This time last year I was well into my weekly chemo cycle and was preparing for surgery. One year on and as the school year comes to an end, I have found myself reflecting on just how much has changed this past year and how far I have come.
After the end of my weekly treatment back in January I was able to return to work for one morning a week and over time, I have gradually built this up to teaching French three days a week. I can sometimes find myself feeling a range of emotions about this. I am overjoyed and excited about being back in the classroom but also mindful of those who have gone through the same journey as me but didn’t get this chance. In some ways, it makes me more determined to give teaching my all because I’m now more aware of how special life really is.
I’m also able to do lots more social things now compared with a year ago. I have days where I’m too exhausted to do much other than move from my bed to the sofa and days when my ‘old lady’ bones and joints (a consequence of the treatment and menopause) make me feel too uncomfortable to do anything, but these are sandwiched between good days where I can be out for ages.
As I continue with taking back control of my life after cancer, there is always a part of my mind that is focused on the fact that I still have a long way to go. I’m still on treatment and even once this ends I will still need to have regular check-ups. I will also need to continue with regular breast screening. My three monthly ‘boob MOT’ has now become a very routine part of life. They had their last MOT a week ago and they passed! Their only crime is getting bigger courtesy of menopause but I’m ok living with that! It’s always a lovely feeling of relief after the check-up and the first thing I often want to celebrate with is food…hence the chips!
Whilst I feel overjoyed every three months when I have a clear breast scan, the fear about breast cancer lingers in the background. As a BRCA 1 patient, I am well aware of the risk of breast cancer – ironically that has always statistically been the bigger concern but it turned out that my body didn’t follow statistics. My plan is that when I am further into remission and able to, I will undergo preventive breast surgery but often the biggest fear for me is that ‘Cyril’ could appear in my breasts before I’m able to take control of my breast cancer risk. Really this is all about the fear of the unknown.
Living with the worry that my breasts could do what my ovaries did is sometimes really hard to handle. As I get more familiar with my three monthly breast checks, I seem to be doing a little better with managing the fear that the checks bring. My most recent scan was brought forwards a few weeks because I could feel a lump in my breast. However, rather than spend the week leading up to the scan in a panic, I was able to rationally think this through and remind myself that the lump I was feeling was likely to be a lump that had actually already been found before, had been checked out and was nothing. Previously, I wouldn’t have been able to keep myself that calm under those sort of circumstances.
When I found out about BRCA 1 back in 2015 I was so sure that I would just keep up with surveillance of my breasts and the idea of preventative surgery so early on in life was not really on my radar. Fast forward one year having gone through ovarian cancer, my perspective has completely shifted. I know much more about my body, about my genetics and about cancer. For me, the idea of being able to have some control over this is so important to me. If I’m being totally honest, I don’t have the same feelings towards my breasts as I once did. I don’t actually like my breasts and some days I hate them because I know what they could do to me. I’ve lost any sense of identity to them. To me my breasts are just ‘things’ on my body and not a sign of my femininity.
It might sound strange but I’m not scared for the day to come when I can have my surgery. I’m actually excited. I can’t change my genes and I can’t change the past. I am a BRCA 1 mutation carrier and a stage 3 ovarian cancer survivor but I can make choices about my future. When the time is right, my boobs are going and will be replaced with DIY boobs and I already know that I will love them because of what they will represent and because they will no longer be a risk to my health.
Knowing that I still have a long way to go can be very hard to deal with. For me, having the support of those who are further along in their cancer journey is a huge support and comfort. It reminds me that this road which can seem very windy and never ending is not always as scary as I think it is. One of the best examples of this for me is my wonderful boyfriend who himself recently reached the amazing milestone of five years cancer free. It means that he is one of the people who best understands my experience and I’m so very grateful for that.
So although I have a way to go before I can remove my breasts, I have to have faith in my body and believe that I will get there and be able to make this choice. But until then, I guess I have lots of time to give to planning a BIG ‘farewell boobies’ party!