Musings from a breast cancer survivor; was having cancer a gift?
Two years ago in the winter of 2019 I found out I had breast cancer. I was a young new mother and completely terrified. Fast forward to today and I am healthy, have an amazing thriving two and a half year old and am planning my wedding with my perfectly imperfect soulmate. My hair has grown back thicker and more wavy even than before, my body is my own again. I have found the confidence to build my blossoming writing career from scratch, and am happier than I have ever been. You hear about this happening, people turning their lives around after cancer. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. It begs the question and has made me wonder, was having cancer a gift?
Whilst still reeling in disbelief from the news I had cancer, I was also told that it was the dreaded Triple Negative breast cancer. This type is aggressive in nature and still a mystery to scientists in a lot of ways. The disgusting thing that had taken up residence in my breast was deadly. I unwisely took to the internet and was bombarded with terminology that overwhelmed and confused me. Treatment regimes, chemo-resistance, stages, types, recurrence rates, death rates. It brought me to my knees. My baby girl had just turned six months old and suddenly I couldn’t even look at her without sobbing. There was a good chance I was going to die. That she would be growing up without her mum and I would never know the person she was going to be. It was devastating.
What followed was a year of uncertainty and intense treatments. Scan after scan, intravenous chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and four months of oral chemotherapy. I had a port surgically placed in my chest to administer the chemotherapy into, and weekly blood draws from my painful veins. My hair fell out, I felt exhausted and sick. And the question was always lingering; would it all be worth it?
Would it work?
Thankfully yes, it did. The tumour shrank before my eyes whilst I was having chemo and the rest was removed afterwards, along with all of my lymph nodes. After surgery, scans gave me the all clear. I was elated, but doctors quickly reminded me that recurrence rates for Triple Negative breast cancer are high and that I would still need to undergo radiotherapy and oral chemotherapy. I had to do whatever I could to reduce the risk as much as possible. From that moment though, it felt as though the sun had started to shine again. My hair began to grow back, I had eyelashes and eyebrows again. My scars were healing and my energy returning. When I finished treatment completely five months later, in spite of entering the COVID pandemic, it was the biggest relief I’ve ever known.
Two years on from diagnosis, I am beyond grateful to be cancer free and doing great. I am excitedly planning my wedding to the guy who stood by me through it all. Our perfect little flower girl and the people we love most in the world will be by our sides. I have found the courage and determination to change careers and start afresh doing something I adore and have been wanting to do for years. Something that is now growing and thriving.
And so even as the rest of the world is still on pause, in turmoil, I am quietly celebrating.
Was having cancer a gift?
The short and easy answer to this question is of course, no! I don’t believe that cancer is a gift to anyone, including the survivors. Once you have gone through something like that, it never truly leaves you. My body may have healed well but my mind is burdened with PTSD. Something as simple as a bruised rib or mundane as a headache, takes on a new and horrifying life of it’s own. The spectre of recurrence is always there. It mostly lurks threateningly in the shadows, but will pounce the moment I let my guard down.
So no, for me it was not a gift. BUT it was a (rude) awakening. An enlightenment. I was forced to face the fact of life’s fleeting nature, something that we as humans naturally try not to think about. Our own mortality. We know of course that each and every one of us is going to die one day. But we pack it neatly away to worry about when we are old and have lived our lives.
That is something that I carry with me now, and probably always will. I know that however beautiful life seems, it could be taken from me at any time. At the beginning I thought that I would never learn to live with that fear. But the reality is, it motivates me live my life better. To prioritize the people and things that matter and let the rest of the ‘noise’ wash over me. To hold my daughter that bit tighter. It has given me an inner strength I never knew I possessed. I had no idea I was capable of getting through something like that, but I did because my baby and loved ones needed me to. It took me to a place inside myself I had never before been, and landed me with an unshakeable faith and confidence as a person and a mother. And a zero tolerance approach to bullshit!
Life is about quality, not quantity. Every single day counts. And while having cancer is absolutely not a gift, truly knowing and understanding that in your soul definitely is.
If you, a friend or family member are affected by any of the issues in this article head over to Breast Cancer Now for information and support.
To read more on my story, my book Growing is available on Amazon worldwide.