Up Close & Personal – My Experience of Breast Cancer
As it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month I thought I’d share my own experience of being diagnosed at 38. I’ve never shared the story before – all too conscious of the fact that I’m very lucky and I certainly don’t want to throw a pity party. However, 11 years on and with a milestone all clear recently behind me, I thought it was time to share a personal little part of me.
I was pregnant with my second child when I first found a lump in my breast. My midwife told me that it was probably a blocked milk duct and nothing to worry about. It was itchy and grew bigger as the pregnancy progressed, it was also sore. I think I may have done quick google at the time, and on reading that breast cancer lumps don’t hurt, I pushed any sinister thoughts aside.
When Giulio was born I could only feed him from one side. The side with the lump hurt and I couldn’t feed from it. The doctor said I should go to the hospital to have it checked out and made me an appointment.
Even at the biopsy, a senior doctor assured me that it was probably benign because I was so young. I was convinced it was too, so I went to the hospital to collect the results alone. That turned out to be a mistake.
I remember when the consultant spoke to deliver the news, my stomach felt like it had dropped to the floor. I felt giddy and thought I was going to pass out.
The consultant said he hoped that I had completed my family because I wouldn’t be able to have any more children as any more pregnancies would be very dangerous for my body. He also said that in order to get the best result from the surgery I should stop breast feeding that day.
It was actually so hard to tell my husband and my family that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt like I had failed in some way and I felt a deep sense of shame. I felt like it was something that I had done wrong by not looking after after myself enough. I blamed myself for decades of eating disorders, my life as a young adult fully embracing the club scene… and everything that it had to offer. It was just so easy to blame and punish myself.
In actuality my paternal aunt, grandmother and great grandmother had all been diagnosed with breast around the same age as me with my paternal grandmother dying at a very young age from the disease so I suspect genetics had a much bigger role to play in it all.
I had surgery and 35 rounds of daily radio therapy. I remember feeling numb and in a state of disbelief as I attended every session with a 3-month old baby in his portable car seat.
My oncologist prescribed me the drug Tamoxifen and stressed that I MUST take it for the next 10 years. Tamoxifen blocks oestrogen from connecting to the cancer cells and telling them to grow and divide. Statistically speaking only 48 woman out of 100 continue on this drug because the side effects are hard to tolerate. For someone of my age, it can throw you into menopause.
I felt like I experienced every single side effect of the drug and felt so low because of it. From weight gain, which affected my self esteem hugely, to joint pain, fatigue, depression and anger. I feel like all I did for the first three years was moan and tell my husband to just throw me in the bucket.
It was a difficult time. Despite the emotional turmoil and a lack of energy, I realised that I needed to take responsibility for myself and be as healthy as possible. I did all the right things I thought I was meant to. I exercised, went vegan for a while, cut out alcohol. These things were a distraction, but I felt old in my bones. Over the hill. Digestion and IBS became an issue as did constant cystitis, more weight gain, reduced patience with my children, and to top it all of my hair which I felt had been my crowing glory became fine, brittle and began to snap off. I noticed real ageing in my skin. I knew that as much as Tamoxifen was difficult to tolerate, I needed to take it to keep me alive.
And to top it all off I felt so guilty about complaining, which is why it’s not somehting I talk about that often. Whenever I moaned to one of my work colleagues about the post surgery pain that I still felt five years on, and how low I felt, the response I got was “well at least you’re alive”. And I did recognise how lucky I was to be alive. It’s just I had to learn how to feel good again.One upside was that I realised I related better to my clients at work about the aging process and the menopause. I understood first hand how difficult the ageing process can be when you are going through it. The tiredness and lack of energy, The perceived loss of youth. How everything descends south and you just want to turn the clock back and look and feel a bit “fresher and a less tired”. This, I honestly believe, has helped me build up the business I have today.
Little by little though the effort I was putting in to making myself feel as good as I could started to pay off. And I’ve kept most of it up including daily prayer and meditation, breath work, cold water swimming, exercise, walking my dogs and practicing gratitude. Having breast cancer made me realise how much I want to live and be around for my children and just how much I do have. And today I cam honestly say it helped shape me for the better.