake tan. At first she thought it was a block milk duct, but was later diagnosed with cancer

‘So grateful’: Lorna says her fiancé Ed is ‘amazing’ and did everything while she was suffering from cancer – including the shopping, cooking, cleaning childcare

Lorna was rushed to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (ARI) where doctors ran tests including a chest x-ray and referred her to the breast clinic.

Six weeks later, after undergoing an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy, newly-engaged Lorna was told the devastating news that she had breast cancer.

Lorna said: ‘I didn’t hear anything else after the doctor said the words ‘breast cancer’.

‘At home I sat at the top of the stairs and I got so upset. I’ve never experienced a panic attack but I felt like I was about to have one.

The 30-year-old took pictures to celebrate her final chemotherapy session. She wants to share her images and story to make cancer less of a ‘taboo’ topic

The cancer survivor says it’s surreal how many girls have been affected by cancer in their 20s. She believes if more people learn more about the condition, they will be better able to advocate for themselves

‘It was like a nightmare, I kept thinking: “I’ve just had a baby, I’m only 29, I’m going to die”.

‘Then after the initial shock I wanted to know everything about it.’

The surgeon said the biopsy confirmed Lorna had HER2-positive breast cancer and recommended she undergo chemotherapy before having surgery.

On October 26th 2020 Lorna underwent the first of six gruelling rounds of chemo – all while finishing her BA in Childhood Studies Open University course through Aberdeen University.

On top of going through her treatment, Lorna also managed to complete a BA in Childhood Studies Open University course through Aberdeen University

Scared she would die: After her diagnosis, Lorna initially says she was worried the disease would kill her,  but after the initial shock she wanted to know everything about it

Determined Lorna then had surgery at BMI Albyn Hospital on March 15th 2021 before having 15 sessions of radiotherapy that she completed on July 28th.

Lorna said she wouldn’t have been able to cope with her diagnosis and treatment without her dog walking business owner fiancé Ed.

Lorna said: ‘I can’t give Ed enough credit for what he’s done.

‘You see a lot of relationships going through this and it breaks them but he’s so positive – I can’t put into words how amazing he is.

‘He did everything – the shopping, cooking, cleaning and he looked after Elle. And I am super grateful for all the medical staff and treatment I’ve had access to.’

A life saver: Lorna holds a bottle of tanning mousse – the product she believes saves her life after she found a cancerous mass while applying it

Lorna – alongside fiancé Ed McNelis and daughter Elle McNelis – rings a bell to signal the end of her ‘active treatment’. She will be kept under the watchful eye of doctors and experts and undergo maintenance treatment and check-ups for the next few years

Lorna has finished her ‘active’ treatment but will be kept under the watchful eye of doctors and experts and undergo maintenance treatment and check-ups for the next few years.

Now Lorna is urging people to undertake regular self-examinations and ‘know their normal’ so that if they experience any changes they can get medical treatment straight away.

What is HER-2-positive breast cancer? 

Some breast cancers have too much of a protein (receptor) called HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) on the surface of their cells. 

This is called HER2-positive breast cancer. 

The extra HER2 protein encourages the cancer cells to divide and grow. B

etween 15 and 20 out of every 100 women with breast cancer (15 to 20%) have HER2-positive cancers. 

Specific targeted therapy drugs are used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer. 

They lock on to the HER2 protein and stop the cells dividing and growing. 

Source: Macmillan Cancer Support

Lorna said: ‘When I was diagnosed I thought: “Can this even happen when you’re 29?”. I was so oblivious.

‘Through the cancer community on social media it’s surreal how many girls have been affected by it in their 20s.

‘It’s quite a taboo topic, a lot of people don’t like talking about cancer, but I feel it’s important to have those conversations.

‘As you see in the adverts one in two people are going to be affected by cancer in their lifetime.

‘If they’ve not been exposed to things to look out for and what kinds of treatments there are on offer, you go in blind and you don’t know how to advocate for yourself.

‘I would very, very rarely check myself when I was in the shower. I would have a brief look but I wasn’t vigorously checking them every month.

‘If I hadn’t done my fake tan I might not have noticed it when I did as when I wash in the shower I use a body pouffe – I’m not physically touching my skin.

‘The only other way I might have noticed it is if I had my exfoliating gloves on and I was going over my chest area.

‘I wasn’t very aware of what my “normal” was before all this happened.

‘It’s obvious but no-one’s told it’s your responsibility to look after your health and know your normal.

‘If you check once a month you would know and be able to get early treatment.’ 

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