I’ve always been something of a rebel. Not in the ‘outrageous behaviour’ type of way. Just quietly refusing to conform, at times, when it’s felt like the right thing to do. Sometimes that has meant having real courage. The courage of my own convictions. Occasionally, it’s got me into trouble but mostly, it’s meant learning, growth as a person and maybe even a life-saver.
In the summer of 2010 I began the long process of recovery. The wonderful medical staff referred to this as my ‘treatment plan’. I called it ‘healing’, mind, body and soul.
The treatment plan involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and would take around nine months, followed by eight years of medication to rid my body of excess oestrogen to prevent the cancer returning.
The healing journey started on 16th June 2010, the day of my diagnosis…and is ongoing. It began with a question: why me? I’ve never believed things ‘just happen’ and so I soon realised that I’d been living with chronic stress for years. And that chronic stress downgrades the immune system, and the result, for me, was breast cancer. So I chose to find out how I could change the things in my life that were creating it, that included my environment, the food I ate, the people I was around, and most importantly, the thoughts I had – about myself, other people and the world around me. I learned that the thoughts we have repeatedly trigger the release of chemicals in our body – and for those thoughts that don’t serve us well – those chemicals are stress hormones.
I did conform, at first. Too bloody terrified not to. In the summer I had the surgery to remove the tumour. Afterwards, I went with my husband to our favourite Greek Island to relax, to swim in the Mediterranean sea and walk barefoot on the beach. I returned home calmer, stronger, tanned and ready for the next phase.
As Autumn crept closer, so did the chemo and the rebel in me began to stir. Grim-faced nurses informed me I would lose all my hair (everywhere!) and that I would be open to infection so I was to stay indoors on ‘bad’ weeks, not to do any gardening, and to keep warm.
Well, I did lose all of my hair, yet from my first chemo session in September to my last on Christmas Eve I ignored most of the advice. Sure, on days when vomiting was my main activity, I stayed put and rested, but as soon as it stopped I began gardening. Pruning and weeding became my mission, getting rid of the old and dead, anything that stopped and stifled new growth. Just as I was doing with my mind. Being in nature felt instinctive. I didn’t know then that trees actually release chemicals that stimulate natural killer T cells – part of our immune response that not only kill viruses but cancer cells too.
As winter approached, so did the snow and ice as we experienced the worst November and December I could remember. On my ‘bad’ days I watched how beautiful the world looked, covered in white from my window. When I had the energy, I walked miles. I heaved on my red wellies and headed for the local nature reserve. There’s something really mindful about crunching through snow, something peaceful about watching a frozen lake and something magical about winter sunlight through the bare branches.
The new shoots of Spring had begun to emerge as the daily trek for radiotherapy became my new routine. New shoots were sprouting on my body too – my hair was starting to grow back! Radiotherapy left me very tired and yet the more time I spent in nature, the more energised and re-vitalised I felt, breathing in deeply, feeling a sense of gratitude for my life that I’d never known before.
As Spring really came into it’s own, I turned 50, celebrated for weeks, danced, party’ed and then went back to my life. My other life, the one where I became a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunty, teacher and friend. And yet it was not the same, never would be. Over the next three years I began to lose sight of those calm and healing moments in nature. Those moments of joy seemed to disappear as I mourned the old me, felt plagued with fear and tried to get to grips with who I was becoming. I was also struggling with the physical, mental and emotional effects of an enforced menopause, triggered by the drug tamoxifen.
It was then that the rebel in me reared up again and I stopped taking the drug. Within two days I began to feel better. And I made the decision to stay away from tamoxifen and any other drug I was offered in it’s place, for good. I would take my chances. It was then that I sought help from a nutritional therapist and medical herbalist. Patient, wise, kind and caring women who not only provided me with natural alternatives to the pills, they guided me towards change and courage. They helped me to find the new me, or maybe the real me. Someone who could see this life-changing event as a positive. I thought I would always live in fear after 2010, instead I’m learning (yes it’s ongoing) to live in the now, in gratitude and to always walk in nature.