Friday 24th August 2018 was a strange and special day. It marked two years since my cancer surgery.
Surgery was the mid-way point between six cycles of chemotherapy and, to me, was the goalpost for the first half of treatment. Ahead of surgery all I focused on was getting myself in the best shape for surgery, and this became my main motivation during the initial treatment months. Post-surgery was quite different. I was physically weaker, and as a result chemotherapy was that little bit harder to manage. We were moving into the autumn months; this meant that the days were shorter, and there was less time to enjoy being outside, which was something that had really helped me at the start of treatment.
After that it was a further year of treatment, and this November will hopefully mark two years cancer free. So as you can imagine, its been quite the journey; with a lot of ups and downs along the way. In many ways, its been about reconnecting with my life pre cancer, whilst also finding a new way of life because things are not at all the same. I think Dennis the Menace (of all people!) perfectly sums up how I feel when he says:
“The best thing you can do is get good at being you.”
For me its felt as though I have needed to take a few steps back and learn how to get ‘good at being me, with the new bits of me included,’ When the diagnosis came, I was very close to finishing my Masters degree, which I quickly realised was not going to be possible to do at the time. So I put it on hold, and once treatment ended, I had to pick up where I left off and finish the work. In some ways, it was harder than I imagined because going back to something with a whole new part of myself attached felt really strange. But there were also things that actually helped. I had a much clearer sense of my priorities, an ability to notice when I was getting caught up in work stress, and developed strategies to help focus on looking after myself.
So I’ve had to learn to get good at being both the old and new bits of me. And there are bits of new me that are really not easy to get used to. I’m trying to hold onto the fact that in order to be ok with something difficult, you first have to acknowledge that it exists. So these are the five things at the moment that exist as part of me, which I’m trying hard to get good at being ok with.
A fear of relapsing and whether treatment would work a second time
I often battle with my internal cancer panic button. Jaws (my anxiety pet shark) will often switch it on without me even realising. Usually its to do with something in my body, which I’ll notice and then fixate on. Some examples include: a recent episode of back pain, fainting on holiday, and a pain in my left breast. My rational side knows there are good reasons for these symptoms. The back pain came after I attempted to lift weights in the gym, the fainting happened in a hot climate after I jumped out of bed to go to the toilet, and the breast pain has been there on and off for some time; my consultant has checked it multiple times and has not been worried. But all these rational thoughts go out the window once the button has been pressed, and then I can react in very different ways. Sometimes I might stay calm or go into a silent panic, or I might go into a full blown panic, eventually convincing myself that cancer is back. A full blown panic makes it very difficult to reason with Jaws and convince her to switch the cancer panic button off.
I know that I can’t change or get rid of my anxiety about cancer returning. I’ve accepted it as a normal consequence of my situation. However, what I am getting better at reminding myself of is that a diagnosis of cancer doesn’t automatically mean the end. It can be treated, even when dealing with relapsed cancer. So even if my cancer were to come back, it is still a fight that I have done and can do again. By reminding myself that all is not lost, even if the worst happenes, I’m getting a little bit better a being Laura post-cancer; a me who is always going to have this worry, but can learn to notice it, acknowledge it, and try to let it go.
A fear of getting breast cancer
Ever since I was diagnosed with BRCA related ovarian cancer, my BRCA related breast cancer risk feels more real. Statistically at the age I am, I’ve always been at higher risk of breast cancer than ovarian cancer, so the fact that my body didn’t follow the statistics fills me with uncertainty and dread. Truthfully, I’m terrified of getting breast cancer. I often wonder about what it would be like and what treatment I would need. Perhaps worse than this is my fear of losing the chance to take control of the risk. The plan (before cancer) had always been to have a preventative mastectomy before the risk of breast cancer started to rise around the age of 30. That obviously couldn’t happen and because of the high risk of recurrence, it can’t happen yet, at least for a few more years. So instead I have to work with the new plan of close monitoring. My boobs get an MOT every three months so if breast cancer was found it would be found early, and a new plan would be made to give me the best chance of beating it. I’ve had to redefine what control means for me with this, and I am trying to think that I actually do still have control because I’m choosing to attend three monthly screening. So that’s what I need to keep saying to myself. Reminding myself of the facts here is helping me to get better at being ‘Laura post cancer’ AND ‘Laura increased risk of breast cancer’.
Hating my breasts
Ok it sounds harsh but it’s true. I hate my breasts. Over this year, I’ve been trying to get my head around my strong and negative feelings towards my breasts. But the simple truth is I hate them. I know what they could do to me and very early on in my cancer journey I found that I had completely disconnected from them because of this. I don’t see them as part of me anymore, and although it may sound weird, I’m excited to get them removed; I’m actually looking forward to that day. For me it will bring a sense of empowerment and freedom. But the key word here is when. It can’t happen yet and there is still uncertainty about when it can happen. So that has meant that I’ve had to start to learn to shift my thinking and feelings of hate because I know that I don’t want to be carrying that about all the time. I don’t want to focus on negative aspects of my body because I am proud of my body and all it has done for me.
I can’t completely change how I feel about my breasts but I can change the way I relate to them and in turn, try to let go of some of the negativity that I can have towards them. So I’ve chosen to take action in a few ways. Firstly, I’ve made sure that I get better at checking them myself (I’ve even shown my sisters how to check!). Secondly, I’ve started buying clothes that I like rather than clothes to try to hide them. Whether I like it or not, they are there and are part of me for now. I may not like them but quite honestly, focusing on ways to hide and ignore them is actually much more effort than just letting them be there. Lastly, I’ve made the choice to try and not to keep asking about surgery when I see my team which is what I’ve been doing up until now. I would let myself get excited that they may have changed their view and when I realised that wasn’t the case, I would leave feeling disappointed. But I know that it will happen when my doctors feel it is the right time and that needs to be good enough for now.
I’ve got a long way to go with this one, but at least I’m starting to feel more comfortable still having my breasts (even though, yes, I hate them). It’s making the wait easier to manage and this way of thinking and acting is helping me to get better at being Laura post cancer.
Entering the world of menopause at the age of 27 was bewildering, turbulent, surreal and very emotional. You feel like you’ve aged before your time. An early menopause increases the risk of conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease; two risks that often play on my mind. However, remembering that these things are being closely monitored and that my body being in menopause actually saved my life (my cancer ‘fed off’ hormones like oestrogen) helps to put the increased risks into perspective.
My other way of dealing with the menopause effects is to laugh. Just the other day, a friend who also lives with early menopause were able to control a hot flush simply by calculating the saving we make on winter clothing and heating bills! The whole ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is completely true for me. This is happening and in order to get good at being me I have to get good at sometimes being ‘overheated and achy bones’ me.
Losing my fertility to cancer at the age of 27 was one of the harder things to get my head around. I was diagnosed on a Thursday and the next day was told that I would start treatment on the Monday and that part of this treatment would be a drug that would start to shut my ovaries down. The cancer was aggressive in nature and had already spread so there was no time to wait. So no option of harvesting eggs (which wouldn’t have worked anyway because of the cancer) and no option of keeping any of my reproductive organs because my cancer was genetic; the risks were just too high. So in the space of 30 minutes that decision was made and done.
Truthfully, I don’t think I had the capacity at the time to give too much attention to it. The treatment was to save my life, so that was the only priority. What made it harder to digest over time was the fact that I hadn’t yet been thinking about having children at that point in my life anyway. It wasn’t on my radar but then all of a sudden it was, expect that it was there because it had been taken away.
Perhaps because of the priority being to save my life, I found that I actually came to terms with it quite quickly. The way I saw it was that I gave up something to save my life and to hopefully still get to be a mum; just in a different way. I know the thing that I will miss is the experience of being pregnant and I don’t think that this will ever go away; I think you just learn to deal with it.
From very early on in my treatment, I would find myself on the internet looking at adoption stories and videos. I actually still do this. I love watching them because you gain an insight into what an incredible gift it is to open your home and life to children already in the world. I know that not everyone will share the same views, but for me, I look forward to the idea of starting an adoption process in the future and seeing where it will take me. I try to not focus on what I’ve lost but rather on what I’m going gain. It’s weirdly exciting to not have an idea of how or what my family in the future will look like but being on a journey to find it. I have no doubt that it will be emotional and challenging, but also overwhelmingly amazing to hopefully build a family brought together by love.
Not being able to have biological children is part of me, as are all the other things on here. But the important point I’m slowly learning is that they are not all of me. I have a cancer journey, but also now have a master’s degree, a career I love, a wonderful family, a great set of friends and definitely the best boyfriend in town. So although easier said than done, the focus for me is going to be on getting good at being me, including all of it, and whatever else comes next.