I was in the shower when I first felt it, a small chewy sweetie about the size of a frozen pea trapped deep within my flesh.
Massaging it every morning in the shower, I swore, begged and willed it to be a blocked duct.
I was still breastfeeding and since having mastitis a few months earlier, I’d been checking for blocked ducts quite frequently.
I’d breastfeed my daughter (who was six years old back then) until she was three and was planning on doing the same with my son. He was eighteen months and formula had always been a part of his diet because he was born nine weeks early (a whole other story!), but serving “Mummy Milk” was important to me.
Despite the usual difficulties – the engorged, leakiness of it all – and going around with Savoy cabbage leaves and soggy breast pads stuffed down my bra, I still (mostly) adored breastfeeding.
But in a few weeks’ time it came to an abrupt stop when I was made radioactive.
But I’m jumping ahead…
So, I spent exactly three weeks massaging the hell out of that tiny lump. But it didn’t go. And it didn’t go red, get sore or bring on fever, either. It definitely was not mastitis.
And I knew I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer, so I told my partner Matthew.
No one else was to know just yet. Not even my legendary mum, who’d somehow coped with breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy aged 41 with five kids, her youngest barely one-year-old.
My GP told me he thought it was a fibroadenoma, also known as “breast mouse” due to the fact it feels like it moves about – not something to worry over, but he gave me an urgent referral because of my family history.
On the 18th of January 2008 I was back at the breast clinic for my biopsy clutching my partner Matthew’s hand, still the youngest in the room by at least twenty years.
The room was on tenterhooks, with the full rainbow of emotions – dread, anxiety, surrender, bright facades, stunned silence.
After a long wait, the lovely, compassionate and quirky Professor delivered the horrendous news with tender care.
I was 29.
That day had fuzzy and dreamlike quality, a stark contrast to the clear, alarming January sunshine.
A lumpectomy + sentinel node biopsy was the order of the day. This was when I became radioactive and the kids had to stay away for two days. The radioactive dye was to help work out which lymph nodes the cancer would travel to first. My result?
None – cue happy dance!
The reality: my tumour was only 5mm, plus some ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS – pre-cancerous changes). I escaped chemo and radiotherapy (yay!), but was to have hormone therapy (boo!) and due to my family history and young age, my “best outcome” ie “chance of staying alive” was a bilateral mastectomy.
So that same year (in June) the Professor and his partner-in-crime (the cosmetic surgeon) plus an amazing team performed a seven and a half hour surgery on me to remove every ounce of breast tissue from my body and replace it with implants plus muscle and skin from my back.
It’s called Bilateral Mastectomy with Latissimus Dorsi Reconstruction and most women recover very well.
Not me. My brain decided constant pain was the new normal, long after I healed. Years after I’d healed.
Having breast cancer, or rather, the experience of everything that comes with it – the wagon atop a mouse’s shoulders – has taught me so much.
- You can cope with more than you think
Even though you have days when you’re falling apart and doing the bare minimum to get by, because your kids need food to eat and clean clothes to wear, you’re still coping. We have much more grit than we give ourselves credit for.
- Patience is your best friend
As a parent, you need to cultivate patience, but I’m not talking about that kind of patience. I mean the patience you need to accept you must rest and let others take care of you. Patience for the huge amount of time cancer takes out of your life and to become okay with that.
- You’ll still find delight within the sorrow
For that split second before they compose themselves, the strange and varied reactions people have to your diagnosis can be hilarious! Enjoy the funny side – it’s okay to laugh when you’re also gasping for air. In fact, it’s your rope back to the world of calm.
- The clichés are all true
Whether you find clichés annoying or not, they’re all true! Any type of trauma, an illness like cancer or grieving a loved one, helps life become poignantly beautiful and so very precious. You will enjoy the littlest of things – tastes, touch, light. This experience helps you realise that every single person you pass on the street is carrying a heavy burden or will have a hard battle to contend with some point – there’s no escaping it, so we must learn to live with ours.
- Try to do what you love
There’s nothing like a tap on the shoulder from the grim reaper to focus your attention on who you love most and what you need to do with your time to stay sane and keep breathing!
I had been lucky enough to have my own business which I was passionate about. I loved the events & ecommerce platform I’d created for designer-makers so much that I kept it going through cancer and for two more years.
But in secret, I was writing – memoirs, short stories, ideas for novels. Then it dawned on me: I was always a writer. Much of the success my first business had was from my writing and communication skills, but I was keeping it going through a duty to my designers at that time. My passion was moving elsewhere. I still wanted to help small businesses with their communications, so I became a copywriter. And when you’re happy now, we can deliver our best work.
- Welcome all offers of help
Stop turning down offers of help. Why turn them down when the person offering genuinely wants to support you (and feel useful)? You can’t do everything yourself, so end the overworking and accept help.
- Your experience is valid
All the empathy and imagination in the world is wonderful, but you don’t really know the hardship another person is going through unless you’ve had that experience yourself. And, even then, everyone’s experience of their chronic health problem, life-threatening disease, post-traumatic stress, grief, is all unique to that person.
- Life is f*@king scary
Fear can rule you. There was a time when I was scared almost every day. Back then, the Grim Reaper was on my heels. But I no longer feel that breast cancer is a death sentence. It’s what I knew to be true before my diagnosis, because we’d never lost someone to breast cancer. Sadly, that’s not the same for everyone. But, are you going to let fear stop you from living?
- Your body is extraordinary
When your body doesn’t want the disposable stitches anymore, it will slowly spit them out. Your nickname will be The Fly for a couple of weeks and you’ll laugh at how freaked out you were.
- Always trust a doctor who admits they don’t know everything
Whether they’re a GP or breast Professor, when they admit they don’t know everything and need to seek a specialist, or they tell you what they know about breast genetics is just the tip of the iceberg, then you know you can trust them – they’ve not developed too much of a God complex.
- The washing machine hides snot-nosed howls
Save up your proper crying for when the kids are across the hall watching the telly and the washing machine is on its noisy spin cycle.
- It’s okay for your kids to know you’re just human
Try not to hide too much from your children. They will sense your desperation and fear and sorrow anyway. Be as open as you can, so that they know it’s okay to cry it out or feel sad That is your superhuman strength, to show them things can be tough and upsetting, but we can pick ourselves up and stumble on back to joy.
What I hope most, is that I’ve encouraged friends, family and acquaintances to check themselves or remind the women in their lives to check their breasts every single month.
What about you? Is this post a helpful reminder?
1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
But more women are surviving than ever before – 85% of people survive breast cancer beyond five years.
I am writing this post several years after my diagnosis in 2008 and my mother is an active, youthful grandma who has had no recurrences or new cancers since 1991.
More than 80% of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50, but that doesn’t mean you can just wait for your NHS mammograms.
The earlier cancer is found the higher your chance of survival.
Please don’t let fear put you off checking yourself or going to your GP – give your body the best shot to be here with the people that love you.
It can be hard to examine yourself during the early period of breastfeeding when your breasts are so engorged with milk. But, when they settle down, it’s more about noticing what’s different, not just feeling for lumps. It’s about knowing what’s normal for you because our breasts can change throughout our monthly hormonal cycles.
Treat the habit like your pelvic floor exercises and attach it to another mundane activity – check them when you’re getting changed, or when you’re in the shower.
And remember, just because you’ve found a lump or something else has changed, it doesn’t mean it’s cancer. There are lots of benign breast conditions too.
If you’ve never checked yourself before (and even if you have), there’s a fantastic video which walks you through the simple TLC method on Breast Cancer Now.
If you or someone you know has been affected by cancer, here are some places where support is offered for people with cancer and their loved ones:
Breast Cancer Care – lots of information and support, however the forum is public.
BC Pals Forum – run by volunteers, this private forum was my lifeline for support.
What has a tough life experience taught you?
Tell me in the comments.
Jeda is a copywriter and communication strategist from Scotland, UK. She loves collaborating with incredible business owners across the globe, to help them connect with more of their ideal clients and grow their businesses. She believes your copy can be sleaze-free, honest and heart-centered and still be magnetic, persuasive and able to convert.
Find inspiration, tips and free guides on Jeda’s website, jedapearl.com.