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Nicky struggled with her mental health after breast cancer treatment and worked hard to rebuild herself. She shares what she struggled with, what helped her, and where she is now.
I was diagnosed with Paget’s disease of the breast and DCIS in 2018, two years after I’d initially gone to the GP with symptoms. I went through what felt like a hamster wheel of tests and treatment, culminating in a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
I reasoned with myself that, back in the ‘knowing-but-not-knowing’ stage, my primal fear was dying. In comparison, a mastectomy was an awful outcome - but I could and would live with it. It was a trade for my future.
I decided very early on to accept my ‘newbie’ boob and to see it as an alternative tattoo that represents strength. It looks different and I have a scar, but nobody apart from me can tell - even when I’m wearing a bikini. The muscles contract differently, but I genuinely spend 99% of the time not feeling any difference between that and my other breast.
At first, it’s hard to tell people about your diagnosis. Hearing the C-word out aloud is tough when you are trying to come to terms with everything, especially as it makes other people upset and you feel that you have to console them.
Most people are lovely and will do anything to help, but others can be absolute idiots. I found that people looked at my chest when talking to me as if trying to work out what was going on under my clothes.
When I finally got the all-clear, it felt amazing – but that soon disappeared. I couldn’t work out why I wasn’t able to snap back to normal life, and that made me feel guilty. My mental health took a nosedive, and I suffered with crippling anxiety and post-traumatic stress. I didn’t recognise who I was anymore.
Some days I felt so angry that I could flip a car. I’m a naturally fiery person and had never seen anger as a negative emotion previously, but now was unanchored and in a really bad place.
Finding the new and improved me took time. When I began counselling, I expected to get a cheat sheet of things I needed to do to feel better, but – sadly – it doesn’t work like that.
I learnt we all have a set of core beliefs, and that if these get shaken it can send us off course. Mine are truth and justice, and so the unfairness of waiting two years for my diagnosis turned me upside down.
I also learnt that you need a number of options in your recovery arsenal to deploy.
Initially, I had resisted going on anxiety medication as I felt like it would be giving in. By that point, though, I’d sunk into such a hole I just couldn’t get a grasp on the ladder out. I kept doing the same things and wasn’t moving forward.
In the end, I decided to try medication - not at his request, but for my husband’s sake. Personally, it was the best decision I made. It gave me the leg-up I needed.
Other options I regularly deployed were dancing around wildly to loud music to shake out the bad vibes. Yoga and meditation also really helped (although I’m still as flexible as Tin Man in Wizard of Oz).
Being in nature and fresh air was another healer. I found sanctuary in my local park and loved seeing it change with the seasons.
Sometimes, just getting out of bed and having a shower was the achievement of the day. And, although it was hard psyching myself up to it, I always felt better spending time with friends and family.
I filtered out the mood-hoovering people and situations that didn’t support my recovery, too. Keeping a log of what you do on good and bad days can help you identify root causes and things to make you feel better.
My PTS meant I found talking about what had happened very difficult. I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t going to let cancer affect me, but it’s impossible to do this. You have to deal with the emotions.
As soon as I started talking more about what had happened and what was going on in my head, everything changed. I cut the head off the monster lurking over me so it couldn’t scare me anymore.
My final part of moving on was using my experience to help others and rebranding it as something more positive, which I’ve done by becoming a Someone Like Me volunteer.
So, how has this whole experience changed me?
I love my husband, family and friends to a whole new level. I laugh harder (technically more silent hyperventilating only audible to animals). I really try not to sweat the small stuff. I know what makes me happy. I exit toxic situations. I surround myself with uplifting and positive people and try to be one of them. I trust my gut instinct and stand for what I believe in. I burn my eye-wateringly expensive candles regularly. I wear my favourite clothes and most days look like a cross between Lady Gaga and Tiger King.
I appreciate that you don’t always know what other people are going through. I try to be kind and generous, not just to others but myself too. I don’t fear getting older, ageing is privilege.
Most of all I appreciate life and grab it by the jubblies.
If you or someone you love is struggling to move forward from a primary breast cancer diagnosis, our Someone Like Me service could help. Get in touch to find out more about speaking with someone who has had a similar experience with breast cancer.
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