‘I’m sorry. It’s not good news. It’s cancer’.
It feels really odd standing outside the hospital, in the sunshine, after hearing those words. Everyone else is rushing about their lives as usual, but your world has just come to a grinding halt. You still feel perfectly fit and healthy, but you’ve been told that something is growing inside your body that could kill you. How could something be so wrong when you feel perfectly OK?
You find it impossible to believe that the treatment the doctor just described will take 10 years and that it is happening to YOU. Surely there must be some kind of mistake? All of your preconceptions about cancer run trough your mind and everywhere you look you see cancer advertising. You have just entered Cancer World.
There are 18 different diseases called breast cancer and I had one of the most aggressive versions. Not great news at all. Every google search seemed to bring up the words ‘poorer prognosis’, ‘more likely to spread’ and ‘more likely to recur’. Cheery stuff. Yet still my brain refused to accept reality and kept running at 100 miles an hour, desperately trying to find some way out of the mess. Well meaning friends dismissed breast cancer as if it were a common cold (‘Don’t worry you’ll be fine!’ or ‘Well if you’re going to get cancer, it’s a good one to have’), but I had already worked out that the arrival of the mutant boob alien needed to be taken much more seriously than that. It’s hard to explain the bombshell of receiving a cancer diagnosis to anyone that hasn’t been through it. Suffice to say that it’s a profoundly shocking time for you and your family, which requires weeks or months to assimilate.
I was already aware, from my nursing background, that breast cancer can’t be ‘cured’ and that a risk of it returning remains for the rest of your life. The seriousness of my situation was rammed home when we saw the oncologist. She repeatedly used the words ‘extremely high risk of recurrence’ and made it quite clear that it wasn’t just going to be a case of ‘get through the treatment and everything will be fine’. She advised us that there was a high risk of it returning, particularly in the first two years after treatment and that I should be particularly vigilant with monthly self examination. I would also need to attend for regular check ups during the first five years after treatment. Apparently the longer you go without recurrence, the better your odds. Possibly a statement of the obvious.
In retrospect, her overly direct approach did me a huge favour, inspiring me to wonder if I could do anything to improve my outcome. Fortunately, there is a HUGE amount you can do to make the medical treatment more effective, more tolerable and to improve your chances of reducing recurrence and spread.
You probably don’t think you’ll ever get cancer. I never thought that this would happen to me & nor did any of the other people I have chatted to, who found themselves in similar situations. There is nothing easy about cancer treatment. It’s long and arduous and involves losing your health, hair, vitality and expectations for the future. Some people also lose their financial security and relationships too. It’s a really tough time and if you know anyone going through it, they will need your friendship and support for many months.
If I knew then what I know now, would I have changed my life? I hope so, but then you feel so indestructible when you’re young. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and so’s the saying ‘start from where you are’. The 4 key things to do when you have cancer are:
- Decide which hospital treatment you want to have. The first few weeks are an absolute whirlwind of scans, tests and results. Your feet don’t touch the ground and you have limited headspace to make clear decisions. A mind boggling meeting follows in which your treatment is outlined to you, along with a horrific list of side effects. You are in shock. I know they have to cover their backsides, but does anyone really need to know that the treatment for their cancer may cause another cancer? I think that’s the last thing I needed to hear and remember intentionally zoning out, as if hearing about potential side effects would make them happen. Your treatment will often start within days or weeks of this meeting, but its important that you take time to research your treatment and speak to people if you are not sure about the treatment suggested.
- Consider your diet and what changes you could make to improve your chances and your ability to endure treatment. See Where should I start?
- Reduce any stress in your life. Yes, I know, totally ridiculous thing to suggest when you’ve just received a cancer diagnosis, BUT stress can accelerate tumour growth, so it’s a must. Take at least half an hour a day to de-stress, preferably more. The key is to try and stop your mind running away with cancer anxiety. Some find meditation helpful. You can download an app onto your phone for a couple of quid. I liked Glenn Harrold’s Heal Yourself and Star Meditation. Other people prefer a walk in nature or other forms of mindfulness. The key is to get your mind to focus on something other than cancer. Look at the flowers, or clouds in the sky or bark on the trees or bird song. Each time you start to panic again, take deep breaths in and out and try to focus on something else.
- You need to incorporate some exercise into your daily life. Immediately after surgery this will be a challenge and for the duration of chemo, but any form of movement is better than lying in bed. You can build up gradually as you begin to feel better.
Everyone has a different approach to dealing with cancer and its aftermath, but all the research points to less recurrence in people who reduce stress, change their diet and exercise. I’m not a doctor and neither are many of the other people who offer advice. Most people seem to suggest that more is better than less i.e. the more ways you try to help yourself, alongside what the doctors are doing, the better your outcome. It’s entirely up to you what you do, but I can say that you feel a lot less anxiety about the future when you are helping yourself, because you are taking control and know that you are doing everything you can to give yourself the best possible chance. Let your intuition guide you. If something feels right and you believe it will help, do it.
The blog is divided into two halves. The entries until June 2018 are about being diagnosed, going through and getting over treatment. Those after are useful cancer hacks to reduce your chances of it coming back that I have come across since diagnosis.