Breast Cancer Awareness Month reminds me of how far I have come

It is hard to believe that it is more than four years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now every year as October approaches, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be healthy and well. I am also reminded of how shell-shocked I was when the consultant first broke the news.

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Getting the news

It is hard to believe that it is more than four years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now every year as October approaches, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be healthy and well. I’m also reminded of how shell-shocked I was when the consultant first broke the news. It was Thursday 11th February 2016. My life was turned upside down when he uttered the words chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. It was like an out of body experience. Although I was still sitting in front of him, I had emotionally left the building. The only thing I remember clearly as the tears flowed was the thought of losing all my hair. It might sound fairly trivial in the overall scheme of things, but it was all I could relate to at the time. Life as I knew it was over and I had no idea what lay ahead.

Only two weeks earlier I had discovered a lump while reading in bed one Saturday morning. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind so I pushed any thoughts of it aside and went about my business. It was only a nagging voice in my head and the gentle nudge of a colleague that got me out of denial and to my GP. I was quickly referred to BreastCheck in Galway and the rest as they say is history.

Tip: Give yourself permission to cry, shout, or whatever you need to do. There is no right way to respond to devastating news. Don’t suppress your emotions. This is big. Honour how you feel.

 

The warning signs

If you had met me back then (before I got the news) you probably would have thought I hadn’t a care in the world. I may not have been very young – I was forty seven, but I was definitely free and single. I had my own house and I worked at a busy job that I had loved for many years, but it had become all-consuming. As we all know, appearances can be deceiving. I was feeling burnt out. I lived with a constant low-level anxiety and I couldn’t switch off, even at weekends or while on my own. I knew something had to change. I just didn’t know what to do about it. I say this, not for sympathy, but to illustrate that the warning signs are always there for us. My body had been nudging me for quite some time, but I’m a slow learner. It took cancer to stop me in my tracks. I can say for sure that the body-mind connection is real. Our body is always communicating with us, trying to bring us back into balance.

Tip: Pay attention to the warning signs in your own life. They are always there to help you and show you what aspect of your life you need to address.

 

Coming to terms with the diagnosis

I was diagnosed with stage two, oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer which had spread to my lymph nodes. I was lucky. It was caught early and was the “common garden” variety as the consultant put it. My prognosis was good. Although my initial reaction was one of shock, it might not surprise you when I say that once the reality set in, my overwhelming feeling was one of relief. I could finally stop. I didn’t have to think about anything other than turning up for appointments and treatment. I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders as there was nothing expected of me. One thing a cancer diagnosis gives you is space and I needed a lot of space. Demands and expectations slip away and you are free to just be, process and heal in whatever way you need to. I totally switched off and I could feel my system slowing down too. It was time for a reboot. I am grateful that I could look at cancer in this way. I was ready for any change as my old way of living wasn’t working anymore. I just knew that cancer was no random occurence and that it had the potential to transform my life if I was willing to trust it.

Tip: Become your own top priority. Be gentle with yourself. Nurture yourself. Do what you need to do get through this difficult time.

 

Getting support

I had a strong instinct to build up my support network from the outset. Maybe the memory of unsuccessfully trying to deal with challenges on my own in the past came to mind. In any event it really stood to me. Cancer Care West in Galway were a life line throughout treatment. I could drop in any time for a chat and I always left feeling revived after meeting others who were going through their own cancer journey. Nothing beats the company of people who are going through a similar experience. I also turned to holistic healing, counselling and made sure to surround myself with people who raised me up.

Tip: If you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, I’d encourage you to seek help early on. The support of others will carry you when you don’t have the energy to carry yourself. 

 

The aftermath

I was told by my consultant that breast cancer would mean just a year out of my life. I know the words were said with the best of intentions, but that was definitely not the case for me. The treatment may take a year, but recovery and transitioning back into life takes a lot longer. I found this the most difficult part of the experience. I was no longer the person I once had been and I had no idea who I was becoming. It felt like the rug had been pulled from under me. I suffered from severe fatigue and was exhausted just after meeting a friend for coffee. It was a far cry from who I had been and I felt very vulnerable for quite a while.

Tip: Don’t rush. Take time to recover and figure out the type of life you want to live post cancer. Once you have figured out your north star, start taking the first steps in that direction.

 

Coming back to life

Some people may bounce back and slip right into their old roles but that just wasn’t me. I look back at the person I was before cancer, and that person simply isn’t here anymore. As I tried to find my way I attended a creativity course called “The Artist’s Way.” The course totally changed my life. I connected with other like-minded people and it was there that I got the first nudge to start writing. A whole new path started to open up in front of me and I continue to follow it step by step every day.

So as Breast Cancer Awareness month rolls around every year, I’m very grateful to be alive and well. It could have been a story with a very different ending so it’s not something I take for granted. I am now living a simpler, more contented life and strange as it may sound cancer really was a gift for me. I wouldn’t change a moment of what I went through. While it was a very difficult time, it caused me to re-evaluate what was important to me and live in a way that honours who I am. 

Whatever challenges may come your way in life, I hope you uncover the deep reservoirs of strength and courage that you possess within. You are stronger and more resilient than you can ever imagine. I definitely was. Like my experience with cancer, difficult times can lead us on a path of great growth and transformation and I wish that for you.

 

20th September 2020

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