Sara shares her experience and gives her tips for moving forward after treatment and feeling like 'me' again.
I religiously checked my breasts
I was a checker. I regularly, religiously checked my breasts. Five years ago, around the time I was heading towards 40, I started to get lumpy boobs.
It was scary to start with but I soon found out that they were cysts. Innocent little lumps that, without warning, started to appear in my breasts. 'Nothing to worry about, just something that women of a certain age can get.' They have absolutely no relation to breast cancer, and they don’t increase the chances of getting breast cancer. They are just little pockets of fluid which would either disappear or need aspirating.
So, I was no stranger to the breast clinic at my hospital. And when I found the lump in my armpit during the summer of 2016 I didn’t really think it would be anything other than a cyst. So, when I went back to the breast clinic for the biopsy results and the breast consultant said, 'We have found cancer cells,' I was taken aback, to say the least.
Breast cancer wasn’t part of my life plan
I have the same story as thousands of other women. I have never smoked. I didn’t drink too much. I ate healthily. I exercised. I wasn’t overweight. I was a reasonably healthy, certainly happy, 42-year-old mother of two, wife and part-time lawyer.
Breast cancer wasn’t on the cards. It wasn’t part of my life plan. Unfortunately, breast cancer had other ideas. It decided to surreptitiously, sneakily, maliciously make itself at home inside my breast. Which led to the past 18 months being taken over by treatment.
As I head towards the end of treatment, I find myself reflecting on the past 18 months and looking forwards to the future.
I’m not the person I was before cancer
I have learnt that having cancer can change you as a person. It has certainly changed me.
Physically, a few chemo side effects still linger around, I look different to pre-breast cancer me, I am tired a lot of the time and I have plenty of menopausal symptoms.
Emotionally, I am no longer a level-headed person but one whose moods swing up and down like a yo-yo.
And mentally, aside from the fact that having cancer is a pretty huge thing to get your head around, I am still suffering from chemo brain absent-mindedness, I can’t multi-task like I used to and I am really rather forgetful.
On the other hand, some of the changes are for the better. For example, I have a renewed appreciation for life, I am thankful for a lot more and my pace of life has slowed down so I can enjoy every precious minute of it.
Sara’s top tips for moving forward after breast cancer
A question that I often ask myself is whether it will be possible to ever feel more like 'me'. I am gradually getting back to someone I recognise more than the person I have been over the past 18 months. And in getting back to 'me', I find that the following things are helping.
1. Take it easy and don’t rush your recovery
I thought that once treatment was over I would probably need, say, a month of recuperation and then I would bounce back. Be back to pre-cancer energy levels, back on top of home life, return to work, back on the social scene where I had left off and generally be able to rejoin the big wide world. That would have been October.
It is now March and I am only just feeling OK about going back to work, going out with friends and getting back in the swing of normal life that involves being a mum and wife. But I am glad I have taken my time because I now feel ready to embark on this next stage. And I feel excited to do so.
2. Channel your emotions
When you have a cancer diagnosis and have to undergo some pretty hardcore treatment, it is a shock. It is stressful, scary, terrifying and generally mentally tough. Then treatment ends and you are left to pick up the pieces.
This is the time when the cancer stuff can start go a bit, well, crazy in your head. Not only are you trying to recover physically, but you also have a lot of mental issues to deal with. So what can you do about this? Well, perhaps the answer for some people is to channel these issues into something else.
I was never a writer, but I found myself writing about my experience during my treatment and I haven’t stopped since. I used all my writing to set up a website, Ticking Off Breast Cancer, to help others going through breast cancer treatment. For me, not only is also my writing hopefully helping others who are going through breast cancer treatment, but it is helping me to come to terms with what has happened over the past 18 months.
3. Take 'me time' and relax
Take just 10 or 15 minutes to do something like meditation or mindfulness. It helps to calm a frantic, anxious mind and make you feel more like you again. Breast Cancer Care's BECCA app has loads of tips on how to get started.
A lot of people expect you to finish treatment and immediately return to 'normal'. Of course we would love that to happen, but in reality it doesn’t.
So, tell your friends and family this. Explain to them that, yes, you have finished treatment but you are not quite back to normal. Ask for their help: friends can help motivate you to exercise, they can invite you along to social gatherings but won’t write you off if you keep declining because you don’t have the energy to go out. And they can provide practical support if you still need it, allowing you to focus on your recuperation.
You find out who your true friends are when going through treatment: allow these friends to help you as you recover.
This is the most important step for me in getting back to my pre-cancer self. I walk. I walk a lot. I walk every day. Usually I walk a couple of miles, sometimes more, sometimes less. But I get outside come rain, shine or snow and I walk. I feel so much better - I have lost weight, I feel healthier, my skin feels and looks clearer, my joints hurt less and all the scary, crazy thoughts racing around my mind are calming down. Breast Cancer Care's Pink Ribbon Walks are a great goal to train for and pick up your fitness again.
Sara also writes for her own blog, Ticking Off Breast Cancer.
Find more tips and blogs on moving forward after treatment in BECCA, our free app.