It was 2016; I was 32 years old and a first-time mum to a beautiful baby boy, my husband and I had just bought our dream house, our business was thriving, and life was looking pretty good.
And then just like that we had the rug pulled from under us.
I never thought that three little words had the power to change my life forever, the words “you have cancer,” echoed in my ears over and over. I recall my husband squeezing my hand but everything else was just a blur. All I remember is thinking I can’t die. I can’t leave my son.
I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Invasive Carcinoma and my only option of treatment was 6 months of adjuvant Doxorubicin chemo, the most potent chemo there was and then, depending on how I responded to it, undergo a bilateral mastectomy.
I had recently studied Cognitive Behavior Therapy and I genuinely believe that it saved my sanity because I started using the tools I had learnt to find a positive for everything I was going through.
While I was devastated and shell shocked at my diagnosis, I knew that the only thing I could control about what was happening to me was how I responded to it. I felt my doctors at Icon Cancer Care were the best in their field and I had access to the world’s top healthcare system. Knowing all this made it easier to leave my treatment in their hands and devote all my energy to finding hope and joy in what was the darkest period of my life.
For the first few days after my first round of chemo, and just when I thought maybe it wasn’t going to be as bad as they said it might be, the full effects of the treatment hit me.
I experienced nearly every side effect listed; nausea and vomiting, compromised immune system, hair loss, fevers, diarrhea, hives, mouth ulcers and extreme fatigue. This led to my oncologist admitting me into hospital after every chemo, where I would spend a week being pumped with steroids, Neupogen injections to increase my white cells and prevent deadly infections, along with bags and bags of IV fluid.
I would then go home where I would spend a whole week in bed with pure exhaustion and just when I would start feeling strong and physically ok, it would be time to do it all again. I had weekly blood tests to check my blood count and see if I was able to have chemo and despite taking every precaution I ended up in ICU due to Yersinia Entercolitica, a common bacteria from uncooked food that caused the infection I had been desperately trying to prevent.
This went on for 6 grueling months, and I often felt like I was in hell. My mind was in survival mode but through it all, I also found courage and determination I never know I had by always telling myself that tomorrow would be a better day and somehow it always was.
After undergoing a bilateral mastectomy, I was told I didn’t have a complete remission and was required to undergo 25 rounds of radiation, as well as axillary lymph node removal to take out affected lymph nodes.
I have always believed that we are only ever given one day in life and that every other day is a bonus, so finding out that I might die made me so much more determined to live so that I could make every single day count. The only way for me to do that was to surround myself with love and happiness and show people that no matter how dark life got, it would be so much easier to bear if we remembered and focused on the joy and blessings of the smallest things.
I laughed when, halfway through my chemo my husband said that he could finally say he was the better looking one in our marriage, and when we both walked into my son’s room , me with a bald head too (thanks chemo!) and asked him which one was mummy.
Was I in denial? Possibly, but for me it was the only way I knew how to survive. I wasn’t going to cry about my hair, or my breasts, it was just my exterior and there was nothing I could do about it, I couldn’t change it so I found other ways of reminding myself that inside I was still me.
Throughout my treatment, my family took turns coming over from New Zealand and whenever they were here I made a conscious decision to be happy and stoic. I didn’t want any of them to be sad because my whole life we had always just laughed, my siblings were the funniest and happiest people I had ever met and whenever we were together life was epic.
I started talking to women on the oncology ward, some who despite being in palliative care found strength to tell me not to give up, and as a result inspired me to start my blog called Cancer has nothing on me which then became Life beyond cancer. I wanted women to know that while inevitably some battles may not be won, cancer was not necessarily a death sentence and many of them would go onto lead a long and healthy life.
As a result of radiation damage to my chest my road to recovery became quite complicated when 6 weeks after my reconstruction surgery my scar split and my implant had to come out. Unfortunately, this caused a severe infection that required 4 months of back-to-back intravenous antibiotics, which meant more stays in the hospital and ongoing problems with scar tissue and lymphedema, which is still being treated now.
This year will mark four years since I went into remission and I know that I am now living my best life. I have eliminated worrying about every little thing and spent the last few years on becoming the healthiest person I can be. Over the last few years I have worked with Naturopaths, Biochemists and Acupuncturists to help my body recover from the entire trauma. I researched essential oils, different diets and forms of meditation, which tremendously helped my recovery. I started exercising as soon as I was physically able to and now, I am healthier than I was before, despite going through early menopause.
It may sound strange, but it was only when I thought that I might die that I really learnt how to live.