After being diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 and encountering difficulties during treatment, Melissa was constantly worried. It wasn’t until she went to therapy that she realised she’d been experiencing physical and mental symptoms of health anxiety and PTSD.

Melissa, a young woman with long, blonde hair, stands in the middle of a crowded Times Square

I experienced some difficult moments on my own

In September 2020, I found a lump in my breast while in the shower. I contacted the GP pretty much immediately and got a referral to the breast unit. After an ultrasound, a biopsy, and two weeks of waiting, I was told I had cancer.

Because of COVID restrictions, I was totally alone when I got the news. I remember being told that they thought it was treatable, but most of the appointment is just a blur to me now. I was so upset.

After another two weeks of waiting, I got my full diagnosis: stage one, grade three, HER2+ invasive ductal carcinoma.

Because of my age (I turned 27 the week I was diagnosed), I was offered fertility treatment. Once that was done, I was supposed to have chemotherapy and then surgery and radiotherapy. However, the fertility treatment was going to take a while, so they gave me the surgery first.

As it turns out, I am allergic to the blue dye they put in to find your lymph nodes, so I went into anaphylactic shock and got put on a ventilator. I didn’t know about it until I woke up in intensive care 24 hours later – again, on my own.

I had never experienced anxiety before my cancer diagnosis

Luckily, they had already removed the cancer and were stitching me up when I had the reaction, so the surgery was a success.

I continued with my treatment up until August 2021, and there were a few more bumps along the way. The fertility treatment was horrible (but we managed to store 19 embryos, so worth it), I lost all my hair, and also suffered with sepsis and a blood clot.

It didn’t end when my treatment did, though. In October 2021, I had to start therapy because my health anxiety was just off the scale. I was diagnosed with PTSD because of everything that had happened.

I had never suffered with anything like it before. As soon as I was diagnosed, however, I constantly worried that there was going to be a recurrence, or that pain in other parts of my body were symptoms that it had spread.

At one point, I had a headache for three weeks. I had two CT scans of my brain, but both came back clear. I thought I had heart problems because I would constantly get palpitations and experience a racing heartbeat. Now, I realise that they were symptoms of anxiety.

Therapy helped me come to terms with everything that had happened

Until it happens to you, you don’t necessarily realise the effect that stress and anxiety can have on your body. It also didn’t help that I lost a friend to breast cancer just two months after being diagnosed.

The doctors had offered me SSRIs early, but I turned them down because I felt I already had enough stuff being pumped into my body. I regret not listening to them now, because I’ve been put on fluoxetine, and it’s really helped.

I also had about 25 weeks in therapy, and being able to talk about what had happened to me really helped me to come to terms with things.

I finally felt well enough to resume planning my wedding (which was originally meant to happen in 2021). I had originally postponed it because I lost my job, but when I was diagnosed with cancer it was like all of the joy had been stripped out of my life. I didn’t have the capacity to think about getting married. I couldn’t look forward to anything.

It wasn’t until I started therapy that I felt in the right mindset to do it, and we eventually got married in May this year. It meant so much to me to be able to get married with a full head of hair after I’d lost it all in chemo.

It is possible to find happiness again after cancer

To some extent, I was able to talk about my worries with my friends and family. I delved into little bits here and there, but I didn’t want to talk about it too much. I felt that it was a burden. It wasn’t until I went to therapy that I was really able to get everything out there.

Since then, one of the other mums from my daughter’s school got diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’ve been able to talk to her about what she’s going through. It’s been nice for me as well as her - I’ve become the friend I wish I had when I was starting treatment.

I want to be that for other young ladies who are in my position. I think it’s so important to be able to speak to someone who understands what you’re going through. I was eventually able to do this myself through Breast Cancer Now’s Moving Forward programme, which I found helpful.

If anyone reading this has been recently diagnosed, just remember that you’re going through a lot right now. You are experiencing trauma, and you need to take time to rest and recover; not just your body, but your brain too.

Cancer might always be there at the back of your mind, but you can find life and happiness again outside of your diagnosis. The most important thing for you to do is start that process.

 

Coping with the shock of a diagnosis, treatment and side effects can make it difficult to readjust to the everyday - even when active treatment is over. If you're struggling to readjust after a breast cancer diagnosis, our Moving Forward programme could be helpful for you.

Moving Forward