A memory popped up on Facebook yesterday. It was a family selfie, me, my husband, three kids and the dog (although he’d just jumped out of frame as the picture was taken). I remember the day well. The kids had cross-country that morning. The first one back of the new season. We had a proper Sunday roast. A family friend had just dropped in with a beautiful bouquet of lilies. He’d heard my news, wanted to let me know he and his wife were thinking of us. A kind gesture. My favourite flowers.
This photo is quite unremarkable, taken in a rush and slightly out of focus. The TV remote control and my ever present water bottle are in shot, the kids are making faces, but 5 years on it’s a visceral memory. It brings me right back to that day. I remember it all, but mostly I remember how I was feeling.
Grateful. Scared. Loved. Terrified.
When you’re diagnosed with Breast Cancer, everything changes. There is a life before, and a life after diagnosis. Hearing the words, ‘it’s cancer’, alters you. Two tiny words that detonate your life. Blow up everything you thought you naïvely knew about breast cancer (we’re all armchair experts aren’t we!). But soon, you become a real expert, living through it in real life, experiencing it in technicolour. This is your life! Hold on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Back then I didn’t know what the future held. I knew I had a long slog ahead of me, my hospital regimen was mapped out from September 2016 to March 2017. Surgery was already behind me at that stage. Ticked off my to-do list. But other than that, I didn’t really know what was ahead.
After my initial diagnosis I didn’t want to talk about cancer. I didn’t want membership of that club. I ran, literally, from anyone who wanted to tell me the story of ‘so-and-so down the road, riddled, got her in the end’ or the miraculous recovery of the man ‘who removed all sugar from his diet and cured himself’. There were so many stories. Not many of them helpful, but in hindsight, people just want to say something. They’re at a loss for what to say, so they say the first thing that comes to mind. (I was one of those people once, a crude, panicked comment about ‘how good’ someone’s boobs would look after surgery… a dreadful thing to say, but I hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. Now I know all too well, but that’s a discussion for another blog post).
FIND YOUR TRIBE
By two chemos in, I knew I needed to speak with other women who were going through what I was going through. The web-sleuth in me found the Younger Breast Cancer Network online. It was set up for women, like me, who had been diagnosed with BC at a young age. It was a private space to ask questions you never thought you’d need to ask, to vent, to learn and eventually contribute to myself, from our learned experiences of living with a breast cancer diagnosis. It was literally a game changer for me. The gorgeous women I met online, and some in person, became vital to how I got through those long months of treatment. There really is nothing better than women empowering women, and in times of crisis, these women kept me going and still do, five years on.
The women of YBCN Ireland are a small, yet mighty bunch. The stuff I have learned from them is invaluable. Practical information like recommended wig shops, where to get comfortable underwear (always bamboo 😉), how to apply for benefits, sharing the latest news on medical advances in breast cancer treatment, to having a place to have a wee moan about the unknowns of life after breast cancer, early menopause, fertility issues, drug shortages and so on. Celebrating the highs of a new-born baby within the group to collectively mourning the loss of a dear friend amongst us. The whole spectrum of life is covered in this small group. When a new member is added, the welcome they receive is lovely, warm, effusive. Thrilled they’ve found us, yet sorry for the reasons we’ve been brought together. We embrace the ‘newbies’ with kid gloves. We’ve all been there. We all know what they’re going though. Easing them into their new normal. Ready to answer their questions, eager to ease their burden.
If you find yourself dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, find your tribe. Be it in an online group, a face-to-face support group, a cancer support phone-line, a suggestion from a friend who knows someone who has gone through it and says you can send a text if you ever need support, whatever format, find yourself a breast friend. Making that initial contact can be scary, but it will be a step in the right direction. And you will thank your future self for having done so.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
- Above all, be kind to yourself and be patient with the process.
- Take each day as it comes.
- Take each session of treatment as it comes.
- Take the anti-nausea meds.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Give yourself little treats to celebrate the highs and treat yourself especially when you’re feeling low.
Be Kind To Yourself is your new mantra.
Back to that photo I mentioned at the beginning.
That was taken 2 days after my second round of Chemo. My hair hadn’t fallen out yet, but it wouldn’t be long until it was gone. I was on a high from the steroids, although the steroid bloat hadn’t started to show just yet. The bloat would come, and my hair would go and it would take ages for the reverse to happen, but they are all minor inconveniences in the greater scheme of things. Five years on, my hair has grown back. The bloat is still here, (thank you early onset menopause), but I am still here too.
I've made it this far.
Would I have done anything differently? No, I don’t think so.
Do I live in fear at the thoughts of the return of breast cancer? Yes, every day, but the thought no longer physically takes my breath away like it once did. I have learned to keep on keeping on.
I listen to my body, am aware of any changes, I ask lots of questions and I advocate for my own health.
And above all, I am kind to myself.