Cancer of any form is way down the list of anything anybody wants. But there are – for many – some silver linings. We have the privilege of some first hand wisdom from those working through the experience, like Emma Sola…
My name is Emma, I am a secondary school English teacher and mother of one. I was diagnosed with oestrogen sensitive invasive ductal carcinoma in early July this year, had a mastectomy in August and am now half way through my six cycles of chemotherapy. I’m still trying to make some sense of it all, but so far, I do have a few pearls of wisdom to share.
Lumps are only a fraction of the story
Before I noticed something amiss with my left nipple, I really thought breast cancer was all about lumps. I didn’t investigate why my nipple might be inverting for several months because, well, it wasn’t a lump so no need to worry! But breast cancer is varied and insidious. There are many different changes to the breast and armpit that can indicate cancer: lumps, thickening, skin changes, rashes, nipple change, discharge…the list is probably longer than this so my advice is to get educated if you, like me, thought it was all about the lumps.
Procrastination thieves more than time
Partly due to ignorance and partly due to denial, it took more time than it should have done for me to make the initial visit to my doctor, and then, having been seen at a breast clinic and sent away ‘reassured’ that I didn’t have cancer, SO much more time to go back and ask to be seen again. I can’t blame all of that waiting about on the clinic’s misdiagnosis. I allowed fear to overpower and paralyse me. If only I had been braver earlier. Early detection is crucial, and my cancer is now potentially a worse diagnosis because of months of procrastinating.
Not all breast cancers show on mammogram or ultrasound
Who knew? Certainly not me. When I first went to the breast clinic, I hadn’t allowed myself to search the internet because I didn’t want to be terrified. But if I had, I might have been more knowledgeable and assertive and asked to be seen again in three months or for a biopsy. Even at its pre surgery 9cm peak, my tumour did not show up on mammogram or ultrasound – it needed a biopsy (which took about 15 minutes and was completely painless). If there are visible or palpable changes to your breast then don’t be ‘reassured’ until you have had all the tests possible.
Being diagnosed with cancer reveals your life for what it truly is
I worried for about 10 months that I had cancer. When I found out that I actually did, everything seemed to suddenly clarify and organise into neat patterns in front of my eyes. I could see how extremely happy my life was. All the mundane irritations and dissatisfactions melted away to display a core of love, friendship and community – and good fortune. I have been much more appreciative of my life since being diagnosed than I was for 30-odd years previously and I regret the time and energy I wasted worrying about utterly unimportant things.
Children are more resilient than we imagine
Part of the fear that stopped me from seeking a diagnosis was the fact that my 9 year old boy would have to be a part of it all. I desperately did not want this for him but now it is here, we are coping. My motherly instinct to protect is often compromised and thwarted by the fact that being as honest as we can is better for him. It is a delicate dance but he knows what is happening; he cares for me as well as being cared for by me; he can ask any question he wants (“Mummy will you lose all your nose hair?”) and he can feel and express all the feelings that come naturally to him. Including, it turns out, lots and lots of joy amongst the worry.
Laughter is possible post-diagnosis
It’s easy to imagine life post-cancer diagnosis as one lived permanently in shadow, all colour washed out to a drab grey. But you don’t change completely as a person just because you have cancer, and if you were the kind of person who liked to laugh, you will laugh. There have been some unspeakably tough days and I know there will be many more, but generally my life is leavened by our family silliness, and laughing at the stuff that I have to go through is a powerful tool. Chemotherapy nurses know this, and are some of the most joyful people I have ever met.
Boobs are dispensable
I absolutely adored my boobs and thought they were fab. I loved going topless in a hot country or wearing low cut clothes and flashing them about on nights out. But the minute I realised it was trying to kill me, my left boob had to come off and I do not miss it. I know other women will feel very differently but if fear of mastectomy is putting you off going to the doctor, don’t let it. You will cope with one or no boobs, because you will be alive.
Alcohol is not my friend
I have spent my adult life pretty much awash with booze at the weekends, as per our culture and my age group. In recent years I have seen how women are encouraged to cope with their lives via alcohol – wine o’clock and gin for mums – and whilst I understand this impulse, booze is really not a friend and helper to women. I think the lie needs to be exposed. We absorb more of its poison into our bodies than men do and as a result it is a big risk factor for breast cancer in particular. I wish booze and I had parted company a LOT sooner.
Keeping fit is more than vanity – it’s a saviour
I started running a year ago. I already swam several times a week but I knew I’d need more exercise to get me through peri-menopause. What started partly from vanity, because I felt so heavy and uncomfortable in my skin, became a lifesaver. I ran every day from diagnosis to mastectomy, covering 100 miles in three weeks. It helped me to be fit for surgery, but most importantly, to sleep despite all the fear I was experiencing. It kept my mind projecting forwards, onwards. I had a break for a couple of weeks after surgery but I was then given the all clear to run and have been running regularly through chemotherapy so far, helping me to cope physically and mentally with what I am going through. I know that after initial treatment finishes and I go on into the next few years of hormone therapy to try to prevent relapse, exercise will be a cornerstone of my journey towards health.
You are stronger than you think
All that time, I let fear stop me from listening to my body and following my instinct that something was wrong. I didn’t trust how strong I was, how strong the people around me are, and how much support there is from the NHS and amazing organisations like Macmillan. It is hard to believe that it has only been three months since my life changed forever. I dearly wish I could go back in time to January this year and tell myself to get down the bloody doctor’s because yes, it is shit, but you CAN cope.
I hold within myself many different thoughts about what the future holds. Some are positive, and others much less so. I’m not relentlessly optimistic – far from it. But on most days I am content and find pleasure in my life. It is my mission to carry on doing so for as long as I possibly can.
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