Zoe Hill, Operations Director for Suffolk-based coffee business Paddy & Scott’s, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 at the age of 34. Here, she shares her story – and explains what led her to become a trustee for local charity, Little Lifts
I started working for Paddy & Scott’s in 2014 when my husband said ‘You need to go and work for Scott Russell’ – turns out he can be right on occasion! I started in Customer Service and worked my way up via Account Management and Operations Manager to become Operations Director at the end of 2019.
My main job is to balance the books to make sure we are turning a profit and look at any changes that need to be made if the numbers aren’t going in the right direction! I oversee finance, supply chain, logistics, Health & Safety, Human Resources and Customer Service and have a fabulous team that do all the hard work. I have worked for Paddy & Scott’s for nine years now and what makes it so great is it is ever evolving! It is continually looking at new ways to grow and we really do have an amazing team and work culture where everyone works as a team.
On May 1, 2019 I was on a work trip and that evening at the hotel in the shower I felt a lump in my breast. Being 34 at the time, whilst I was taken aback, I wasn’t too concerned but concerned enough to cut my trip short and book a doctor’s appointment. After an examination by the doctor, they referred me to the hospital ‘to be on the safe side’ but assured me they didn’t think there was anything to worry about. Two weeks later I went to the hospital, had another examination where I was told they didn’t think there was anything to worry about but were sending me for an ultrasound to double check. It was during the ultrasound that the consultant started to look concerned and took a biopsy and sent me for a mammogram. By this point it was starting to become apparent that there may be something more concerning going on. I still believed at this point that it was a cyst or something and was told they would be in touch with the results. I disappeared on holiday to Norway for a week and was told to come back in the day I returned.
On May 29, 2019, I was told I had a 15mm, Grade 3 ER-positive invasive ductal carcinoma of the right breast – and my world momentarily stopped. My mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer (a different type) back in 2013 so I knew what was potentially coming as I had seen her go through chemo and lose her hair etc. Initially I was told that I would just need surgery to remove the lump and possibly some radiotherapy, but after further testing of the tumour it was recommended that I have surgery, six chemotherapy sessions and 21 radiotherapy sessions. Not to be outdone my mum found another lump on July 31, and started to go through treatment again alongside me, where she had a mastectomy.
I began treatment and tried to continue with my life as much as possible and worked throughout and even managed to make director halfway through treatment! That’s not to say it was a walk in the park – by the end of six sessions of chemotherapy I really didn’t have a lot left in the tank and ended up in hospital for a few days with neutropenia which made me realise I needed to give my body some rest! I have however always been a glass half full person and know there are people that have been and going through far worse, but I genuinely believe a positive mindset goes a long way.
During treatment I came across two amazing charities – CoppaFeel!, a charity founded by Kris Hallenga which raises awareness amongst young people specifically to know their bodies and to check regularly for any changes and to get them checked out ASAP, as waiting can be the difference between full recovery or a terminal diagnosis. The other charity is Little Lifts, founded by Oa Hackett who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s and set up the charity to help women going through treatment. The charity works with Hospitals in Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk to ensure every person going through treatment for chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy gets a box of ‘little lifts’ which is full of goodies designed specifically to help you get through treatment. After I had finished treatment, I was determined to give back in any way I could so took on the Scottish Highlands Challenge with CoppaFeel!, trekking 100km across the Scottish Highlands with 100 other amazing women and celebrities including Giovanna Fletcher (who is a patron for CoppaFeel!), Selasi from Great British Bake Off and Emma Willis. I managed to raise over £4000 which contributed to the £400,000 total 100 of us raised together for the charity and the experience was something everyone should have – truly uplifting and inspiring.
I am also incredibly proud and honoured to be a Trustee of Little Lifts! I had kept in touch with Oa about potentially doing something together and she approached me about a Trustee position that was becoming available, and I jumped at the chance to be able to help in any way I could, so I was welcomed to the fabulous team of Trustees at the end of 2022.
My message to anyone finding themselves in a similar situation to me is: don’t panic! Breast cancer is an incredibly scary word to hear no matter what your age but when caught early enough it can be treated. There are also plenty of amazing women thriving with secondary breast cancer which, whilst not curable is manageable. There is lots of support out there and you really aren’t alone. My single biggest piece of advice is you HAVE to be an advocate for your own health. We all know how much stress the NHS is under so no matter what your illness or ailment may be, you need to help yourself; do the research and go into your appointments armed full of knowledge and make sure your making informed decisions as best you can. Don’t be afraid to have your say about your treatment plan, it is your body and your life after all. I was given tamoxifen (an Oestrogen suppressant as my cancer was ER-positive) which plunged me into the menopause at 35 years old. I made my own informed decision to come off that treatment after a year as the effects far negatively outweighed the benefit.
I’m sure I will be involved in lots of great fundraisers with Little Lifts this year and I may or may not have applied for another CoppaFeel! trek so watch this space!