Sunday, 25 October 2015

Breast cancer awareness month: Finding myself again

Author: Mhairi

At the beginning of 2015 I was battling depression. It started off as post-natal depression after each of my three children were born, but then became a continuous presence in my life, fluctuating in intensity. I had reached a particularly low point around Christmas 2014. Then I found a lump in my axilla and a larger lump in my left breast. I have a medical background; I knew what this could mean so I started to plan my funeral. Then I told myself not to be so ridiculous. I was too busy to have cancer anyway.

Of course it was cancer. Well that’s one way to kick depression’s butt – have a life threatening diagnosis. I leapt into fight or flight mode – I had a purpose, a new identity. It was scary, but it was also quite exciting. I think I must be a bit weird. What was really weird was that I didn’t feel depressed anymore. A bit terrified, but not depressed. The fog that almost permanently occupied my brain lifted as I began to attend the many hospital appointments that come with a cancer diagnosis. I was calm and smiling – I was POSITIVE! (Oh how I hate that word in relation to cancer, but that’s another blog).

This sense of calm continued throughout the gruelling course of chemotherapy. That may have been because I just felt so ill and exhausted that I couldn’t string two thoughts together a lot of the time. It may have been because I was being showered with visits, cards, flowers, meals, help and love from my wonderful friends and family. People commented on how well I was doing, I was such an inspiration etc. etc. To be honest I felt a bit of a fraud when people said these kind things as I didn’t feel I was making that much of an effort in my ‘fight’ against cancer. Cancer and it’s treatment was happening to me and I wasn’t being brave, I had no choice but to just get on with it. I was being given excellent treatment by lovely and dedicated health care professionals. I was being amazingly supported by my family, friends and church. Even my children tried to behave themselves a bit better. All I had to do was lie on my sofa and grit my teeth through the awful side effects of the chemo. The feeling of having been hit by a bus was deeply unpleasant but I felt so cared for and carried that my mood remained stable; the depression hadn’t caught up with me yet.

Then I had my surgery. The really great thing about the operation to remove the cancer was that it would give me my long wished for breast reduction. The surgeon would do an axillary clearance and wide lump excision on the affected side, reconstructing my breast smaller but using my own breast tissue. A plastic surgeon would reduce the unaffected side to match. At 43, and having breast fed 3 children, the prospect of having incredible gravity defying boobs was quite pleasing. So I was very nervous about the operation but excited about the results.

I had the op, it went well, and I got home the next day. The day after that I felt like an emotional car crash. The positive had gone, the hope had gone, and I was full of despair. Despair is a strong word but that is how I felt. I knew that sometimes after a general anaesthetic it is not unusual to feel quite low. I hoped that that was the reason I felt so rubbish, and that I would improve again. Months of chemo brain meant that I hadn’t really been able to think deeply and properly process what had happened to me this year. Now, after the op, I was physically restricted but mentally agile and every confused and negative thought that screamed through my head chipped away at me bit by bit. I felt deep shame about my overweight body, and kept thinking about all those people who had looked after me during the surgery thinking badly of me. I was fat and ugly, freakish looking with my newly growing post chemo hair and no eyebrows. My breasts didn’t feel like they were mine, though they are very much more me than many women end up with after breast cancer surgery. I felt I had no purpose, there was no point. What was I going to do with the rest of my life? 

I felt that I didn’t know any more who I was. Before I was diagnosed with cancer I had been preparing myself for a major life change. The cancer meant that I could no longer fulfil the role I had been preparing for. Connected to this, a close friend died of cancer while I was having my chemo, and the sense of grief and pain I had over these two losses became increasingly hard to bear. And then there was the anxiety about the future – what if the cancer comes back or has spread beyond the lymph nodes? How would I ever learn to live with the uncertainty with any sort of equanimity? What if I didn’t survive the cancer? What if I did, and had to crawl through the rest of my life with this crushing sense of futility? The familiar fog began to descend.

Now THIS is a battle – I have to fight the negative thoughts and feelings that assault me and threaten to engulf me. I have to make tiny mental and emotional adjustments to a new normal day after day, trying to smooth the jagged edges of those chips. For me, my Christian faith plays a massive part in this along with the support of my family and friends. 

The thing that could kill me has given me identity, intense purpose, even privilege. Now it has hopefully gone I am feeling lost and insignificant. I’m actually feeling afraid of returning to the normality of everyday life without the regular round of hospital appointments. Once I have finished radiotherapy I am dreading not having the regular reassuring contact with the health professionals, especially my breast care nurses. And I fear that it is wrong to feel like this.

I need to fight against the temptation to be defined by my illness. I am not breast cancer, I am Mhairi. I just need to rediscover who she is. 

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Write for the blog! This blog is one of a series being shared on the Young Women's Breast Cancer Blog UK during October, breast cancer awareness month, but the blog is here year round. If you are a young woman in the UK who has/had a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to be a part of this blog, please have a read of the additional information here.

Check your breasts
Breast cancer can happen to any of us - regardless of age. Information about how to check your breasts can be found on the Coppafeel and Breast Cancer Now websites.

Further information and support:

Younger Breast Cancer Network UK - an online chat and support group for women under the age of 45 in the UK who have had a breast cancer diagnosis.

Baldly Beautiful - a YouTube channel with make up demonstrations, created by Mac makeup artist Andrea Pellegrini who went through chemo herself in 2014.

Take A Moment - This is a group for women (all ages) who have/had breast cancer who want to explore, reflect on and express their feelings and experiences through photography. This is a link to the public page - to join the group, send them a message.

The Osborne Trust - Providing children of parents with cancer the opportunity to access time out recreational activities whilst their parents undergo operations and treatments

Jen's Friends - Free heart-shaped pillows for women (and men) with Breast Cancer. Designed to provide comfort and protection after a Mastectomy operation.

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