Annabel was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer when she was 31. She shares how she approached dating and relationships after her treatment finished and how she feels less defined by her diagnosis.
Cancer wasn’t even on my mind
I found a lump on my left breast in the early hours of a Sunday morning in 2002, while getting ready for bed after a party at a bar in central London. I was a 31-year old architect, whose biggest concern was that she was still single.
My GP reassured me the lump felt benign. An ultrasound and needle biopsy gave no indication of cancer. However, the biopsy suggested the cells were ‘unusual’, so the surgeon decided to remove it. The weekend before the operation, I headed off, as planned, to New York. As I soaked up Manhattan’s spring sunshine, galleries and bars, cancer wasn’t even on my mind.
I felt like damaged goods
I came round from the anaesthetic to learn that the lump was cancerous. At first, I was in denial, thinking I could still go back to work in a week or two, and life would remain unchanged. When I was told I needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I realised I couldn’t carry on working 60-hour weeks and asked for a leave of absence.
My family and friends were shocked that I could be diagnosed with such a serious illness so young. They were endlessly supportive. My best friend accompanied me to chemo and held my hand as the excruciatingly uncomfortable cold cap was placed on my scalp.
My hair fell out, despite the cap. Chemotherapy made me violently ill, so I lost weight. ‘You look fantastic,’ people would say, admiring my skinny figure, my new bobbed hairdo, courtesy of a wig.
Inside, I felt like damaged goods. I put dating to the back of my mind, wanting to focus on getting through the long months of treatment. But at one of the only parties I attended that summer, I got asked out by a gorgeous guy. We met up a few times, but when I told him I was in the middle of chemotherapy, his interest waned.
I only mentioned my diagnosis if the relationship felt serious
I didn’t date much during the first few years after my diagnosis. I was busy rebuilding my life. But in 2007, soon after receiving the five-year NED (no evidence of disease) status from my oncologist, I signed up for online dating.
As the years since my diagnosis elapsed, and the 10cm scar across my breast faded, I gradually felt less defined by cancer. Still, I worried whether having had cancer, especially on a part of my body that was supposed to be sexy, would put men off. I decided to only mention it if a relationship looked like it might become serious. Or if anyone asked about my scar. Only one guy did.
Mark, who is now my husband, said he didn’t even notice my scar until I told him. I found him online in December 2009. Two months into our relationship, I had a cancer scare. But Mark was unwavering in his support. ‘Whatever happens, I’m sticking around,’ he said. ‘I’m falling in love.’
I found out my family carried the altered BRCA1 gene
During the middle of our first blissful summer together, I learnt that two of my first cousins had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and my father’s side of the family carried the altered BRCA1 gene.
Given my history, there was a 98 percent chance that I too had inherited this gene, which meant my chance of a new breast cancer was high. I swung between denial and terror, obsessively checking my breasts for a new lump.
I was offered a risk-reducing double mastectomy, or annual MRI scans. Unable to yet face what I viewed as the brutality of a mastectomy, I chose the latter.
It wasn’t until December 2016 that I finally opted to have a mastectomy. I was tired of the claustrophobia-inducing MRI tunnel, tired of waiting for the results, fearful that this year my luck would run out.
With hindsight, I regretted having waited so long: my new breasts with implants looked great, and with them came a huge sense of relief. I’ve since had a baby, and while it was disappointing not being able to breastfeed, it meant my husband could also feed our son, giving me a break and them the chance to bond.
Wait until you feel comfortable with someone
Being diagnosed with cancer is a terrible shock at any age, perhaps even more so if you’re young. It can feel like your dreams for your future have been shattered. Yet I was endlessly told to ‘think positively’.
The truth is, a cancer diagnosis brings up a lot of emotions, from fear, to grief, to anger. I believe it’s healthier to feel these, rather than deny them. Equally, it’s important not to fall into an eternal pit of fear, and to keep faith that you can recover. Gathering positive stories really helped me. Like the one an Australian nurse shared the morning after my surgery, about her grandmother who’d had breast cancer aged 30 and lived until 90.
If you’re single, trust that the right person will love you regardless. You don’t have to tell someone your story immediately. Wait until you feel comfortable sharing.
I used to see my scars as an imperfection, something to be ashamed of. Now, I recognise they represent a beautiful story of survival, and of the body’s remarkable capacity to heal.
Writing was my way of creating something good out of something bad
Cancer changed my life irrevocably. But many good things came from it. It gave me the courage to redesign my life. I gave up my high-pressure office job, went freelance as an architect, and in time also became a yoga teacher. It taught me to lean towards happiness as much as I could. I created a less rushed and stressed life, with time for the things I loved, such as yoga, my friends, travelling and writing.
My passion for writing evolved out of my diagnosis. Cancer was a harsh place to land in, but also a strangely interesting one, so far removed from my previous reality of site meetings, rushed trips to the gym, and Saturday night parties.
Writing was my way of creating something good out of something bad. I hope my memoir, Hidden: Young, Single, Cancer can support others in my situation.
Having cancer can feel very lonely, especially if you’re young and your friends are caught up in their careers, relationships and babies. But when we share our stories we help others know they are not so alone.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer and having treatment might affect how you feel about sex and intimate relationships. Find information and support on our webpages.