In September 2017, I was getting ready to pack up our lives and move my family to New York, following an opportunity to take my career overseas with my company Avon,
It made sense for me to leave ahead of the family, setting up our new life with an apartment, schooling and meeting my new colleagues. I was beyond excited.
However, within two weeks of arriving in New York, I noticed my right breast had become sore, similar to what a breastfeeding mother might describe as a blocked duct.
I’d had some trouble with cysts in my breasts in the past and was not a stranger to annual check-ups. However, it had never led to anything sinister, nor did breast cancer run in my family.
Over the next couple of weeks, I took photos of the changes in my breasts. They became rock hard, red and sore to touch, all the way around to my armpit. However, to my knowledge, there was still no lump.
My symptoms continued to worsen and I became more concerned as each day passed, so I decided I should try and make an appointment. I did some research and spoke to the team at WestMed in New Rochelle. However, being a new resident and still sorting out healthcare arrangements, I was told it would be six weeks until I could see a specialist.
Pleading with the team, I informed them of the changes I’d documented in my breasts in just two weeks, and how concerned I was. Thankfully, I was seen that week.
Whilst the specialist suspected inflammatory breast cancer, I wasn’t convinced. I thought it was an infection at best. This wasn’t the case, the specialist found a lump under my arm, and ordered a biopsy straight away. Two days later, I was informed the diagnosis was positive, and not only that, it was critical, at stage 3-4.
My world was in a complete spin. I was hearing the words cancer; I was on my own in an unfamiliar city and I’d never even heard of inflammatory breast cancer. I even had to wait for the time difference to call my husband and share the news.
I was told by the specialist to either leave New York within 48 hours, return home immediately and arrange an appointment on my arrival or start treatment the following day in New York without my family.
And so, the ‘journey’ began. Within two weeks of a positive diagnosis I started 6-months of chemotherapy. I am told I stood outside the treatment centre for 10 minutes staring at the door before I walked in, however I have no recollection of this time at all. I was in shock, it had only been a matter of days and here I was, starting chemotherapy.
Challenging my mindset
The treatment was so aggressive that I had a number of painful reactions, but I made a conscious decision to push through. At the time, I was putting my body through such extremes for an unknown outcome. For me, I needed to know what the purpose of treatment was, even if it wasn’t going to work. I decided very early on that I wanted my daughters to know I had tried to fight this disease and what it meant to fight back.
Everyone is different, but I think tapping into what you need as a person, and as a patient, can help. For me, I needed purpose.
I’ve always operated with a ‘purposeful’ mindset, but the idea of employing a positive mindset when you’re told your chances of living are slim, is a whole different ball game.
I knew meditation wasn’t for me, so I decided to find different ways to be mindful, as opposed to pushing things that didn’t fit.
I found solace in journaling my thoughts, feelings and experiences, at various times throughout the day. Rather than lay awake in bed at night, I would write down my deepest and sometimes darkest feelings, locking them away once they had spilled out of me, so I could move ahead with the next day.
Learning to practice mindfulness didn’t come naturally, but I tried to be present during the little things I enjoyed. If I felt up to walking outside, I’d make a point of listening to the sounds of birds or the waves washing on shore.
I also made sure to surround myself with ‘healthy love’ – love from those that make your heart happy.
Whilst people can have the best intentions, I had to distance myself from those that offered sympathies I simply couldn’t receive and avoided hearing about other people’s battles with cancer. I could only relate to my own experience at the time.
Self-awareness is so important
Self-awareness is extremely important. You need to acknowledge what you’re feeling and find YOUR best ways to deal with it.
The elements of my life that I could control became a way to push through the unknowns that cancer presented. Each day, I would get up, shower and move about her house. Sometimes, I would only move from the bedroom to the living room, but this was a feat in itself and I could be proud of myself for getting out of bed. The days I could go outside or take a walk, were to be savoured and celebrated.
Ask yourself, what do I like about today? What makes today different? What can I pay attention to that is not about cancer?
Think about what makes you happy, whether it be cooking, colouring or spending time with family. You might not do these things every day, but even if you find little pockets where you feel able to enjoy them throughout the week, it might just make one week better than the last.
Never giving up hope
I was told that the treatment and surgery may not be successful, but even during this time, I couldn’t give up hope.
The first day after my radical mastectomy, the surgeon visited me in the hospital and described that my condition was nothing short of a miracle – a word not chosen lightly – and in fact, the chemotherapy had worked.
Trying to conjure feelings of happiness and elation, I felt lost and unsure about what the word ‘miracle’ actually meant.
My breast cancer nurse at the time explained that in the months prior, my body had been operating with heightened adrenaline, fighting a disease that could take my life. Coming down from that level and being ‘allowed to think about the future’ was hard to digest.
And so, I started to discover what the ‘new’ me looked like.
I still walk for an hour every day and practice mindfulness techniques to be present. It has absolutely become a part of who I am.
These techniques won’t be the same for everybody. We are all different and so are our experiences with cancer. It’s important to find what works for you.