My breast cancer diagnosis came in January 2016 when I was 54. A tumour was detected in my left breast by my second routine mammogram. I hadn’t felt a lump or seen any changes in my breast. It came out of the blue and was a huge shock.
I now live flat, without breasts and have accepted my new body shape. Indeed, I campaign and advocate for patients to be given all the treatment options after mastectomy so that they can make an informed choice about what happens next to their body. Since my cancer diagnosis my mental health has fluctuated. Some days I’ve felt happy, but on many others, I’ve felt as low and despairing as I think I have ever felt before. I’ve found that every day is different and in the early days I felt lonely, confused, angry, isolated, and scared.
Anxiety, anger and grief are the three emotions that I felt and still feel most often.
I’ve always thought of myself as a glass half empty person and I’ve experienced anxiety and depression over many years. I’ve also been very good at catastrophic thinking. I mean, why wouldn’t I have got cancer? I always thought that it would be bowel cancer, so it was the type of cancer that I got, not that I got cancer, which was the surprise. I’d had a run of bad luck with my physical well-being for a couple of years before the really big stroke of bad luck that was cancer. If my mental well-being was a weather forecast it would be sunshine and showers – some days (more and more recently) are bright and light and happy, whilst others are dark and stormy.
I think it’s safe to say that cancer is a head fuck. Especially if, like me, depression and anxiety were companions before the arrival of cancer. And I’m lucky. My oncologist told me that he was pretty sure that he wouldn’t see me again after the five years were up. Do I believe him? Can I believe him? What’s that ache in my chest? Pain in my groin…definitely secondary bone cancer. Can I get an appointment to see him?
I saw my breast surgeon earlier this year and reported a strange sensation where my left breast used to be…that was the cancerous breast. It was a feeling of fullness, and I’m aware of it as I sit here writing. Turns out that it’s phantom body part sensation. Which makes sense since I don’t have breasts anymore. My anxiety must have been apparent, and I was sent for an ultrasound to check that there was nothing sinister going on. Of course, there wasn’t but it just shows that fear and worry bubble away in the back of my mind… although it is getting better the further away from diagnosis I get.
Anxiety is often around for me and has been for many, many years. I’ve accepted that I’m an anxious person and I’m learning to live with the emotion rather than fight it. I have weekly psychotherapy sessions and am working through a Headspace meditation programme, aimed specifically at anxiety.
The most tangible manifestation of my anxiety since I’ve had cancer is my inability to go on holiday at the moment. I love planning where and when to go but I’m unable to actually click the confirm button and make a booking. And it’s not just trips to far flung places that I panic about. This time last year I had booked a short trip with some friends to stay in their flat on the Costa Brava. As the departure date loomed into view, I descended into a tailspin of anxiety, catastrophising and sheer panic; coupled with a feeling of being out of control. I ended up cancelling and losing the cost of the trip. I even pulled out of a weekend away in Yorkshire back in February. Luckily, I have a very understanding and caring husband who is supporting me though this situation.
This feeling of lack of control and anxiety reared its ugly head again a few weeks ago, just when I thought that I had locked that chimp back in its box. I’d done some work with Dove and a topless image of me was up on a billboard in Times Square New York! Clearly, I’d be able to get on a plane and go and see it – wrong! My desire to go was strong but my stormy mind was stronger and again I succumbed to that same anxiety. No New York for me.
In a counselling session, a few weeks ago I realised that I’d been angry for a lot of my life. Anger which I’d pushed down as too frightening to confront. Anger which I’d squashed because I was busy doing other things. Anger which had anaesthetised other facets of my life. Anger which had spawned anxiety, fear, the need to have control and feelings of abandonment.
Breast cancer is another personal trauma which has made me unbelievably angry… but I believe it has also been the catalyst for me to address the deep rooted emotional and psychological issues that have been festering since childhood. Anxiety, worrying, phobias and catastrophic thinking have been part of my make up for as long as I can remember. I’m frequently told that I’m a very calm person – this is definitely not how I see myself. I must be a very good actor, putting on a mask of calmness.
The counselling work that I have been doing recently has started to help me to understand the anger and why I am so angry. Other things are starting to make sense – why I am feeling these emotions and why I did some of the things that I did as a teenager. This is not the first time that I’ve been in therapy. But it is the first time that I’ve dug down so deeply into my past life and spoken out loud to someone other than my husband about certain traumatic events. I think that this has happened because I’m now fully ready to do the work – thanks cancer – and also because I’ve finally found a therapist with whom I have properly bonded, and who truly and completely listens to me.
And then there’s grief…
I experience grief as a stealthy emotion. It creeps up on you when you’re least expecting it. I experience grief differently to sadness, which can sit on my shoulder for days on end. Grief, however, punches me in the stomach, pokes me in the eye, kicks me in the shin and then runs away until the next time it feels like committing GBH on me. Grief causes me physical pain and makes me feel sick to my stomach. I always forget what grief feel like until it periodically comes back to remind me.
I clearly remember one of those grief-stricken times. It was around the second anniversary of my first mastectomy in March 2018. I’d had my second mastectomy a few months before and I was generally feeling good about my body and how I was coping with the after effects of cancer. I think that my subconscious mind had remembered before I was properly conscious of the date. As soon as I started thinking about it, all of the memories came flooding back. How scared I felt before the operation, how scared I felt after the operation. How I was sure that I’d never get used to having only one breast, how upsetting it was to look at myself in the mirror. All of these thoughts running round and round in my head and self-perpetuating the feelings of sadness and self-pity.
I think that what I was doing was grieving for my lost breast; the breast that I had no choice over losing. I don’t think there had been time for that grief in the previous two years, as they’d been taken up with all of the treatments, operations and appointments, and then concentrating on getting my energy back, and trying not to worry about the cancer coming back, and deciding to have another mastectomy, and recovering from that operation and, and, and … I’m sure you get what I’m going on about.
When I think back to these times, and also when I recognise these feelings encroaching on me now, I’m reminded that my emotions are bubbling away just below the surface in my mind. It only takes a little nudge for me to be tipped back into the maelstrom of rumination and dark thoughts. I’m reminded that self-care, compassion and kindness should always be uppermost in my mind, and that I have to keep working at being positive and moving forward with my life. And it’s OK to be not OK sometimes. It’s OK to recognise that today is a bad day. I now try to sit with that difficult feeling until it passes, because it will pass.
Juliet writes for her own breast cancer blog, Blooming Cancer, where she talk about all sorts of breast cancer topics, in particular the choice to live flat after a mastectomy.