In the last nine years I’ve weathered several storms while living alone with my two young daughters and holding down demanding but meaningful work. I have come through all this ‘stuff’ mostly with a smile, the support of my family and friends, and a knowledge that this is all relative and my fortune is greater than that of many people.
I still believe that, despite the latest challenge; a diagnosis of and treatment for a rare, aggressive cancer. On January 31st 2018 I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer which had spread to my lymph nodes. Three months later I was told I also have the BRCA2 genetic mutation meaning I am at greater risk of other cancers.
Life’s latest dose of pain was harsh and at times made me wonder what lessons the universe thought I still needed! I already knew how comparatively lucky I am. I also knew I was working too hard, but I love my job for Martlets and my girls weren’t suffering; in fact, my role was teaching them valuable lessons. This latest ‘challenge’ made them suffer though. They were given an even more exhausted mum and a weight far too heavy for their young, beautiful shoulders. It was up to me to make this terrifying experience okay for them and I knew within 48 hours of diagnosis what I had to do.
Never has my own resilience and inner strength been tested to the extent it was throughout and, to an extent, after treatment. However, two nights after a devastating diagnosis, having lain awake all night considering my own mortality and the impact on my two young daughters, I made a firm decision. I decided that I would put my mental health before anything else in order to give my body the best possible chance of recovery.
That night I created a state of being that stemmed from an urgent need for self-preservation. Thereafter I often referred to myself as feeling zen. I would not tolerate stress around me, actively pushing it away; I knew I would have a tough experience to get through but that I would survive, just as the clinical team had told me; and I created quiet space just for me. It became blindingly obvious that I was not going to be a mother, daughter, friend or employee if I didn’t survive, so I simply needed to put myself first.
I experienced a lesson in mind-set that came from somewhere deep-down, somewhere I must have stored some wisdom. This was a very personal experience and I am aware that we all respond very differently when faced with scary situations. However, I knew at that moment that I could not expect anything of my body if I didn’t take care of my mind. It really was a case of sink or swim, and I swam like nothing was in my way and I wouldn’t stop until I reached land, however far that was.
This mental strength felt connected to my gut. I’ve failed my gut in the past, not trusting it, but I began to trust it at every turn. I often felt afraid and deeply sad, but I had an unshakeable feeling in my gut that I would get through this toughest challenge yet, and I did. It wasn’t all about the mind and gut, of course. Nineteen weeks of chemo, two surgeries, radiotherapy, daily green smoothies, massage, yoga, uplifting reading and films, and the support of my loved ones all played into my treatment and recovery. And I still have some to go.
It comes as a surprise to many but work also played a large part. At my first appointment my oncologist asked about my life and my lifestyle. She encouraged any exercise I felt capable of, the odd glass of wine, fresh air, good food and work – as much as I could manage. Her overriding advice was to try and live as normal a life as possible, as those of her patients who did so recovered faster after each round of chemo.
This carrying on as ‘normal’ was given further impetus as I was also in a position of having no back-up. Being the sole income for a house of three with no critical illness cover (get it people!), meant I simply couldn’t even afford a reduction in pay. So, I worked. I worked immediately after a day’s chemo as the steroids coursed through my veins giving me boundless energy. I worked at home when my immune system would have been too delicate for an open-plan office. I met with major donors and secured Ambassador relationships and partnerships in support of Martlets life-changing hospice care.
This was ultimately made possible with the support of a team of the most extraordinary colleagues and my ongoing commitment to avoid any stress – especially other people’s. I focused on what I could do to achieve the very best results for Martlets with the time and energy I had between treatments and I did so with the unfailing support of some very good humans.
I attribute much of my resilience and attitude to the most frightening experience of my life to that one moment, alone in a dark room at 2am. The light-bulb moment when I knew I had to put my own mental health before anything else.
However, the cliché ‘there’s no i in team’ exists for a reason, both at work and in one’s personal life. I experienced love and support in glorious technicolour. So strong, vivid and powerful that I can honestly say the most painful experience of my life included some of the biggest moments of pure joy. I had the steadfast support of family, friends, colleagues and the kindness of new friends and total strangers. I also had the magnificent NHS by my side. My resilience was fuelled by the people around me.
I also discovered writing! It’s therapy. It occupied me when I was sleepless; it allowed me to purge my thoughts and feelings; it enabled me to share the story as it unfolded, meaning an understanding for all who cared and less repetition for me; and, the most wonderful part, it went on to help women and men dealing with their own frightening experiences.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED
At times I felt broken, particularly after active treatment as life very suddenly went ‘back to normal’ and everyone around me got on with their lives. I wondered if I’d ever be the same and how I’d manage with the ongoing after effects and the ever-present fear of recurrence. But I’m here and I am.
Feeling like you’re not coping doesn’t mean you’re not resilient. Recognising your struggle, the emotions you feel and how challenging something is, is part of being resilient. Asking for help and accepting help make you resilient. Humans are put to the test all the time and seem to be able to come through the most adverse situations, sometimes in the most inspiring ways, sometimes quietly and in pain. But we do it. My friend Liz attributed my own good outcomes to ‘positivity and science’, as did my oncologist who told me simply to keep doing what I was doing.
Cancer is scary, intrusive, physically hurts, and takes away so much control. So, my mind, accompanied by my gut, science, medicine and healthy choices, was my priority in order to survive. An instinct we all share. In the words of Maya Angelou, humbly quoted, as she wrote of very different challenge and injustice of the kind I will never know, ‘still I’ll rise’, as will my daughters.