Location: London, UK
Diagnosis: Breast Cancer (Stage 1)
My cancer origin story is a complicated one. We’re talking ‘mythical, fantasy, anime’ complicated. Apologies in advance because this is a long one, so grab a cuppa and put your feet up.
My time with cancer started long before my diagnosis. in 2012 my mother found out she had triple negative breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and we thought it was all gone. Little did we know, she had micro-metastases on her brain, lungs and liver that had been growing away. My world imploded when she was re-diagnosed at the turn of 2017. She had neurosurgery and chemotherapy but sadly, her post-chemo MRI showed that it hadn’t worked; the tumours in her lung and liver were larger and the one on her brain had grown back larger than before. My ma was given nine to twelve months to live and my world imploded…again, for the second time that year.
A few months later, when I was in the bath, I felt a hard lump in my right breast. My eyes darted immediately to where my hand was still resting and found that my ‘normal’ had completely changed. There was swelling on the side where the lump was, my nipple had changed direction and there was dimples on my areola. Due to my ma’s diagnosis years ago, I’d taken it upon myself to become breast aware and, using a Coppafeel! shower sticker, learnt the different signs and how to check for them. That night I found myself ticking off the symptoms on the sticker and I knew that I was facing something sinister.
At first I faced it on my own. My ma was dying and the cancer had taken so much of her brain at this point that she wouldn’t have been able to handle or process the news, and she probably wouldn't have remembered. The pain of watching her die stopped me from telling my family too – they were suffering enough without this on top. After a week or so I was able to sneak out the house for an appointment with my GP who referred me to the local breast clinic.
On November 20th 2017 at 2pm, my ma passed away.
Even when I attended my initial diagnostic appointment a week after her death, no one knew. My auntie came but she thought it was for genetic testing. It wasn’t until the word ‘biopsy’ was mentioned and I broke down, that I told her. I had to tell the rest of my family after that, they weren’t pleased that I didn’t tell anyone (to put it lightly). They wished I would’ve let them be there for me and didn’t sit on it alone.
Three weeks later, on December 13th 2017 at 1:20pm, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I felt nothing when they told me, my ma’s funeral was only a week earlier. My response after the surgeon gave me the news was so bloody nonchalant! I asked him, ‘well what are we gunna do about it?’. You’d think he’d told me I had a cold, not cancer. Even the nurses couldn’t believe how well I took the news, but I was already in pain so it just melded onto that. It helped that my family and I already had experience with breast cancer; the information given and vocabulary used wasn’t completely new and we knew what questions to ask.
The whole day was a really shit case of déjà vu. You know how the Eastenders Christmas special main storyline is always really depressing? It felt like we were living it, but I don’t even think they could write it. I’m still waiting for my pay cheque by the way!
I was treated at UCLH Macmillan Cancer Centre. Not only did I receive outstanding care and understanding, my family did too. The TYA chemo ward felt like a home and I developed a strong bond with the nurses who felt more like friends than medical professionals. My whole medical team did more for me than give me the medicine to slaughter cancer – they cared about me, they wanted me to live. From the beginning my oncologist worked with me on seeing this as my cancer, not my ma’s, to reduce my fears and anxieties. Breast cancer had just murdered my ma, you can’t blame me for not feeling particularly positive about it.
Prior to cancer, I had already been diagnosed with my personal holy trinity of mental health issues: clinical depression, anxiety and OCD. As you can imagine cancer didn’t ease them, instead they became best buds! My mental health was in a tailspin after diagnosis and during treatment. Not that you’d be surprised – everything changes when cancer arrives and suddenly you’re living a whole new life with various complications.
Chemotherapy cycle two took me into one of the darkest periods of my life to date. After two days of being bed bound with pain and fatigue, my mind monsters told me that it would never end, that I was weak and I should just die. For the first time ever, I believed them. I decided to stop treatment so I’d die. I was broken, physically and mentally, but Walt Disney must’ve been looking down on me that day because I heard a voice inside me screaming, "No, you want to live…you have to live”. That voice was me, the real me! The strong woman my ma raised me to be. She was exhausted and suffering but came through when I needed her the most to remind me that tomorrow will be kinder. And so began the new part of my cancer trek – living with cancer.
To deal with having cancer, I had to push the grief for my ma aside which was hard and I did it as much as I could, but there was many occasions when I just cried over the fact that my ma wasn’t there to guide me through the storm. The state of my mental health was the hardest part of my diagnosis. When the physical side effects were at their worse, my mentality too was at its worse. However, I didn’t want to feel so low and made every effort my broken body would let me to get through it. It was when I realised cancer didn’t have to be a time of purely losses that things began to change, I found positives and gains. The low days weren’t over but there was better days weaved through them.
The end of active treatment marked the beginning of a new challenge – living after cancer. Just like during chemo, I have good and bad days. I can’t escape the bad days but I remind myself that they are temporary. Not everyday has to be a negative one, its about balancing them out with better days.
It can be incredibly daunting having to go back into the world outside of the hospitals, the safety net of medical professionals and understanding of other cancer patients. What I’ve learnt while navigating this period is to take my time and be kind to myself. I’ve been living one life and now I have to start living a new one – of course I’ll need time, its not easy to build something from scratch. I’ll get there though.
Tomorrow will be kinder.
One piece of advice:
You are more than cancer. It will want you to believe that it is everything and that you have no choices because it has all the power, but that’s not true. You can choose whether or not you want to try the cold cap, for example. You still have the freedom to make decisions and even question the doctors about your medical care.
One huge choice you have is to talk to other cancer patients. They will help you through your experience and some of them you will take with you into life after cancer. They will be your friends beyond illness who just happen to have had cancer too. The growth in that relationship from a cancer link to a full friendship is proof that you are more than cancer.
Another way you can prove to yourself that you are more than cancer is by making the most of the good days. During my good week between cycles, I met up with friends and family, went out, took my dog for a short walk, etc. Basically, I did things that were normal and made me happy. Those things helped my mental health too.
Just because you have cancer, doesn’t mean you are cancer. Things will change and you will become a different person but you are still someone and the alterations in yourself will make you a better person. Figuring out this person will be challenging but exciting too.
Cancer is only part of life, not all of it.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Brave Collective. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information.