Breast Cancer Thankyou Selfie
In summer 2018, at the age of 38, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My active treatment included a full mastectomy (I chose to go flat) and a course of chemotherapy. I’m proud to say that I’ve done everything I can as a patient to protect myself from future cancers.
I owe the biggest thanks ever to the brilliant NHS staff at Ipswich Hospital for saving my life. I received world-class healthcare and they showed me nothing but kindness throughout. I’m extremely grateful to the experts on my doorstep who were there when I needed them most. I know how lucky I am.
Everyone’s cancer is different. In my case, it took about a year from finding the lump, to being free of invasive treatments, then gently working towards physical wellbeing.
As 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer at some point in their lives, I’m sharing what I’ve learned. The following tips are based on my personal experience, and might or might not be useful to others on a cancer journey. In any case, always talk to your doctor or specialist nurse.
- Keep one thing in your daily routine going. The upheaval that follows a diagnosis can feel overwhelming. But if you manage to keep one part of your normal routine the same, that may help. For me, it was having breakfast to table: even on mornings when I didn’t feel like eating, I could drink my coffee with my husband. For you, it might be a book at bedtime with your children, or playing with the dog. Choose your favourite normal thing and keep it going, with adjustments where necessary.
- Walk a bit. Surgery and chemo zaps your energy. Even so, try walking a little every day. At my most vulnerable I would put the radio on and walk from room to room. Then I progressed to the end of the street. Later, around the block. As someone who once finished the London Marathon, ‘walking before I could run’ was not a cliché anymore, but a deeply internalised lesson. The walks were the foundation to build on.
- Rinse your mouth with home remedy salt-solution to relieve soreness. A consultant told me there is no mouthwash available over the counter that can relieve a sensitive mouth better than homemade salt-solution. 1 teaspoon of salt dissolved into 1 pint of water (boil the water first and let it cool). I’d mix a fresh pint in a plastic jug in the morning and leave it in the bathroom to use through the day.
- Get comfy, get moisturised. I didn’t realise how uncomfortable my whole body was going to feel. So I recommend squishy cushions. Snuggly blankies. Fluffy socks. Loungewear. Whatever helps you relax. Sooth your sensitive skin and healing scars with creams or lotions; it’s one of life’s pleasures when you can’t do much else.
- Raise your eye make-up game. I found hair-loss one of the most traumatic parts of the process, and the choices of how to respond, bewildering. Cold cap? Wig? Beanie? Scarf? (In the end I went for the bald look.) Interestingly, the lack of eyebrows and eyelashes made a dramatic difference – yet this is easy and fun to fix. Social media is filled with tutorials on smoky eyes, eyeliner flicks, false eyelashes, and fleek eyebrows. Consider investing in some new make-up. Explore and experiment.
- Try yoga. Exiting treatment is a surprisingly difficult stage of recovery, even when your outcomes are good, which mine were. The emotions are complex and you have a bunch of ongoing health issues to contend with. One of these is the risk of (or long-term management of) lymphedema in the arm where lymph nodes were removed by your surgeon. There is good research to suggest that strengthening the affected limb can help prevent onset/reduce symptoms. So I went online looking for arm-strengthening exercises… and I happened upon Yoga with Adriene. I thought, ‘Maybe planks and downward dogs will help?’ Within a few months I was converted to the home yoga practice. It strengthened my arms, absolutely, but it also helped me get back a range of motion and flexibility in my whole body. Equally important is the attention to breath and stress relief. You will benefit from a yoga mat (£10 – £20 or try a recycling group such as Freegle or Freecycle) and stretchy pants. Start with easy and gentle videos. Make any modifications you need to, for example, sit in a chair instead of cross-legged; keep your knees bent in folds etc. Yoga has been a crucial part of my post-cancer process and I highly recommend it.
- Acknowledge your emotions. Trust you will feel better in time. I am a thinker, a talker, and a writer – and if it had been possible to think, talk, and write my way out of the trauma and into mental wellness, I would have found it. I have shared my feelings with my loved ones, kept a journal, and gradually increased my physical activity. They all helped. With hindsight, the episodes of loud sobbing were also worthwhile. If you are struggling to adapt mentally or emotionally, then you may benefit from counselling and I would urge you to ask for help from someone you trust. But I found that time is a healer too. The sobbing became less frequent until it was almost gone.
- Share a new project with your loved one. A project or an activity (not a pass/fail goal). This is about finding something you can do to mark the beginning of a new chapter. It might be a big project like a trip or adopting a pet. Equally, it might be smaller and simpler: gardening or a nature activity. Physical movement, like dancing, jogging or swimming. Singing. Baking. Sketching. If you yourself are your own best friend and beloved – power to you – the sensibility still applies. Give yourself permission to try something new and fun, with therapeutic benefits.
- Honour your fatigue. I still struggle with this. Because fatigue can be hidden and, in the ambitious West, has stigma attached, it required me to change my thinking. It is worse than feeling tired. I can go from dynamic creative writing and sweaty cardio in the morning – to stumbling to bed in the afternoon. Until post-cancer research catches up with the issue, we have to cope by ourselves.
- Sleep when you need to. Listen to your body without fighting it. You’ll be capable of more in your brighter moments.
- Find ways to rest without sleeping, such as mindfulness, or lying down to listen to music and podcasts.
- Eat well. Get the carbs, protein, and nutrition you need.
- Is it depression? Or another physical cause like iron-deficiency…? The only way to be sure is by talking to your doctor.
- Set boundaries. (For example, this author doesn’t give freebie talks anymore.) Learn to say no.
- Curate each day. Small successes accumulate over time. Learn to appreciate incremental progress.
- Cultivate a new look. This is a different body and a different time in your life. Naturally, you are going to look different too. While it would be lovely to have a Queer Eye makeover within a week, the reality is that your new image will unfold over time. As you refine what works for you, your confidence will grow. I chose a double mastectomy without reconstruction, an unusual option, but one that is gaining acceptance and visibility among women. A new style became therapeutic. I like:
- Busy-print tops with crew necks.
- Checked shirts. Shirts with constructed details like pockets and epaulets.
- Horizontal striped tops. Breton tops. Panel details or bands of colour across the shoulders.
- Tank tops with contrasting straps underneath.
- A black scarf on a black top.
- Jackets and hoodies.