This time two years ago, I was blissfully unaware of breast cancer. Obviously, I knew what it was, but it was something that happened to other people, old people, not people like me. My career was flying high, my kids were passing through the awkward teen years with relatively few dramas, I was fitter than I had been for years, and was finally happy with my weight having lost 3.5 stone with slimming world. I was living a charmed life where the most stressful aspects of my day were whether my team would hit their sales targets, and if the trains were going to run on time that day.
Then one day I found a lump in the shower.
I put off going to the doctor for a couple of weeks because we had a big event at work and my priorities were all a bit messed up back then. Two weeks later, I sat in the Doctors office, topless from the waist up, whilst he told me that he was “sure” it wasn’t cancer, but he would refer me anyway just to put my mind at rest. Before I knew it, there was a mammogram, an ultrasound, and then a biopsy – not on the lump that I had found which turned out to be nothing, but on a bigger, deeper lump on my other boob that got picked up on the mammogram. Fast forward by a month, and my world tipped upside down with my diagnosis of grade 3 triple negative breast cancer – at the age of 40. Too young, not me, not fair! Next thing I know, I’m having a picc-line fitted, markers inserted, and my first chemo session scheduled.
I coped pretty well with chemo, I had the usual side effects, some of which I’m still feeling the effects of now, but I kept on going. In fact, I rocked it! The original #cancerwarrior
Next up was surgery, and then radiotherapy, and I was just like a weeble throughout – knock me down and I’ll bounce right back up again. Then that was it, all done, off you go, see you next year for another mammogram… Because I was triple negative, there is no ongoing hormone therapy or herceptin, so once radiotherapy was finished, my treatment was complete. And rather than feeling elated, that was the point I fell apart.
Since then, I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled. I went from smashing it to not knowing who I was anymore and feeling desperately lost as I tried to re-establish my place in the world and work out what to do next, how to move forward.
I went back to work and hated it – feeling in many ways that my old life just didn’t fit anymore. I battled with depression and anxiety, and I would honestly say that the year after treatment, for me, was harder than the treatment itself. I couldn’t understand it – I should be happy, I’d done it, beaten cancer. Except I was knackered, weaker both physically and mentally than I’ve ever been, and for the first time in my life, I doubted everything about myself.
Six months after going back to work, I was made redundant, and it has honestly been the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I’ve spent time looking after myself, getting counselling, getting well, heading back to the gym, and regaining my sense of self and what I want out of life. I’ve re-evaluated every part of my life – my career, my relationships, how I eat, how I live, my values in life, and I’m finally, properly starting to heal. I don’t have it all figured out yet, and some days are better than others, but I’m getting there…
So, how has cancer changed me and what have I learnt?
• Who the important people in my life are, and who are not
• Also, who I am, and that I should also be a priority in my own life (something I’ve always struggled with previously!)
• To make time for the things and people that make me feel good
• How to say no to the things and people who don’t
• To be kinder – to myself, to others and to the environment
• The benefits of living a cleaner lifestyle, keeping the toxins to a minimum (or at least saving them for the important things like wine!) and taking a more holistic approach to health & wellbeing
• The beauty of balance – and that life doesn’t need to be lived at 100 miles per hour – it’s ok to take time out to rest and recuperate, to be still and quiet
• But that sometimes, it is just as ok to drink rum, eat chocolate, dance on tables and have fun with a capital F
• That if you are having a crap day, making yourself just get out and move is one of the best anti-depressants around.
• That I have absolutely no idea what the future holds, but I want in! I have many plans – many things I still want to do, places to visit, and I’m meeting inspiring people every day, so I’d rather spend my time getting on with those things than worrying about the bad stuff. Because every second that I spend putting my life on hold out of fear, is time lost, and that is how the cancer wins. Cancer is a chapter in my life, and a defining one at that, but it is not the whole story…
Emma is the founder of Lions, Tigers and Bears – an online shop, services directory, and blog for people affected by cancer. Emma set up the website after her own breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, in order to offer other people in a similar position an online hub where they can find whatever they need to help them navigate life with or after cancer, whether that be a product, a gift, a service or simply advice and support.