After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Aisling found it difficult to adjust to a new pace of life. Now, she feels she's made progress.
My first thought was for my dad
When I found out I had breast cancer, I was totally shocked and in a complete daze. My first thought was not for me and the implications, but how was I going to tell my dad.
My mum died from bowel cancer at 48. She was diagnosed at 43, so my dad had to go through all that pain and suffering with her. Now I had to tell him I had cancer, too.
It was heartbreaking. Thankfully, my sister is an oncology nurse specialist in Ireland so she was able to reassure him.
Surgery was daunting
I had a lumpectomy to remove my tumour and surrounding tissue and sentinel lymph node removal in April last year.
The following week, I went back for my follow up appointment to be told I needed further surgery as the margins were not clear from my first surgery. I was offered the Oncotype test as I met the criteria. It felt like forever waiting for the results, but they came back 18 which meant I did not need chemotherapy.
However, I did need radiotherapy, and I will have to be on tamoxifen for 10 years. Through this process, I've learnt we all are different and have different treatment plans with their own challenges. It’s important not to compare ourselves to others and to focus on our own recovery.
I found it hard to slow down
I decided to continue to work up until my surgery date, as I felt physically fit enough to continue teaching PE and I wanted to be there for my senior pupils who were preparing for their exams. Looking back, I was an emotional wreck, but being in work gave me something to focus on.
I found it difficult to sit still and rest when I had my operations as I’m usually such an active person, but came to terms with the fact that I needed to do it in order to heal. Even short walks were tiring at the beginning, but - slowly - I got my energy and fitness back.
Luckily, I had very few side effects from my radiotherapy, so was able to drive myself to the hospital for my morning appointments. This meant my husband could focus on getting the children organised for the day.
A few weeks after my treatment, the fatigue hit me which was the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced. Some days I was fine, then the next it was like being hit with a ton of bricks.
Getting back to work was tough
I did a phased return to work just after Christmas, and it hasn’t been easy adapting to a new way of teaching. I am left-handed and have restricted movement in my left shoulder as a result of radiotherapy. I am unable to lift it up high so have had to change my style of teaching so that I’m not putting too much strain on my joint.
It has been frustrating as I’m unable to teach gymnastics, trampoline or demonstrate to the class. I’ve realised it will take time and I just need to accept these changes for the time being and focus what I can do and how I can adapt.
Also, in the corridors and in the PE halls, I am more wary in crowds of getting knocked on my left side. The tiredness has also been an issue, but I now know to stop when I feel it’s too much.
I'm teaching remotely for now
The week I started back full time after my phased return was the week lockdown started. School officially closed on 20 March, but my headteacher made the decision to advise me to go home two days before. Although I’m not in the vulnerable category, she felt I was at risk because my treatment was so recent. It was really strange being sent home when I had just got my head around to the fact that I was back to work full time. I am so glad she made the decision for me, as guilt about staying in work to support the pupils would have made me stay on.
Since lockdown, I have been teaching my pupils remotely sending them out weekly physical challenges and links to emotional support networks. The pupils seem to enjoy them as it’s a fun way to escape the reality of what’s going on around them. It’s a strange time and I think it has been an opportunity to reflect on how we teach and come up with innovative lessons and activities to support their learning. The return to school after this will be very different and will take time for us all to adjust to this new normal.
I'm also adjusting in my personal life
At first, it was difficult to adapt my mindset, as I have always been the person who just did everything myself instead of asking for help.
As a mum, you think it is sometimes easier to just do it yourself. I now realise it is important to allow people to help you, it is not a weakness to ask for help. It is hard for family and friends during treatment to know how to help, so let them do what they can.
My children were fab throughout as we were very honest with them. They were so caring, helping around the house. My daughter took on the role of my nurse (which was so cute) bringing me my medicine and pain relief when needed.
I’ve changed a lot
I have always been a very resilient person. Since my diagnosis, I have found things challenging at times - but I remind myself that what I've been through is huge, so I shouldn’t be too tough on myself.
People who know me well have said they haven’t seen a change in me, but internally I feel I have. I now think life’s too short to get stressed at the little things, and put myself first more often when I feel things are getting stressful or tiring. I focus more on what’s important to me and my family.
This change of attitude has also made me reassess what I want from life. Before my diagnosis, I was preparing myself to further my career but, on reflection, my priorities have now changed. I have decided to put this on hold for the moment so that I can focus on my family and my full recovery.
Now I want to give back
One thing that helped me a lot in the transition back to work and my personal life was Breast Cancer Now’s Moving Forward course. I did one in November and it helped me so much.
It has also made me more determined to try new things. I have signed up to do the Women v Cancer London to Amsterdam cycle 2021. Keeping myself healthy and fit is very important to me so this goal will keep me on track. It’s my way of showing cancer can’t keep me down and is also a way I can pay back to Breast Cancer Now all the support I have got from them throughout my treatment.
If, like Aisling, you are in the process of moving forward from your diagnosis, you may find our Becca app helpful.