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10 surprising things that will never look the same because of breast cancer

Jackie Scully lists the 10 surprising things that will never look the same because of breast cancer treatment.

Image of Jackie Scully and friend on the street

Nobody warned me when I started out on active treatment for breast cancer that I may come out the other side with a slight aversion to the smell of energy drinks (thank you chemotherapy drugs for giving me Lucozade-scented wee). 

That's because, when the information booklets and consultations talk about changes after cancer, they're thinking about body-altering surgery, weight gain and the possibility of your hair growing back grey. 

What nobody tells you is that your 'new normal' – when you find it – may have some rather odd quirks in it. Things that you once took for granted suddenly become hugely important. Everyday items remain loaded with memories. Even walking up the road from your house can take on a whole new meaning. 

Having lived for the little details (which are a lot easier to control) over the last year, I have come to appreciate just how important they are – and how much a change in them (however small) can affect our lives. So here's my list of 10 things that have taken on a whole new meaning because of breast cancer (trust me, there are many more). Consider this my alternative breast cancer guide!

1. Cranberry juice (and Ribena)

Chemotherapy drug epirubicin, you have a lot to answer for! This red liquid is responsible for not just turning your wee pink, but also turning you off any red/pink-coloured drink. The only consolation is that it didn't adversely affect my love of red wine, but cranberry-coloured cocktails do transport me right back to the cancer day unit and the chemo chair. 

2. The fridge door

Never did I think cooking dinner every night would remind me of the chemo chair. The reason, you ask? Well, the beeping noise made by the fridge when it has been left open bears a remarkable resemblance to the noise made by the chemo machines when the drugs have dripped their last drop. There were times after a session when I thought I could hear the beeping in bed! 

3. Cool bags

Weird entry, I know. But if, like me, you went through a course of fertility treatment before chemotherapy (to help preserve embryos or eggs should the drugs do their worst), you will probably have been given one to transport your injections (that need constant refrigeration) to and from the hospital. I still have my bright blue cool bag, although I confess, I'm not sure it will be going on a picnic any time soon! 

4. Oranges

For the PICC line wearers among us, see if you can pick up the taste of mouldy oranges when you next have a saline flush. I found the experience (unlike pretty much any other treatment) a bit nauseating and the taste stayed with me for ages. If that wasn't a bad enough association, the supposedly orange-flavoured (which smells like, but tastes nothing like, an orange) laxative drink they give you to help things along after surgery makes you want to go running from the fruit and veg aisle. 

5. Nail painting

Not being a huge nail painter before cancer, I had a romantic notion of sitting in front of a fire painting my toenails. I have to say, there is nothing romantic or pleasing about covering blackened, brittle and wobbly chemo-damaged nails with layers of dark varnish. While I still have a rainbow to choose from in my bedroom, I am not sure the act of toe painting will ever feel like anything other than a chemo ritual.

6. Tummy fat

None of us want it, unless we get breast cancer and then need it to create a new boob. A month of cake eating certainly helped ensure my borderline stomach was up to the challenge. And, I must say, in its new home up top, it is doing a pretty good job. My favourite fact from the entire year was the fact that tummy fat never forgets where it came from. That means, should I put on weight, I'll be looking lopsided before I know it.

7. Christmas ham

It has always been a family tradition to cook ham on Christmas Eve to serve up for breakfast over the festive season. It's my favourite Christmas food and, given it was the food I was cooking when I discovered my lump (admittedly I was in the shower while it was on the hob), it will be forever known as the food that saved my life. I appreciate it had a bit part (you could say the shower was more important), but it's the thought of ham covered in cloves and cider, and not running water, that always makes me smile.

8. The local area

After surgery, when I was trapped inside a Velcro corset while my stomach decided to glue itself back together, the local area was my world. Lampposts became landmarks, Greenwich Park walked me through the seasons and The Shard (close to the hospital) shone brightly in the sky as a reminder of just how far I'd come. Instead of rushing through life on the way to work, I saw my world (with all its local details) in beautiful Technicolor. I still stop now to soak up the scenery and feel grateful.

9. Hot flushes

Whoever said hot flushes aren't bad should get a job in PR. When the oncologist said having menopausal symptoms through chemo (and beyond with Tamoxifen) would be a good dress rehearsal for the real thing (like we all need one of those), I thought nothing of it. Little did I know just how debilitating the sweats would be. In a desperate attempt to sleep through the night just once, I even tried out a magnet for your knickers! What the magnet packaging doesn't tell you, however, is that it is more likely to attach you to a supermarket trolley or metal door handle than it is help rid you of your own personal heat wave.

10. Human nature

Cancer is not a relationship healer, but, having experienced more love and kindness in the last year than I have in the 32 years that preceded it, I can safely say it has restored my faith in human nature. From the charity runners who hugged me when I did my first ever 10k during chemo and the nurse who helped me pull up my knickers when I got stuck on the toilet after surgery to the touching messages that filled up my heart, my inbox and my living room shelves, I have seen just how beautiful this world can be. And, most importantly, I know where to look to be reminded of that fact every day. 

Special mention should also be made of seabass (having to eat it with a teaspoon after I ended up with a mouth full of ulcers was a food-related low point), jelly babies and ice lollies (still love them, but not for dinner anymore, now my taste buds have been restored), the downstairs region (nobody warns you what losing that hair will do for your ability to pee in a straight line) and the hairdresser (once a bit of a chore – now the equivalent of a spa day). 

These are the changes for which no amount of reading can prepare you. These are the changes you will have to discover for yourself. And this list represents just some of the changes that have coloured my experience. 

I would be delighted if you would comment below and share your own, so that more people can feel reassured that their 'new normal' is, in many ways, just as weird as everyone else's.

There's a reason they recommend you don't eat your favourite foods during chemo!


You can read more from Jackie on her own blog or on Twitter at @Jackie8.

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