So you’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer…

First off, hi. Hello. Welcome to this pretty shitty club. I’d say we’re glad to have you here, but we aren’t. I wish you didn’t have to be here. I wish you could have carried on living in a WC (without cancer) world. But sadly that’s not to be the case. It’s shit that you’re here, but I also want to tell you that it’s going to be OK. Treatment is going to be hard and you’re going to cry and shout and laugh and cry again and you’ll find brightness in the places you’ve never expected to find it. It is a pretty crap club to be in, the “I’ve had breast cancer” club. But by the same token, you’ll find some pretty special people on your, X-Factor word, journey through and beyond breast cancer.

It’s almost two years since I heard the words that changed the path of the following 18 months and are still having an impact on my every day life. Almost two years since the kindly man with the big bow tie (who in my mind has morphed into Trevor Macdonald, because I haven’t seen him in a while) told me that it was cancer growing in my right breast. I’m becoming a bit further removed from Cancerland every day, though truth be told, you never really get that far away. If I’m being honest, looking back on those days is a bit like looking through a steamed up mirror. I can see myself behind the condensation but it’s in a bit of a haze, like another world. My outline is the same but I can’t make out the features of my face or that life anymore. But I remember how scared I was. How overwhelmed I was. How anxious I was. How I morphed into survival mode – wanting to know what was to be done and wanting to get the hell on with it. And if I can help one person deal with the road ahead of them after hearing those perspective shifting words, I want to do it. So here’s a few things you might be interested to know if you’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

  1. It will feel like a bad dream for a while. Definitely the first few days. Certainly the first few months. Even now I feel like cancer was a weird thing that maybe happened to someone else in my body. I remember waking up at my parents the day after I was diagnosed, and thinking that I must have made the whole thing up. I felt like a liar. Had my husband not been sat alongside me when the news was delivered, I think I would have convinced myself I was lying.
  2. You’re going to feel a lot of things. But it’s important to say you might not feel them straight away. You also might not feel the things you expect. I did not cry the day I got diagnosed. I did not shout or scream or anything. I made jokes in the surgeon’s office. When the breast care nurse told me “I think it’s OK to cry”, I laughed. I cried the next day for about two minutes. And the day after that, I cried for a little longer. Then I didn’t really feel anything for a while. I never got angry about the fact I had cancer. I never asked “why me?”, but if you do, that’s OK, you know? Don’t ever beat yourself up for having emotions about cancer and what is doing to your life.
  3. Things will move quicker than you can imagine. If you’re in the UK, once you’ve been diagnosed, you have to begin treatment within one month (or you did at the time of writing). Within three weeks of getting diagnosed, I had seen my surgeon and decided I was going to have a mastectomy, and had my surgery. Know that even when things are moving at lightening speed, you can still ask questions. You can slow things down, even just a little. If there’s anything you’re unsure about, ask. Your team are there to help you make sense of what’s happening. Remember that breast care nurses (BCN’s) are angels sent from heaven* to guide you through the tumultuous months of your treatment. They’re there if you have questions, there if you feel alarmingly unwell, there for guidance, there if you have some kind of surgery related crisis. They’re just there. Use them. You’ll need the support
  4. Surgery is not as terrifying as you might expect. I had never been under a general anaesthetic when I had my mastectomy. Practically a pro now, mind, but I have never been as scared as I was in my life before that first surgery. I cried as the anaesthatist put my cannular in. But within seconds of them administering the drugs (and wow are they good drugs, yo!) I was asleep and then I was awake in what felt like another few seconds, and it was all over. Your surgeons are experts. Trust in them. They’ve done these surgeries a million times. They’re on your side. Don’t forget that.
  5. If you have to have chemo and you’re anything like me, you’ll find that it is one of the hardest things you have ever had to do. I cried the night before every chemo without fail – horrible snotty sobs. But as with most things, bad things pass. Chemo is a long old slog, but when you get to the other side of it, you won’t believe how quickly it was over. This too shall pass will probably become your mantra, for nausea, for the inability to have regular poo, for fatigue, for fear, for losing hope, for the waves of sadness, for neutropenia, for delayed chemos. For everything. No matter how hard things get, you’ve got a really good track record for surviving bad days. This too will pass. Say it with me – “this too will pass”. I wrote some tips for surviving chemo if you want to check them out.
  6. Radiotherapy is tiresome and you’ll still need propping up. Radiotherapy for breast cancer is the lesser-talked-about sibling of chemotherapy. It’s not as brutal, has fewer side effects and is usually over in about a 6th of the time it takes for chemo to end. Sessions can be anything from 3-6 weeks (I believe – I had 3 weeks) so it’s not as long a haul, but going to hospital every day to get blasted by radioactive waves is pretty dull. Be sure to listen to your team and MOISTURISE your skin LOTS to protect it. Get right on into the armpit there too. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it (not with moisturising, I mean in general). Radiotherapy is hard too. Don’t feel guilty for still needing a hand here and there.
  7. You’ll laugh at things you never thought you’d laugh at. You’ll find brightness in the times you thought you’d never see daylight again. When you feel at your absolute worst and you think you can’t feel any more ill, you’ll start to feel better. You’ll feel like your losing your mind sometimes. You’ll feel like you’ve got it all in hand sometimes. Sometimes you will lose your mind a little bit. Sometimes you really will have everything under control. You’ll gather a lot of stories that you think are hilarious and then you’ll tell them to a bunch of people expecting to get a laugh and no-one will know where to put themselves. That’s OK. You’ve got to laugh to survive. Oh and losing your hair? Horrible. Really horrible, no bones about it. But losing your lady garden and not having to shave your legs for months is a surprising bonus. And having hair again when it grows back is one of the best feelings in the world.

There’s so much other stuff I want to tell you. So many other things I want to say but I know how overwhelmed you’re feeling right now and I don’t think it’s fair for me to add to it. Whatever you take from this blog post, know this – it’s OK. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to be fine. Cancer treatment is hard, but you know what? It’s OK. And sometimes it’s not. That’s OK too.

* Not guaranteed. But they may as well be.

On This Day. And This One. And This One

When I was a kid and we first got the Internet at home, I was transfixed by looking at the BBC’s On This Day website. This was, of course, in the years before MySpace came into existence and I found myself wasting time choosing apt song lyrics to express the depths of my emotion and deciding which of my friends should be in my top 9, not to mention being distracted by the politics of being a teenage girl. But before all that, when things were a bit simpler, I think On this Day was probably the website I visited most. I used to sit and read about all of the things that happened on specific days in history. What happened on my birthday. What happened on mum’s birthday, on dad’s, on my sisters. What happened on Christmas Day in 1973 or at the turn of the century. We had this enormous book called The Chronicle of the 20th Century which I used to pore over for hours at a time, devouring news articles and headlines from specific days of specific years in history. And it wasn’t even because I was a history buff who was obsessed with history lessons at school. While I found that part of the book and the internet interesting, I was more fixated on the idea of anniversaries than anything else.

It’s interesting, because I wrote about Facebook’s On This Day page for Stylist last summer and talked about how nostalgia like this can be damaging or painful. I stand by that line of thought in a lot of cases, especially relating to ex partners or old friends, or people who are noticeably absent from your life, but I still find anniversaries that aren’t directly related to myself pretty fascinating.

We all have anniversaries or days that we mark, whether they’re personal like birthdays or wedding anniversaries or the anniversary of losing a loved one; or whether they’re more generic days celebrated by everyone – St Patrick’s Day, New Year’s, Armistice. But when something happens – like in my case, you guessed it, you get diagnosed with cancer, you’re given a whole new bunch of anniversaries to celebrate. Scratch that.  I’m pretty sure celebrate is not an appropriate word for all of them, but there are certainly days that you notice more after you’ve heard those words.

The anniversary of the day you’re diagnosed. The day you had your surgery. The day you started chemo. The day you shaved your head. The day you finished chemo. The day you finished treatment. And almost inevitably, cos I am prone to excessive rumination, all of these days stick in my head. I never know if they’re happy days, sad days or a combination of the two. Sometimes I’m not even really thinking about it but I wake up and feel a bit strange and it takes me a couple of hours or a couple of days to notice the date and realise why (I can still blame that on chemo brain, right?). And every time one of these anniversaries comes around, I feel simultaneously like 30 seconds and 30 years have passed since whichever anniversary it is.

Last weekend was one year since I finished active treatment. I can remember every single detail of the morning leading up to my last radiotherapy session. I can remember what I was wearing, I remember sending Chris to find the nurses I’d seen every day for three weeks to give them a box of biscuits – a small token of my gratitude for making one of the weirdest times in my life seem more normal. I remember lying on the table, arms above me in 5th position and thinking about how far I had come in the 10 months since they said I had cancer. I wore red lipstick – the best armour I know – and I tried my hardest not to cry as they blasted me with a final dose of radioactive waves, the last my right breast will ever receive.

I feel like I haven’t come that far since I finished treatment, but in my heart I know I must have. Time moves, whether we want it to or not. Time passes, whether it goes at the speed we think it should or not. Days come and go, and whether we want to or not, there are so many that we’ll associate with people or things that happened. It’s like muscle memory – and even if the mind forgets key dates, the body always seems to remember. I guess it’s just a case of figuring out how we process the dates that snag our consciousness. And knowing that it’s OK to feel ’em, no matter if the feeling is positive or negative, or somewhere in between the two. That’s not just for dates relating to cancer either. It’s for all of the dates that mean something to me. All the dates that mean something to you.

I think I’ll always be obsessed with anniversaries – whether they’re mine or historical ones. I have a lot of dates that stick in my mind and I honestly wonder what I’d know if I didn’t use up valuable space in my memory with this kind of thing. And song lyrics. Reckon I know the equivalent of that whole Chronicle of the 20th Century in song lyrics. It’s also weird that chemo has forced me to forget what I went into the kitchen for (EVERY TIME) but allows me to remember key dates. THANKS BRAIN.

Life and Loss

I got a couple of bits of news this week that shook me up. Neither are my news to tell, so I won’t go into specifics but, as you can probably guess from the title of this blog, they’re both related to loss, and unsurprisingly, cancer. Two people who I know, mostly through my writing on this platform, were both killed by cancer in the last week or so. I can guarantee that these women have left behind enormous voids, holes in the lives of the many people who loved them. I didn’t know either of them well, but they’ve left a hole in my life. I can’t imagine the impact this has had on the people they’ve left behind. Once again I’m reminded of cancer’s cruelty and the volatility of the lives we are all trying to make the best of.

I don’t want to make this about me, because it isn’t. These reflections come as a result of myself and these people being in the same situation – finding ourselves on the receiving end of the words no-one ever wants to hear. The words “it is cancer”. But I know that the longer I live as a person who has had breast cancer, the more people I’ll meet going through the same or similar experiences, and the more people I’ll encounter who don’t make it through. The more often I’ll (and I mean that in a general sense as a person who is part of the cancer community) hear of the deaths of those for whom treatment didn’t work as well as mine seems to have done.

And it’s a reminder. It sounds selfish and I don’t mean it to, but it’s a reminder of how lucky I am to still be here, even when, in the throes of a depressive few weeks which have been dark and deep and suffocating, I find it hard to remember.

I think I’ve talked before about how people who have experienced cancer become a kind of tribe. Regardless of age, gender or whether you’ve had breast or ovarian cancer, lymphoma or Ewing’s sarcoma, we are kind of all in it together and we feel every loss very, very keenly. Late last year when we lost one of our fellow Boobettes, Alex who was just 26, I was devastated. I had never met her, we followed each other on Twitter, but our paths had never crossed in real life. That didn’t matter though. We were both Boobettes. She was one of us. One of our own. Her loss was a brutal reminder of why CoppaFeel! has to exist.

And there’s the fear too that comes with this kind of news. And the guilt. The fear because you can’t guarantee that the same won’t happen to you at some point in the future. The guilt for even thinking about it when you should be thinking about the person who has died rather than thinking about yourself. And the guilt that if you’ve made it through the thing that so cruelly killed them, you should be doing a lot more with your life. You should be doing it for them and every other person who has been killed by this disease that you have somehow escaped, rather than finding yourself sobbing in the shower, again, for the fourth time in a week, because cancer happened to you too.

And then I find myself thinking about the other people I’ve met who have had or are currently living with cancer. I worry for their futures more than my own truth be told, especially those closest to me. But one of the redeeming features of being diagnosed with cancer is the people you meet. Incredible people who have lived through the same sort of experiences as you. And while the risks of losing these people are almost tangible, not surrounding yourself with these people for fear of loss would be foolish. Because they are your tribe. Because you can learn from them. And if it weren’t for cancer you never would have met them.

Regardless of the feelings I have around the cruel news I heard this week, there is one thing that continually strikes me about cancer. Cancer is not avoidable but early detection does save lives. These brilliant women realised something wasn’t right with their bodies and got it checked out. In their cases, the cancer was aggressive and this wasn’t enough, but knowing ourselves and recognising any changes are positive steps towards stamping out late detection of cancer. News like this gives credence (not that we need any more) to the incredible work that CoppaFeel! are doing for breast cancer, and general education around cancer with their #RethinkCancer campaign. The three Boobette talks I’m doing this month will mean more to me than ever before.

So a couple of housekeeping bits before I go, and it’s a while since I’ve asked you this, but I’d really like you to pay your body some serious attention today and if anything doesn’t feel right, go see your doctor. Check your boobs, your balls, if you’re a woman who has had any unexplained bleeding after sex or between periods, call your surgery. If you’ve any lumps and bumps anywhere that you’re not sure about, make an appointment to go and get prodded by your GP. They want to hear from you if you’re worried about something. They really do, I promise.

And lastly if you’re having a glass of wine any time soon, I’d really like you to join me in raising it to Sharon and Margo.

Cancerversary – One Year On

Up until a few months ago, I never even realised a “cancerversary” was a thing. But that was before I found myself immersed in the cancer community. People mark different days for their cancerversary – the day they had surgery, the day they had the first biopsies and scans, the day they started chemo, the day they finished chemo, the day they finished treatment all together…

For me, my cancerversary seems to be the day I got diagnosed. And believe it or not, we’re coming up to a year since I sat patiently in Lewisham Hospital, watching the 10 year memorial service of the 7/7 bombings. One year since the kindly surgeon in the big bow tie sat in front of me and said “you have cancer”.  One year since I said “I have breast cancer” out loud for the first time. One year since I had to tell my family, three hundred miles away, that the lump I’d found was, in fact, something to be worried about.

One year since the course of my life changed. If not forever, then temporarily at least.

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to process the last year over recent weeks. I’ve found that, as I’m moving further and further away from my active treatment, I’m gradually coming to terms with what I’ve been through, even though I thought I was all over it before. I keep having weird flashbacks to things I’ve definitely repressed – like when my boob began leaking on the way into the office and I had to rush to the hospital to get it checked. Or when my hair fell out and I told myself it was ok. It actually, really wasn’t OK. The day I laid in the anaesthetics room waiting for my surgery, more scared than I had ever been about anything in my entire adult life but trying desperately not to cry. Trying desperately to keep my shit together.

I’ve had nightmares about cancer coming back, I still feel sick when I think of the chemo going into my veins, I have pain where my boob used to be. My body is still covered with reminders of the ravages of treatment.

Throughout treatment I was determined to make it to Glastonbury Festival 2016. I was diagnosed just a few days after we got back from Glasto last year and it quickly became my marker for recovery. I remember hearing a woman talking about her breast cancer treatment behind me in the queue for the toilet on the campsite. I wanted to turn around and hug her, tell her how incredible she was, tell her I was waiting for results and I didn’t think it was good news and I was terrified but trying to still have a good time.

Glasto this year was such hard work. Not only ‘cos of the mud (you probably heard about that though right?) but three months after finishing treatment and with the cloud of post-cancer fatigue lingering, schlepping, or rather sliding, across Worthy Farm was pretty tough. I saw barely any music this year and spent the majority of Saturday sick and sleeping in our tent. But I was so, so grateful to be there. I loved seeing all the gloriously happy and smiling faces of the other festival goers. Loved dancing into the early hours of the morning in the silent disco with three of my favourite people in the world. Loved singing along to Adele at the top of my lungs, despite the fact I’d felt horrendous for most of the day previous.

Cancer is a motherfucker. Treatment is a bloody bastard. But it’s doable. And on the days I wonder if it was all worth it, I think I’ll remember sitting on Worthy View, looking out over the festival site having dragged myself through cancer treatment and know that it was worth it.

On 7th July, I’ll be spending the day with the love of my life and eating dinner with some of the people who made my treatment so much more bearable. I’ve no idea how else I’m going to mark it. I might get a tattoo. I might go to the theatre. I might run a 10km. If it wasn’t so hot, I’d be tempted just to sit in the house in my onesie and take stock of everything. Suggestions on a postcard for how I mark it.

What a bloody year, eh?

Radiotherapy

When it comes to cancer treatments, radiotherapy is the lesser-talked-about sibling of chemotherapy. It doesn’t have the reputation that chemotherapy does, it isn’t perceived to be as blatant in the way it goes about its business, and it generally isn’t as widely recognised as part of Operation Let’s Blast the Pants off Cancer.

But radiotherapy, despite all these things, is still an integral part of cancer treatment for many people and one which can take its toll, if not as much physically as its predecessors then emotionally and mentally.

The treatments may only be 15 minutes long, but hot-footing your way to the hospital five days a week for a minimum of three weeks is hardly anyone’s idea of a good time.

I was very apprehensive ahead of my first session of radiotherapy. I’d had my CT scan and my planning session. The team had all the measurements for ensuring I’d be blasted in the right place and I’d learned the position I’d be spending 225 minutes in over the following three weeks (it’s a bit like being in fifth position in ballet, or what your arms would be doing if you were holding a beach ball above your head). I knew the basics of what I was going to be experiencing.

But it was quite different when I found myself on that first day, back in a hospital gown, back in a clinical setting, awaiting the last part of my active cancer treatment.

It was quite different when the team, though incredibly friendly and wonderfully reassuring, muttered numbers and words at one another over me in some kind of medical language that I had zero understanding of: ‘One right and one ant’.

It was quite different when they shifted me into exactly the right spot on the bed, telling me not to help them, but to let them manipulate my body as they needed to.

It was quite different when they left the room, the risk of them being exposed to what I was being exposed to, too great for them to remain.

It was quite different when the machine clunked and clicked and growled its way around me, blasting The Artist Formerly Known as Boob with radioactive waves, eradicating any final stubborn cancer cells which may have survived the poison of chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy is the last flourish across the finish line, the last push in a pretty brutal series of events. But for many people, the end of radiotherapy and active treatment marks the beginning of something else – a whole new journey, a new set of obstacles, a new bunch of challenges to tackle.

But that’s a topic for another blog post. Maybe to onlookers it seems like it’s easier than what has come before it. Maybe because it’s often the last thing on the treatment menu for most patients, it’s expected that the feeling of almost being ‘done’ will carry you to that victory lap.

I found radiotherapy easier than chemotherapy, but it’s all relative. No matter what has come before it, finding yourself in that environment will never be easy. It’s manageable.

Originally written for and posted on Breast Cancer Care

“Survivor”

Survive:

– To remain alive or in existence.

– To carry on despite hardships or trauma; persevere: families that were surviving in tents after the flood.

– To remain functional or usable: I dropped the toaster, but it survived.

I almost don’t want to speak too soon, because it’s impossible to know what the coming weeks, months, years have in store, but it seems that I’m gradually moving further away from “cancer patient” status and into the realms of “cancer survivor”. I’ve never been a survivor before. And to be honest, I don’t feel much like a survivor at the moment. The word feels weird on my tongue, my fingers don’t type it smoothly.

I suppose of the three definitions above, I feel most like the toaster – like I’m just about staying functional, moving from day to day in a bit of a haze, burning things a bit in the aftermath of the incident. It’s a balance between allowing myself to feel all of the emotions I need to feel, making it through every day, getting out of bed each morning and being grateful that this part of my story has ended this way, rather than any other. While I’m trying to process all of the emotions around what happened over the last few months, I’m plagued by a feeling of guilt. I shouldn’t be crying over the end of active treatment – for some people their treatment never ends.

I read something that compared the end of cancer treatment to the end of a war – the “battle” has been won, the soldiers have gone home, but the battle site is still covered in debris. Things need rebuilding – but rather than putting streets and houses and communities back together, people who’ve had cancer are putting themselves back together, one piece at a time. We are rebuilding confidence – in ourselves, in our bodies, in our abilities to work or do exercise or to love. We are rebuilding trust in our bodies that they won’t betray us again. In some cases, we are still literally watching our bodies being rebuilt. We are watching scars heal and we are trying to move forward while the shadows of the battle linger on. I kind of hate the war analogy that comes with a cancer diagnosis, but in this instance, it’s actually completely fitting.

As ever, I’m conflicted at the moment between wanting to get back out there and get my life on track or retreating reclusively into the comfort of my own home for a few months. It’s still such early days (I know how absurd I must sound) but I’m already putting pressure on myself to be “better” or “ok” or to figure out exactly what I want to do or be or feel, when the reality is, I actually have no clue. I’m not even sure I know how to be myself anymore. I spent so long trying to get used to being a cancer patient, I’ve lost the person I was before then. I’m gripped by anxiety every time I face meeting someone new, organising anything that’s more than a day or so in advance fills me with fear, so much so that I just shut off and some days leaving the house makes me feel sick.

I tell myself “it’s only been two weeks, your skin hasn’t even healed yet, so how can you expect your heart to have healed?” And I tell my friends who’ve just finished treatment, we have to give ourselves a break, be kind, be patient, take the time we need and not feel guilty about it. So why can’t I listen to my own advice? Why don’t I listen to them when they say exactly the same thing?

I suppose it’s because even though active treatment has finished, cancer patients live with their initial diagnosis for the rest of their lives. We aren’t told that at the beginning, because it would be too overwhelming, but as you approach the end of treatment, you start to realise that even if you show no evidence of disease, you’re a lifer. In this for the long haul. And there may be days, weeks, even months, I imagine when you don’t think about it, but then it’ll creep up on you and you’ll remember what an ordeal you’ve been through.

The hair will grow back, you might go back to work, you might have that “final” surgery, you might manage to have kids if your fertility has been an issue, you might be able to go on the holiday you had to cancel , you’ll come to terms with your new body and the ravaging it had from the treatment that saved your life, but the emotional legacy of cancer will never really leave you. And do you know what? That’s ok. It really is OK. It’s like getting to the end of a really good book – you know it’s done, but you live with it, as part of you, forever.

*Despite the sombre tone of this blog post, I have in fact been singing “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child on repeat since I started this post a week ago. So I think you should be doing the same. Pop it on, turn it up and let’s all have a dance around the living room. I’ll be Beyonce.

The End of Active Treatment

So here we are. After almost 9 months of being cut, poisoned, burnt, prodded, poked and stabbed, I’ve finally reached the end of my active treatment. Good Friday this year really was a Good Friday. I’ve made it. We’ve made it.

All of my emotions are on full volume right now – extra loud and battling for my attention. I don’t know which one to listen to, so I’m swinging between crying needlessly and feeling little to nothing. I feel like the tears will keep coming too. My mum said to me earlier “are you a happy girl?” And honestly, while I’m feeling about 7000 emotions right now, I’m not sure happy is one of them.

I feel relieved. I feel scared. I feel anxious. I feel exhausted, overwhelmed, numb, sad, shell shocked, nervous, hopeful, optimistic, pessimistic and a little bit sick if I’m being honest. The whole situation still feels so surreal that I can’t even begin to process what’s happened. I’ve only just got past the finish line but the sheer enormity of everything that has happened over the last few months has come into keen focus. It’s crippling me a bit. I feel like I’ve just stepped out into the sunshine and it’s going to take me a while to adjust to the new light.

There are still so many questions. What happens next? Where do we go from here? Will cancer make another unwelcome stop in my life? When will I hear those words “no evidence of disease”? Will I hear those words? How do I find my way back to some semblance of normal life when everything has changed? When will I wake up and not think about cancer immediately? When will cancer no longer be the last thing I think about as I drift off? When will this experience seem real? When will I be able to answer the question “how are you?” with an honest answer? When will the fear of recurrence ease? Did this treatment work?

There are still so many questions. And I don’t have the answers. I don’t know that anyone does.

I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow, next week, next month, but I guess it’s just a case of getting up and getting on with it. Whatever happens. Whatever it takes. I guess I just have to remember that I’ve made it through the hardest nine months of my life – and while I may be scarred and changed both mentally and physically, I hopefully won’t ever have to go through anything like this again.

If cancer is a “journey” (and I’m still not sure that’s the right word) then after cancer is a different journey – one where the terrain is different, where the destination may have changed and where you feel like the activities you carry out on the way need to be different. While I’m not sure I’ve got the mythological new found clarity of someone who has stood up to a disease like this, I do think the parameters for my life have changed.

Triple Negative breast cancer – which doesn’t respond to hormones – is more likely to return than other types of breast cancer, but it’s more likely to do so in the first five years. So I’m going to live with that fear for some time. I’m going to be concerned about getting secondaries and every ache and pain will probably make me panic. I’m going to have to learn to measure that.

But for now, I’m going to try and take the victory of making it through these gruelling nine months and for hopefully doing it with a bit of panache. And a smile. And a bit of a laugh where I could. I’m going to celebrate my homeboy, my boob gang girls, the friends I’ve relied on physically and emotionally, the incredible NHS staff and the family who’ve struggled with having cancer emotionally. Without these people I don’t know where I would have been. I feel exceptionally lucky.

Cancer isn’t just going to disappear from my life with the end of my active treatment. But I hope after making me weaker over the last nine months, it’s going to make me stronger in the future. This is the end of one chapter, but the start of another.

Self Confidence in the Face of Cancer

Self confidence is something I’ve often grappled with. Like most people these days, I scroll through Instagram, Facebook, the Internet as a whole and I’m subjected to images of photoshopped bodies, made to look smaller, more taut, more toned. I see adverts every second breath telling me how to get glossier hair, I’m subjected to images that suggest women are little more than a pair of knockers. Or magazine articles that exclaim “Fix your eyebrows, find love!”. These articles, adverts, posts, messages all tell me how I “should” look.

So what do you do then, when you find yourself squidgy round the edges because a gruelling healthcare routine has left you with little time or energy to put on your running shoes? When you no longer have any hair at all, let alone hair that you need to make thicker? Or when one of the parts of your body that defines you as a woman is taken away from you? When you haven’t a single eyebrow hair to speak of, when you couldn’t make your brows “on fleek” if you tried. How do you find self confidence if you don’t even recognise the face, the body, looking back at you in the mirror? When you’re as far away from how you “should” look, as you possibly can be?

Self confidence is a funny old thing and often in the UK it gets confused with arrogance, much like it’s close sibling, self belief. People would far rather pick at things they don’t like than look at the things they do like. So next time you’re brushing your teeth or your hair, or figuring out if you really can wear that skirt with that top (by my rules, you deffos can, I know I can’t see, but you can), I’d like you to do something for me. Look at yourself. Really look at yourself and find one thing you love about your face. Maybe you’ve got beautiful eyes, maybe you’ve got really full lips, maybe your cute button nose is a real family trait. Perhaps you can look at your body and be proud of the strength you see in your biceps or calves or maybe you’ve got stretch marks that prove you’re a mummy and you love them because they show you carried another human for 9 months. These things are what make you, you. They tell your story. They don’t have to be perfect. But if you can come to terms with them now, it won’t matter what’s thrown at you in the future.

I stepped out in a swimming costume the other day for the first time in 7 months. Chemo and surgery had both played a part in stopping me from doing one of my favourite things. I didn’t wear a hat and I dont yet have a prosthetic designed for swimming. I was terrified, worried about what people would think of me if they noticed how lopsided my boobs were. Scared that people would judge me and my bald head and my tired eyes. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to swim fast or for long any more. All of these things came down to my self confidence. And there were two things my friends said to me that gave me pause, and helped me park my insecurities. “No one will notice what you look like because they’ll all be too worried about what they look like” and “you may be being treated for cancer, but you’re still a swimmer. That hasn’t changed”.

And when I got in the pool, it didn’t matter. I did get some weird looks, but I get weird looks when I’m not bald. And I reminded myself that it’s OK to look like a cancer patient. Because that’s what I am at the moment. It’s not all I am, but it’s a big part right now. And that’s OK.

For my whole life, I’ve been conflicted by wanting to avoid having my photograph taken, but being desperate to take – and be involved in – a shot to preserve a memory (I made a hilarious typo when I wrote that sentence first time – see if you can guess what it was). And I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding mirrors too. So why then did I appeal for someone to take professional photos of myself when I looked less like myself than I ever could have envisaged? Because cancer has changed my approach to self confidence in one way or another.

That’s not to say I’m any more confident than I was BC (before cancer) but I guess the goalposts have moved or the parameters have changed. Whichever cliche you want to adopt. I have a list of things I won’t moan about when I don’t have cancer and some of the more superficial of them include “bad hair days” or “looking like shit”. If I’ve got hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and skin that doesn’t look like tracing paper, I’m a step ahead of cancer me. And I wanted to remember the strength I’ve found during my cancer treatment. To celebrate the me that’s finally become brave enough to be out without a hat on and be comfortable with it. So here’s a couple of the photos I had taken the other week. So I can look at them in the future and remember this version of self confidence when I can’t find another. If I hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer, there is no way I would have bared my chemo face and my scarred body to a stranger (who I now hope is a friend). I hope these photos, especially the ones of my mastectomy scar offer some strength to other breast cancer sufferers. I bloody salute you all.

Photos by the INIMITABLE Georgia Devey Smith. Mega thanks to Georgia for taking these photos – I’m sure you’ll agree she is exceptionally talented and I feel very privileged to have been photographed to her. Thanks also to my homegirl Isobel Kennedy for doing my makeup – but more on that next time (with more photos of my mug. SOZ)

Life on Pause

There’s been loads written over the last few years about social media and the rise of FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out is allegedly terrorising millennials, who scroll through their social media feeds and are stricken by an intense feeling that they’re missing out on doing something awesome, while they’re sat at home twiddling their thumbs and browsing the stories of other people’s lives on their screens.

Now, I can’t say I’ve never been hit by a blast of FOMO, but it’s not something I’ve hugely battled with in my life. I do cool things. I see cool things. I’m exceptionally privileged to live in one of the best cities in the world, so even if I wasn’t doing something cool at the moment I whizzed past a friend posting about doing something awesome on the old social media, I knew I’d be doing something cool all of my own in due course. That was, of course, BC (before cancer).

I don’t remember an awful lot about the 7th July. I remember what I did before going to the hospital, I remember being nervous. I remember watching the 7/7 memorial service in the waiting room. I remember what I was wearing (Hogwarts Tshirt FTW). I remember the kindly doctor in the big bow tie when he said “there’s no easy way to say this”.

But after that moment, my life as I knew it stopped. The world kept moving around me, but my life, my plans, everything I knew was paused. Chris’ life was paused too. Indefinitely. At 26 years old, when you’ve got plans coming out of your ears, when you’ve been living life as fully and as passionately as you can, when you’ve been dreaming big and hoping for bigger, this comes as quite a shock.

And it takes quite an adjustment too. I’ve talked before about swapping nights out for early nights, delicious dinners with friends for a bowl of buttered pasta with peas in front of the telly (actually not as depressing as it sounds – and still a favourite), swapping Sri Lanka for Sarah Ward at Guy’s Hospital and finding myself crawling into bed at 9pm, drained, anxious and not ready to take on another day. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of words that can appropriately describe how those things feel.

It’s so easy to get lost in all the things you’re missing out on. More than once I’ve felt like life has been passing me by while all of my friends have been living theirs. I’ve felt stuck, stranded. More than once I’ve identified hugely with Professor Andrew Martin in The Humans by Matt Haig (a must read if you’re a fiction fan) as an alien living in the midst of a world I didn’t really understand, finding myself lost and confused and heading to chemotherapy appointments while my colleagues got dressed up in their finery to head to the work Christmas party. More than once I’ve been infuriated at cancer for limiting my freedom to do exactly what I want. I’m stubborn and I don’t largely like being told what to do, especially not by a bunch of mutated cells. Not cool, yo.

This sounds a bit wanky, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about gratitude recently. Partially because of how grateful I am for the love of my friends and family during this crappy time. For the NHS who have worked to beat this bloody disease. For the love of a man I cant imagine making it through this without.

But also for things like the daffodils being in bloom. The sun on my face. The ability to dance around the room like a loon to my favourite song of the moment (DON’T ASK ME, IT’S PROBABLY ZAYN OK. I have literally never been cool). For food on the table. For a delicious hot chocolate in the best company. For Margaret Atwood. For the sound of my record player. For having primary breast cancer rather than secondary. I could go on. And on and on.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the things to be grateful for, especially on the days when you wake up and think “do I have to live with this again today?” Especially on the days you’re hyper aware of all the things you’re “missing out on” while dealing with cancer. Especially on the days you don’t really want to get up and face the world. But the reasons for gratitude are many. And they are really wonderful if I remind myself to look for them. And they make up for “missing out” on the things I think I should be doing. Most days.

Scars and Stories

I’ve always been pretty accident prone. When I was a kid, I was forever falling over, walking into things and falling off things. As a result, I’m covered in little scars. Tiny little white flecks across my body that remind me of a place and time in my life. When I look at my knees (which admittedly, I don’t do often because that would be weird) I can see the scar from the day I fell off the wall at school. I remember the thick scab that covered the wound as my skin fused together again. When I look in my face in the mirror, I see the single thin line from my forehead to my chin, an outline of the story where I dragged the cat down the stairs by her tail and got my comuppance for it.

As I grew older, I got a few scars too. My TB jab, reminding me of the secondary school I hated and the bullies who threatened to punch it. I have a scar on my left breast from where the fibroadenoma I had a few years ago was removed. I’ve learned over the last month or so I’ve got two tiny scars on the back of my head. And there are other marks too. And all of them link together in a tapestry of history, a timeline of events where my body has suffered some kind of trauma and recovered itself. I’ve always been proud of these scars. Every time I bash myself on the doorway as I rush from A to B, I like it when a bruise blooms underneath my skin, a mark of a moment. It makes a story to tell. And I deal in stories.

Now I have a whole range of new scars, new tales to relay. From where they inserted a line in my left bicep that travelled straight to my heart so drugs could be administered easily and blood could be removed without stabbing around for a vein. Come to think of it, my thick, rigid vein, damaged by the drugs – admittedly not a scar per se, but an external reminder of internal healing. The tiny pinpricks on my stomach from injection after injection to rebuild my immune system after every battering it took from chemo. The three tiny little tattoos to mark where they’ll be blasting me for radiotherapy. The slash across my chest where they took out the cancer, and eventually my breast tissue, leaving behind an envelope of skin, a stark reminder of what the last eight months have been about – as if I needed one.

But these scars are different. Part of me wishes I could leave them behind, that they didn’t exist so I wouldn’t have to carry them with me forever. So that when this chapter of my life is done, I can move on and forget about it. But that’s just fantasy. There are many more scars – those that aren’t physical that I’ll carry with me, so even if there were no scars casting patterns across my skin, there’d still be those to contend with. I’ve always marvelled at the scars I got before I had breast cancer. I’ve always been proud and fascinated by my body’s ability to heal and regenerate.

I guess the scars I have from getting breast cancer weren’t caused by my own clumsiness. I didn’t walk into cancer. Didn’t fall over it because I wasn’t paying attention. These scars happened because my body turned against me. Because my breast tried to kill me. That’s something that I have to come to terms with, just one of the mental cuts I have to allow to heal. At the same time though, they tell a story too. That same story of regeneration and healing as all my other scars, just on a larger scale. They show a strength I never knew I had. A resilience I never imagined I’d be able to find. So I guess I should be proud of them. And proud of everything they represent. I guess I just have to give my mind time to scab over and heal before I can accept the physical traces of cancer.

Photo by Georgia Devey Smith