The 19th September 2016. A now notorious date in my calendar. Over a year on I've had a lot of time to reflect a lot of those first few days after diagnosis. Here are some of my musings...
I'd just started a new job as a primary school teacher and it came like a bolt out of the blue. Literally - a shooting pain in my chest that woke me one 3am morning and I found a lump. Thinking I must be mistaken - tired, groggy, possibly hallucinating - I didn't think of it again until morning. Luckily my fiancé persuaded me to get it checked out – as a teacher we are always coming down with coughs and colds… me? Go see a doctor?!
My GP referred me, telling me she didn't think for one second it would be anything sinister but as a precaution I was sent to the Peggy Wood Clinic at Maidstone Hospital. On arrival, I was again told that they thought at worst it would be a cyst - you're too young, no family history, etc etc. but they went forward with tests just to double check. Well, blow me down, I had ALL the tests done – physical, sonogram, mammogram, 3d mammogram… It was only when they asked for a biopsy that I realised this could be a bit more serious than first thought. That said, even when they lead me into the Room of Doom I still wasn't really engaging with everything that was going on. After all, I was three weeks into a new school term, I had planning and marking to do for the following day!
I don't remember much from the conversation in the Room of Doom. I remember the doctor say "It's probably breast cancer..... is that what you were expecting to hear today?" and I genuinely remember nothing else. Luckily my amazing Breast Care Nurse was there taking meticulous notes (that I requested a few days later when I had the presence of mind to ask questions). I didn't know it at the time, due to the horrific shock I'd just received, but my life had suddenly changed. No more new job. I had a life-threatening illness. At 31! Surely that wasn’t right… Suddenly my new job was breast cancer and it consumed every waking hour of my life.
My treatment plan was organised pretty quickly. I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumour and my surgeon was amazing. I've had six cycles of FEC chemotherapy (or feccing chemo as it came to be known) and 20 sessions of daily radiotherapy. Throughout treatment I lost my hair, my energy, my independence and my spark. Chemotherapy was particularly tough on me and I felt very isolated and alone.
Then I was introduced to an amazing charity - this charity - YouCan. They provided me with reiki during chemotherapy, reflexology during radiotherapy and offered me a place on a Wellness Weekend, which I gladly accepted. The Wellness Weekend was of particular benefit to me as it came the weekend before my last chemotherapy. I got to spend some quality time with my sister and some amazing people at different stages of their diagnosis. We did yoga, had facials and massages, did some art therapy and met with an informative nutritionist. After the weekend I felt relaxed, happy and more importantly, more mentally ready to tackle my final chemo session. Also, I felt less alone - there were people out there my age going through what I was going through. I'd spent time with them and they were awesome. For that, I can't thank YouCan enough.
Now that I'm done with active treatment I still access the alternative therapies from time to time, such as reflexology and reiki. However, now I'm trying to reclaim my body after it had been ravished by cancer treatment and YouCan are still helping me with that. They have provided me with a Personal Trainer who helped me get my strength up ready for the YouCan 5k I completed back in October. Those who know me well know that any exercise, let alone running, really isn't my bag. But the PT I've received - along with my own training using a couch to 5k app - has not only made me feel amazing (endorphins, who knew?!) but has helped me lose some of that blasted chemo weight.
So now, I'm over a year on from diagnosis, and quite a lot has changed... I've had the tumour removed from my body and been told after chemo and radiotherapy that I am NED - no evidence of disease. All good news. But my actual day to day life has changed. I'm no longer a teacher and I think it's unlikely I'll go back to the profession. Certain smells bring back memories of chemotherapy which make me gag. I can no longer eat certain foods – mac and cheese, jolly ranchers, pickled beetroot, vimto, just to name a few – as I ate them during treatment and just the thought of them makes me gag (though arguably I should be cutting most of those things out of my diet anyway!) I no longer look like me - I'm still a bit puffy from treatment. Whilst I'm not bald any more I'm sporting a fluffy boy crop (my hair has grown back super curly!) I'm suffering from some super fun menopausal symptoms thanks to the hormone treatment I'll have to take for the next ten years. I don't even feel like me, the old me, this has fundamentally changed me.
But I'm optimistic and I'm getting used to the 'new me', figuring out my 'new normal'. I’ve armed myself with knowledge about nutrition, physical activity and complimentary therapies, all with the hope of avoiding the dreaded word ‘recurrence’. I’ve realised that I’m stronger than I thought and that my body is capable of amazing things. My support network has grown from family and amazing friends to also include my Freddie’s Friends pals (YouCan support group) and other members of the cancer network.
The support I have received from YouCan is invaluable. Without them I wouldn’t have met so many amazing young people in my area, I wouldn’t have got back into shape – I certainly can’t afford a weekly PT session! They have supported my mind, body and soul since day one and I can’t thank them enough.