Meet Anastasia | Breast Cancer Survivor & Scarlett Jack Hairitage Founder

We spoke with Anastasia Cameron: a breast cancer survivor and the founder of Scarlett Jack Hairitage, a hair loss solutions service covered by the UK's NHS.

What is your personal cancer journey?

In 2021, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 35 years old. My first noticeable symptom wasn’t a lump in my breast, but a bit of blood in my bra. I’d had two children and assumed one had just knocked into me. But as a couple of days went by, I noticed the blood didn’t stop. I purposely wore lighter-colored bras to try to notice the blood spots more, and possibly see where on my breast the blood was coming from. Doctor Google informed me that this wasn’t at all normal, but also didn’t tell me what could be causing it. I decided to take myself to the doctor to find out what was going on. 

The doctor looked over me and sent me to the local breast clinic with an urgent referral. When the consultant took a look, there was a tiny lump on my nipple that resembled an open pore.  I had actually seen this before, but assumed it popped up after having my children since it had been there since my eldest child was born. The doctor sent me for a biopsy and ultrasound of the area. Luckily, this clinic was a one-stop clinic, so they could do all of the tests at once. The doctor assured me that this was likely a benign thing, a papilloma. I was far too young for cancer. I’d been panicking ever since seeing the blood in my bra, so hearing this calmed me down a lot. I just had to get through these scans “just in case.” 

When I returned to hear my results, the consultant/doctor I had seen before entered the room. After he walked in with a nurse holding a folder, I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. People don’t come into the room with folders if everything is okay. Luckily, I had brought my husband with me to that appointment. I wasn’t planning on bringing anyone as I was only expecting good news, but now I had extra support. 

“We’ve had your results back from your biopsy, and you do in fact have cancer.” I don’t think I said a word the whole time during that conversation. The only thing that came out of my mouth was “My kids.” I lost my mum when I was only 17. My mind was flooded with the thoughts of my kids losing me when they were so much younger. 

The doctor & nurse explained more things to me about the cancer, and absolutely none of it sunk in. They handed me a folder of leaflets. My husband had luckily listened when I couldn’t and gave me the good news that my cancer was non-invasive. I was in the “better-case scenario” of this horrible situation. 

After all of this, I went for a mammogram. I was still in shock at the news and likely should’ve gone home to rest for a day or two before going for more scans, but they wanted to get everything done as quickly as possible. When I got to the actual mammogram machine, I didn’t know what to do. I’m not overly big-chested, so the entire situation was rather humorous. I was trying to help the technicians get my breast into the machine, which felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a toastie maker (US: Panini Press). I had no idea how they were going to get me in there because I’m tiny. They were trying not to laugh but couldn’t help it. Finally, a bit of humour in this terrible situation.

After my mammogram, the doctor called me to the office again. Remember how my husband was told at the last appointment that my cancer was non-invasive? Now the doctors were telling me that my cancer was quite extensive. I was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) and told I would need a mastectomy. I just wanted the doctors to do what they needed to do to get this cancer out of me ASAP. A week before my mastectomy, the doctors sent me for a lymph node scan. 

Surgery day landed on my son’s second birthday, such awful timing. I was scheduled to go first in the operating room because I’ve got a bit of an allergy to latex. I put on my gown and the surgeon came in to see me. We were chatting in the curtained-off area of the hospital ward and I tried to calm my nerves. Someone called him out of the room, and when he returned, he was panicking. “I’ve just received the results from your lymph node scan, you have cancer in your nodes.”

At first, I was diagnosed with a non-invasive cancer. Then, I was diagnosed with invasive cancer. Now, my cancer is aggressive and spreading into my lymph nodes. I was absolutely mindblown at this point. The surgeon may have been amazing at his job, but his panic made me panic even more. He didn’t know whether to take me down to surgery and do a lymph node clearance with my mastectomy, or whether to send me home. All this information was going in one ear and out the other. The surgeon called my husband into the room, I got changed back into my clothes, and we were taken into a side room of the ward. 

The doctor comes in and explains that the scan revealed an aggressive form of breast cancer, HER2, in my lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and targeted therapy were the best course of action for me. We leave the hospital, I’m not getting a mastectomy anymore. I can’t even pay attention to what’s going on, but I was luckily able to spend a few hours with my son for his 2nd birthday. 

After that moment, I lost trust in doctors. It’s quite scary being in that situation. The surgeon received the results so late, none of the process I’d been through so far was organized. I was dealing with something life-threatening, and it didn’t feel like they were being careful. Why was my lymph node scan scheduled so close to my surgery? Why didn’t they postpone the surgery until after they’d received my results? What would have happened if I was on the operating table in the middle of my mastectomy when they received the news? Communication was severely lacking. So, I went to seek a second opinion. I was still prepared to go through chemotherapy, but I rang another surgeon for more options. 

This new surgeon was absolutely amazing! She explained exactly what I was up against. She never treated me like a number, instead making me feel human and safe again. Prior to this, I spent days researching anything I could find about DCIS online. I would ask my surgeon questions based on my research, and she answered every one while giving me the pros and cons of my different treatment options. 

In the end, I decided to have a mastectomy before the chemo. I didn’t want the cancer in my body any longer, and wanted the pathology to be done so they could see exactly where my tumors were. In September 2021, I had my mastectomy. The pathology revealed cancer in four of my lymph nodes. After that surgery, I had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and targeted therapy. 

Throughout the journey there were highs, there were lows. For me being a mum, my children were my reason, my strength, and gave me a huge sense of normality. Regardless of what you’re going through, they still need you to be there for their daily routine, reading their stories, reading a million emails from hobbies or their school about how they need £1 every week for the next 18 years for different school events, school trips, school play costumes, non-uniform day, milk, the teachers' wine fund(Sarcasm intended). The list goes on. Also, lots of hearing ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘mummmmmm” several million times a day—I’m sure any other parent can relate to this. Just so you’re aware, this will continue and you will have to read the emails, schedule, organise, find snacks, and scramble for £1 on drop off for a non-uniform day that we all forgot. However just like me, you will be grateful for the normality, the children don’t care what you’re going through, they love you and they just want their snack! :-)  

I officially reached remission in March 2023.

Mental Health During Cancer:

Cancer is an emotional roller coaster. You don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Your whole world is being tipped on its head. You’re thrown into a new world of appointments, waiting, going, getting scans, waiting. The diagnosis is difficult, but the life adjustments you have to make for cancer can be even more difficult. I had to adjust my life to being at the hospital or doctor’s appointments two or three times a week for blood draws and chemo. I had to search for the positives in the situation. 

There’s not enough emphasis on the reality of life after cancer with your mental health. I’m quite fearful of a lot of things. If I see anything on my body, I get very anxious. You constantly feel like you’re living with a gun to your head. I’m not ungrateful that I get to walk away from cancer, but the underlying anxiety affects me. There’s this feeling of always being on borrowed time, even though you might be fine for the rest of your life. You could be having a great day and then the cancer cloud comes back over your mind.

No one sits you down after cancer and explains that you won’t be okay for a long time. When I reached remission in March 2023, I was on a high. I felt free. I didn’t have to spend all my time in hospitals and doctors’ offices anymore. I didn’t have to wait for results anymore. Since then, that high has declined. My mental health has declined. The physical aspects of life after cancer also still affect me. The scar on my side hurts from my mastectomy and radiotherapy. I can’t just go to the shop and buy a new bra now. I avoid swimming where possible. I’m so grateful to be alive, but there isn’t enough emphasis on the fear and worries you feel after cancer. 

Cancer is traumatising. I had a friend who moved houses afterward to give herself a fresh mental start. Things around my house still remind me of cancer. When I was anxious, I would count the crystals on my lampshade to keep myself calm. Now that treatment is over, I’m reminded of my most difficult days when I see that lampshade. After chemotherapy, I couldn’t sleep. I would rest on the sofa, taking short naps whenever the steroids allowed me to. Therefore, I associated my sofa with chemotherapy. Seeing these items around the house would trigger me back into that state of trauma. Now, I’m slowly working on redecorating my house to swap out these cancer-related items. 

My Hair Journey During Cancer + Founding Scarlett Jack Hairitage:

When I was originally diagnosed with non-invasive DCIS and had planned to have a mastectomy, I wasn’t going to tell anyone that I had cancer. I wanted to hide my diagnosis. The only reason I started telling people was because my diagnosis changed. Now, I would need chemo and would likely lose my hair. The physical appearance change of a bald head would declare to everyone around me that something was wrong. I didn’t want those sympathetic looks or stares and I didn't want the situation to feel real, but losing my hair made it real.

My daughter was 6 at the time and I read a book with her to try to explain what was going to happen to me. She didn't really understand the big picture, but the book also covered hair loss. My daughter was immediately uncomfortable with the thought of me having no hair.  

I worked in hair replacement for years before having cancer myself. I have helped and supported people with hair loss caused by a variety of conditions. I’ve been in the sensitive situation of supporting others, but I had never been in that situation for myself. My hair had always been my glory; I worked in hairdressing and had a massive mane of curly hair. I even thought I might not lose my hair due to it being so thick. Not only did cancer take my hair, cancer took it within a matter of weeks. Two weeks after my first chemo treatment, my hair started coming out in handfuls when I brushed it. Two weeks after that, obvious bald patches started to appear. The patches started small, and then grew until I had a monk sort of hairstyle. Because I had helped so many others with hair loss, I thought I would be able to brave the shave and remove my hair as soon as it started falling out. I couldn't. I was in complete denial about my hair loss and point-blank refused to shave my head. 

Again, there was a bit of humour in this situation. I would wear my hair in a bun, which made it all mat together. The giant mat was attached to my head by only a couple of strands. I could move the mat up and down off my mostly bald head. My husband gently suggested that I cut off the last few strands, but I kept telling them that I looked fine and would just walk around the house with a hat on. I hadn’t even bothered to consider a wig because that would further declare my reality.

My best friend pushed me to get a wig and make myself more comfortable in my own skin. I wanted something similar to my natural hair, thick and curly. Though I was capable of making or sourcing my own wig, I just wanted someone else to deal with it. I knew what to expect from the process after helping so many clients over the years. When I walked into a salon close to my house, the first thing the stylist said to me was “Oh, you’re not on your own are you?” I had just brought myself in here because my husband had time to take care of my baby at home. The last thing I needed to hear was patronising language about “being on my own.” The shop didn’t have anything close to my hair type, and refused to add hair to any of the existing wigs. I was in there for less than ten minutes. She quoted me 1700 pounds for the wigs they had, even though they were shoddy and not in the style I wanted.

This shop was completely taking advantage of vulnerable people affected by sudden hair loss. It took everything in my power not to speak up and call her out, but I wasn’t in there as some sort of mystery shopper. Instead, I gathered my things and told her I would have to speak to my husband first before making such a large purchase. 

I ended up creating my own wig to match my hair type. After my horrific wig-shopping experience, I decided to step back into the hair loss/hair replacement industry fully. I’d gone into teaching business and hair when I had my eldest, for more financial security. I still kept my personal hair clients though, as they only trusted me to support them through hair loss. I never focused too much on what other wig providers in the industry were doing. I was shocked to learn that nothing had changed in the decade since I'd last been fully involved. There were a few more wig providers available, but they were providing disgraceful service, poor quality wigs, and taking advantage of people.

There is a lack of diversity in the hair types being offered, and the prices being charged to vulnerable people were disgusting, especially considering the poor quality of the hair. This was the time for me to step back in and help others. Now that I’ve had a hair loss experience of my own, I have a deeper understanding of the situation and how it feels. You feel isolated and don’t want to go out. Even going on the school run to pick up my kids, I didn’t want anyone to look at me or talk to me. I’ve never been good with doing my eyebrows or lashes either. I felt isolated, and totally understand the struggles of people also going through hair loss. If a wig makes someone feel comfortable, then great. If it doesn’t and a bobble hat will do for them, even better. Whatever works for you. Either way, harnessing what works, feels, and looks good for you will help keep you feeling positive during the journey. 

My hair replacement business isn’t just a business, it is personal. I named Scarlett Jack Hairitage after my children, and I’ve relaunched fully to provide, honest, affordable, and reliable hair loss solutions to people worldwide. Though everyone has a different relationship with their hair, I can relate to hair loss and the feelings it can bring. Therefore, the service is much more personal from my clients' point of view.

How has your perspective on life changed after cancer?

Having cancer makes you a lot more grateful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve had a massive epiphany. I'm a cancer patient who didn't have a life breakthrough after treatment. I haven’t decided that I’m going to start skydiving or anything major like that. I think I’m just so grateful now. I was teaching because it paid well, it was secure, and I have children. I loved my students, but the other side of teaching was becoming difficult and time-consuming for what I was getting paid. I was working through this job, just paying the bills, and getting on with life. Having cancer taught me not to do that anymore. I’m not spending the rest of my life in a situation that I’m not comfortable or happy with. You can’t be happy all the time at work, but I refuse to be unhappy more often than I’m happy.

I will only do something if it’s good for my soul. I’ll only have people around me who are good for me. Having cancer allowed me to see who was actually here for me, and who wasn’t. I’m so grateful to the people that were there for me. I wouldn’t say I was a people pleaser before cancer, but I was a very generous person who always wanted to help people. I would always put myself back to help somebody else. I will still help others, but I’ve learned my own worth. 

What helped you during your cancer journey?

I read a lot of forums. The information shared there is often the user’s personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt even if it sounds similar to your story. Things may go differently for you. Overall, I did find some information there to be insightful.

I found humor in funny quotes and memes. One lady in particular got me through some of my darkest days: Finding the Motherland. She constantly shared her breast cancer story online, normalizing and finding the humor in everything from chemotherapy to radiotherapy. One time she spoke about how she looked like Iron Man with a burned chest after radiotherapy. She made up a Christmas Jingle about the Red Devil “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, Chemo & Red Wee Wee” because being on the Red Devil chemo makes you wee red! I’ve got a very dry sense of humor and find things like that really funny. Wherever you can find humor in the moment, it’s always great. 

There are lots of places online, especially on social media, where you can find people going through a similar journey and chat together. Nobody in your circle can fully relate to your cancer unless they’ve also been through it. It doesn’t matter whether that’s your partner, sister, parent, or friend. Finding others also going through cancer on social media does help. There are people going through very similar experiences, which normalizes what you’re going through a little bit. 

What do you wish you knew before cancer?

Advocate for yourself.

Check, check, and check again. Do your own research and go for a second opinion. Your scan process won’t be linear. You might not be done after that initial scan or biopsy, you will likely have to go for further testing. Your doctor’s initial label of your diagnosis may change over time, so don’t pin all your hopes on that initial result.

Everything is a massive jigsaw puzzle. Be prepared to not know everything until all the puzzle pieces have been put together.

Cancer patients are getting younger. When you’re in the waiting room and watching others walk out with folders, you know they had some not-so-great news just like you did. Women younger than me walked out with sullen faces and folders full of helpful information for their new diagnosis. Doctors should never make the judgment that someone is “too young” for cancer. I think it’s awful that we’re encouraged to wait until 50 to have a mammogram. If I had waited that long, I wouldn’t be here. How many women will suffer because they wait too long to get checked, thinking they’re “too young” for cancer? The processes and policies are so archaic.

The bedside manner and communication from doctors need to improve drastically. To a layperson, it feels like the doctors speak in code. I know they’re under a lot of pressure and the NHS in the UK is very busy. Resources are hard to come by and they have to budget with what they have. But the way some speak to you when you’re going through a tough situation, it’s not OK. Some barely spend a few minutes with you, giving you no assurance during the worst time of your life. Not all doctors are like that, but many are. I had to learn how to take care of myself in those situations and know when to find a better team for my medical needs. 

A Message for Recently Diagnosed Cancer Patients:

Stay Strong. Find comfort in what makes you feel safe, even if it’s just for a moment. You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re faced with a situation like this. 

Be gentle with yourself. Take your time to process information. Try to find moments where you can step out of the cancer cloud.

Enjoy every small moment and be present where you can. Obviously, not every moment is going to be happy, but the happy moments you find will keep you going. 

Don’t allow stressing about cancer to control your life. You can’t control the disease, but you can affect where your mindset is.


Photo courtesy of author.