I’d just got engaged to a wonderful man, and we had sold our houses to move in together with our 4 children. It was the day we got the keys to our new house that the consultant bluntly told me I had breast cancer. It wasn’t a surprise as since the tests three weeks before, my breast was on fire and swollen with my nipple turning in as fast as an umbrella on a windy day.
I decided pretty quickly after my diagnosis that I was going to be positive in my outlook. I was only 43, fit from running a marathon and 4 half marathons that year, healthy apart from being partial to a few gin’s. I had access to fantastic hospitals very close by and I had a really good support network.
My breast cancer was HER2 positive and advanced, but I was being told it was treatable even though it had spread to my lymph nodes. I was really cross with myself for not noticing this avocado size lump in my breast sooner, how could I have missed it as I was so good at checking my breasts…wasn’t I?
It was a miserable Christmas, and the decision to plan a small wedding to distract us. 150 people later and bald in my wedding dress we married and had the best day with a few steroid tablets to take the edge off.
If you’ve ever had an MRI you will know that concentrating on a playlist whilst it sounding like you’re strapped to the bottom of a jet during take-off is impossible. It was during these noisy minutes that I realised that forgetting to check my boobs for lumps and changes had nearly cost me my life. If I hadn’t found the 7cm x 9cm lump when I had it would have surely spread and I wonder what I could do to help others. So I started to blog and the first of the month check for a lump was born.
Through Facebook, I have shared resources and information as well as my story. I’ve created posters, been featured in local and national news and written and illustrated a parody called ‘We’re Going On A Boob hunt’. Cheesy, but effective.
But I saw an opportunity to change a negative into a positive by raising awareness. I’m now aware that there are campaigns out there with the same message reaching a far bigger audience than myself. However, over the last 3 years I’ve had a lot of messages of thanks. Women who have found lumps early and have been treated. Some who tell me they have become more body aware, less afraid to check and more confident in knowing how. A fair few people who got check out and reassured. All have been thankful for the message and the reminder. A few have actually told me I have saved their lives!
I’ve always tried to take away some of the mystery and the hidden element of treatment by sharing my story. I posted a picture of me covered in the surgeon’s doodles the night before my mastectomy and it reached over seventy thousand people all around the world. I know it’s not for everyone but it helped me knowing I was making a difference and I really believe my positive attitude aided healing…as well as a shit load of chemo!
I was thrilled to learn that I’d had a full pathological response and was cancer-free around eight months after I’d found my lump. The six rounds of chemotherapy and surgery that followed had been brutal but worth it.
I thought it would be cathartic and it could help others with their ‘journey’ through cancer or supporting a loved one with cancer. I’m not sure now knowing the amount of work and time it would take I would make the same decision. There has been a lot of home learning how to edit, format, self-publish and market it. However, I’m so proud of what I have achieved. I wanted a book that would be uplifting and positive alongside the seriousness of treatment and the side effects it brings. As an art teacher, I wanted it to also make an impact visually so the book includes artwork and photographs to complement my story.
In the book I touch on why we are sometimes scared to face issues with our health. In my experience of trying to raise awareness, I’ve come across a ‘head in the sand’ mentality amongst some people who will avoid a smear, or self-checking for fear of what will be found. I’ve been there myself in the past and the psychology behind it really interests me. It’s also apparent that the longer my hair, the healthier I appear, and the further away in time from my diagnosis, people get less interested in the message.
Great for me, not great for a campaign that needs engagement or a large ‘reach’.
I’m one of the many lucky ones who have survived cancer and although I still have days where I just enjoy existing, I really try and live life to the full. I am at the early stages of starting a charity to support children and families whose loved ones are receiving treatment for cancer. (SAYF - Support around your family) I really felt like whilst I was surviving treatment, there was little or no support for my children or husband. Yet if I was dying or had died, there would be more help and support available. I’m still open to what that support could be and I think as every family is different, there will need to be a variety of options from counseling and holistic therapies to paying for a cleaner or a trip to the cinema. As I’m in the very early stages, I need to research how as a charity we will be best placed to help.
If you would like to know more about my story, my book is ‘Boobs Are For Life, Not Just For Insta!’