I first wrote this blog exactly a year ago. I wanted to share something about my experience of having had breast cancer and how I chose to feel, think and what I chose to do. One year on and I’ve just celebrated what has become known in my family as my ‘cancerversary’ – June 16th, the date I was diagnosed. For many, this would be a date to dread, not one to celebrate, and yet for me, it’s my wake up call; when I began to take notice of what I was unconsciously doing to my health; to become conscious, to value my life and myself and to begin to heal.
Something significant seems to happen on 16th June each year and this year, on my 10th ‘cancerverary’ – the first part of my podcast with Dr Gayle Carson was released (link below) in which we discuss this very subject.
This year was supposed to be a big one. I didn’t celebrate my 5 year ‘cancerversay’ because, having gone through treatment with my dear friend Niki, we planned to party to both celebrate surviving 5 years together. Sadly, just before the summer of 2015, she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer and passed away early in 2016.
Now I was going to make up for it. Celebrate 10 years of life that feel so precious and to plan how I want to enjoy the next ten, like Niki would want me to. As a family we planned to go away for a long weekend to mark the occasion, especially as I had had a ‘scare’ back in January, when I had to go through the process of urgent referral, mammogram, ultra-sound and the seemingly endless wait in a sterile hospital waiting room for the results. The fear was overwhelming. And so was the relief when I was told there was no cancer – it was all clear.
However, the 10 years celebration didn’t happen as planned – no-one could have predicted we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic and on lock down. Being at home with my own thoughts, I realised how big a deal this was for me, and how personal. I felt upset that some of those close to me forgot or didn’t acknowledge it at all. I had to work hard at feeling grateful that day and get to a place where I accepted that it’s not a big deal for everyone and that you can only truly understand it when you’ve experienced it.
And so, I thought I’d republish this blog as a way of expressing how it was for me. Maybe it will help others to become more aware that, when you’ve been through something as scary as cancer, life is never the same. My memories are defined by ‘before’ and ‘after’. It doesn’t mean I think about it all the time – far from it. But it’s a turning point, an interruption of old ways and the beginning of doing things differently. Mostly, life is better and I now feel cancer was a gift that I’ve used well. However, having lost Niki and two other friends to breast cancer, I feel a mixture of gratitude and sadness and, at times, when I notice changes in my body, the fear rises up like a wild dog on the prowl and I need all my resources to free myself from it and get back a state of safety and calm.
The following is as I wrote it last year, followed by the podcast episodes. If you think they can help anyone, please share. They are accounts of my story, everyone is different as you’ll hear in the podcasts.
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 down-regulates 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: 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 of 2010 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, and it was devastating, yet from my first chemo session in September to my last on Christmas Eve I ignored most of the other advice. Sure, on days when vomiting was my main pastime, I stayed put and rested, but as soon as I stopped throwing up 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 2011 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. I sought help from an amazing charity called Breast Cancer Haven and there I saw 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.