Bal’s ‘whirlwind’ of treatment began very soon after her breast cancer diagnosis. Gradually, she realised she needed to reach out for help.
My whole world collapsed when I heard the news
In August 2015, I had a routine medical check-up that I get annually through my work. I had a blood test and a fitness test, then a mammogram (as I was over 50). Following the mammogram, the nurses wanted to do some more scans and an a fine needle aspiration. After that, they wanted to do a core biopsy as well – and that’s when I thought something was wrong.
My husband happened to be with me because we’d planned to go for lunch after, so he was there when I got the news that it was breast cancer. My whole world collapsed that day.
I remember my surgeon saying that the cancer was aggressive so they had to operate pretty quickly. After the surgery, I waited another three weeks for the pathology results. That informed me that it was stage three, HER2+, and 12 lymph nodes had been affected.
I was scared to look in the mirror when I lost my hair
I didn’t really have time to think because everything happened so fast. It was only when I began losing my hair that I really felt the impact.
For me, my hair is my identity, it helps me feel more feminine. When it didn’t fall out after the first session, I thought I wouldn’t lose it. After the second session, however, it started to fall out in clumps. I just sat and cried in the bath.
A lovely neighbour of mine has a mobile hairdresser, and she got her to come around and cut my hair. It got donated to Little Princesses to make wigs for children who are going through cancer treatment, so at least it went somewhere useful and wasn’t just being thrown away. She wouldn’t take any money from me for it, and said she couldn’t live with herself taking money from a cancer patient.
Even though I felt good that my hair had gone to a charity, I cried for days on end about losing it. I was scared to look in the mirror. I felt like a freak. Fortunately, my husband and my son were there consoling me.
I was also able to get a wig through a specialist that the hospital recommended. It helped when I went outside, but I didn’t wear it at home. My son was really supportive through that, too, and knew how much it meant to me to look natural.
Speaking with someone who understood me meant so much
There was no stigma from my immediate family; they all supported me. However, there was a time after surgery when a long-distant aunt called me. She’d actually had breast cancer, which I was shocked to find out – because I could never say to someone what she said to me. She just told me how awful it would be, and how I might die.
The phone had been on loudspeaker and my husband heard all of it. He told me to put the phone down, so I hung up. I was distraught.
I knew I could lose my life – I'm not stupid – but hearing that from someone else was traumatic.
I still wanted to talk to someone about what I was going through, and for a while I had a regular call from an oncology nurse with BUPA. She then recommended Someone Like Me, which is a service where they pair you up with someone who has been through a similar experience to you.
I ended up speaking to the person I was matched with for about six months, sometimes just about silly stuff. It just took the pain away – even if it was just for half an hour. It was a godsend.
She was an inspiration, not only because she was a few years down the line from me, but because she showed me that I could find a new normal. I will be forever grateful to the charity for that.
The Moving Forward programme was invaluable when treatment finished
Later, when my active treatment finished, I didn’t know what to do. I had been in that whirlwind for 15 months. I didn’t say that to the hospital staff, though. I just walked out, stunned.
That’s when I came across the Moving Forward course. There were sessions on everything from physiotherapy to intimacy – nothing was barred. I made a few lifelong friends through those meet-ups.
I found it so helpful that I felt inspired to raise money for Breast Cancer Now. I ran a 10k, took part in wear it pink, and was a model in the 2017 fashion show. I’ve also been along to Parliament to campaign for more treatment options.
Knowing what I know now about treatment and recovery, I want to reassure people that everybody is different. I want people to remember that their situation, their diagnosis, their journey is unique to them. There are so many services and lifelines out there, but you don’t have to do what someone else has done. Just do what’s right for you.
If you have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and feel you need some support, we're here to help.