PUBLISHED ON: 19 November 2019

Isla was diagnosed while on holiday in Japan. She shares how her breast cancer diagnosis has shaped her and her family, and why she has written a book about her experiences, Making Pearls From Grit.  


I was diagnosed while on holiday 

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in Tokyo while I was away with my husband and children. I already had a suspicion that something was wrong. Just before we left, I found a dimple below the nipple of my right breast that had been gradually getting bigger. 

I eventually saw my GP four days before we were due to travel to Japan. She said that she would refer me to a breast clinic, but when I told her that I was going away she suggested I see a doctor in Tokyo instead.  

I was too busy to worry 

I got in touch with a Japanese breast cancer charity who recommended a hospital in Tokyo. 

I had an ultrasound and mammogram and the doctor diagnosed me with breast cancer. In the meantime, my family and I were sightseeing round Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan – and I think that’s why I just wasn’t worried about the diagnosis. We were too busy eating new food, seeing amazing sights and doing new things. 

I had a biopsy in a Tokyo hospital 

The doctor recommended I have a biopsy too. When I went a week after my initial appointment, I was introduced to the doctor who would be carrying out the biopsy. She apologised for her terrible English, which of course wasn’t half as terrible as my non-existent Japanese! 

She spread out a form in front of me which explained the biopsy, along with any complication that might occur. It was all in Japanese.  

The doctor skimmed to find any parts of it that I should maybe know about. ‘One percent chance of infection, but that is very low, so...’ she shrugged and put the form aside. Clearly, I had nothing else to worry about. Gulp.  

Isla and her family in Japan

Isla and her family in Japan.

I returned home feeling lucky 

After my biopsy results, we flew back home to Edinburgh, cutting our trip short by about six weeks.  

I had been writing a travel blog while we were away. The last post had been about my cancer diagnosis, so most of my friends knew what was happening. 

They were amazing. I was so humbled by the response – there were boxed meals and bunches of flowers left on the doorstep nearly every day, alongside offers of childcare and lifts to hospital. It made me realise how lucky we were to live in such a tightknit community. 

My family were my rock 

Over nine months I had three operations, 16 chemotherapy sessions and 19 radiotherapy sessions. 

My husband runs his own business. He was working full time and looking after our two children and me. He was my rock, though the stress of having to cope did have an emotional impact on him and he showed symptoms of PTSD a year or so after.  

My mum travelled 400 miles from her home to ours every other week. She understood what I was going through as she had experienced breast cancer seven years previously.  

From the very first phone call I made from Tokyo to tell her I had cancer, she had been calm and supportive. 

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact 

Unusually for me – I’m a bit of a drama queen! – I was calm throughout my treatment. 

I experienced side effects, but I was able to tolerate them and let the doctors get on with their job. I did as I was told and listened to my body. If I felt unwell and was tired, I stayed in bed. If I had a bit more energy, I went for walks. 

However, my diagnosis has had a much bigger emotional impact than I expected. I thought that once I finished treatment, that would be it, done and dusted. But the intensity of cancer treatment has a much deeper impact than you realise, and stays with you for quite some time. 

People talk about not being defined by their cancer, but I feel that I have been, in a way. It’s part of who I am now and influences how I feel about life.  

Writing acted as a form of therapy 

In the year after my treatment ended I wrote a book of my experience, based on a blog I was writing to let family and friends know what was happening. I also think that the blog was for me, too, and acted as a sort of therapy.  

The book, Making Pearls From Grit, was published in July. It has had an amazing response.  Cancer patients and their friends and relatives have said how helpful they found it.  

I really want the book to be a sign to those with breast cancer that they’re not alone – that they are one of many people who go through this experience, and we’re all here to hold each other up.  

You can buy Making Pearls From Grit on Amazon 

Writing can be a therapeutic way of expressing your feelings about your breast cancer diagnosis. If you're unsure about where to start, or haven't had any writing experience, our guide may help.  

Read our guide