Jennifer struggled when she was diagnosed with secondary (metastatic) breast cancer, but has worked hard to change her attitude and to advocate for others who may not realise their breast cancer risk.
I did not think I was at risk of developing breast cancer
If I’m honest, I never checked my breasts before my diagnosis. I was only 31 and I didn’t think I needed to.
I never saw young black women in breast cancer campaigns, so it just never occurred to me that it was something I was at risk of. I’m an intelligent person. I knew that, in theory, it could happen to me – I just never thought it would.
When I noticed discharge from my right nipple, I went to the GP.
I was eventually diagnosed with primary breast cancer in October 2010, right before my 32nd birthday. I didn’t tell many people – only my parents, brothers, a couple of cousins and a few of my closest friends.
I went through treatment, but later noticed that the scar tissue around my mastectomy/reconstruction had become a bit lumpy. I told my oncology team about it, and they investigated. On 2 August 2018, I was given a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer.
I have no choice but to endure treatment
Obviously, I remember the date because it was the day that my life changed forever - but it was also the morning of my uncle's funeral. I got a call insisting I come to the hospital, even though my oncologist wasn’t there. I got the news and was told that the surgical team couldn’t do anything for me.
As I was with my extended family and friends that day, a lot of people found out about my diagnosis a lot earlier than I would have liked.
With my primary diagnosis, I took it day by day and told myself, ‘This too will pass’. As hard as it was and as sick as I felt, I had an end date for my treatment. I also knew others who had been through cancer treatment, and that helped me to see that I would get through it, too.
With my secondary diagnosis, it’s different. I know there is no end until the end. Whatever the side effects, I have no choice but to endure it because it is keeping me alive – for now.
I am painfully aware that everything is temporary but forever at the same time, and that can be emotionally draining.
There are difficult times, but I am thriving
Just knowing that I will be in active treatment for the rest of my life is a lot to deal with. My life is now planned in the three-month chunks between my scans and regular appointments. I’ve had to quickly come to terms with the reality of that and try and live my life as fully as possible.
I have transitioned from victim to survivor, and now to ‘thriver’ - but that didn’t happen overnight. It came only after I met women that had been living well past the average three to five years and thriving for 10, 15, 20 years plus!
When you’re diagnosed, no one tells you about these women. But they should, because it is what has given me the hope and strength to live rather than just exist.
I see my life differently now
I do not let my diagnosis or prognosis define me or dictate the kind of life I lead, but having secondary breast cancer has forced me to think about what matters most to me in life. I am much more protective of my time. I’ve had to create boundaries and take a more holistic approach to my health and wellness.
When I was first diagnosed, I just couldn’t help but think, ‘But I haven’t done anything yet!’ and fear took over. Now, I just focus on the things and people I love.
The blog I write, the exercise I do every day, and the food I eat all help to keep me going in a balanced and healthy way. I have taken control of the things in life that I can. I choose life, love and to be happy.
I’ve also created a ‘Best Life List’ with experiences and things that I want to achieve. Pre-pandemic, I travelled a lot and did my best to try new things that pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Plus, in sharing my story and doing advocacy work, I’ve been presented with opportunities that I never would have had otherwise. I was recently on ITV's Lorraine show, and I’ve been live on the radio and lunchtime news. Yes, it was talking about cancer... but that’s still cool, right?
I hope my story encourages others to check themselves
Everyone - regardless of gender - needs to check their breasts regularly. Knowing what’s normal for you means you’ll notice any changes and can tell your GP.
The earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance of successful treatment.
If hearing my story urges someone who wouldn’t normally check themselves to do so, and gets them an early diagnosis, then my journey has not been in vain.
Black women especially tend not to check themselves - mainly because they don’t perceive themselves to be at risk. This is adding to the poorer outcomes when compared with our white counterparts. I want other black women see my struggle, to realise it can happen to them, and to understand the importance of them checking themselves.
Jen is sharing her story as part of ghd’s Take Control Now campaign in partnership with Breast Cancer Now. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the importance of regularly checking your breasts, for both yourself and your loved ones.
£10 from every purchase of the Take Control Now collection in the UK will go to Breast Cancer Now.