Saturday, 2 January 2021

"Why I am not breast cancer free." Reflections of BRiC's founder on her 8th cancer anniversary

Be the first to comment!

 

Eight years ago, today, at around 7pm, after a stressful afternoon of tests I made my way to the hospital exit, when a nurse’s voice running behind me brought me back to my ‘to-be’ surgeon’s room. The notes on the desk gave it away: three grade 2 tumours, 9 cm of grade 3 DCIS, and lymph node involved. My brain turned numb to ask my surgeon ‘why’, but the remains of that day play clearly in my vision, with my then 2 year old daughter’s face lighting up as I got back home. My late mum cooking a lovely meal. It is amazing how the brain can switch between different emotions to protect us and to help us make sense of our experiences. Shortly after, my brain went on a speed train trying to plan, but it kept getting stuck at different junctions.

Paradoxically, as I pictured the end of my life, I learned that cancer was giving me a different and new ‘life’. How can cancer give you a new ‘life’? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. But, its true. Cancer gives you a life many of my kind struggle with, but we try our best with gratitude and hard work. An exhausting life with challenges we are encouraged to take, quality-of-life limiting changes we have little choice but to adapt to, and the despair because we are too emotionally and physically exhausted to sustain the roller coasters. In short, a life with a foundation built on the psychological and physical costs of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Adapting successfully to the life changing experiences of breast cancer does not make it OK for breast cancer to exist. It is not OK for a woman to be diagnosed with breast cancer every 10 minutes in the UK. It is not OK for 30% of them to get secondary breast cancer with an average lifeline of 3 years and a quality of life fuelled with endless toxic treatments that eventually stop working. It is disgraceful and a real threat.



Resilience is more than accepting and adapting to life limiting changes that breast cancer imposes on us. It is about growth and planting new seeds and nourishing them amid the changes we continue to adapt to. Breast cancer takes away control and this can be frightening because it can come back and haunt us again. Resilience teaches us that we can embrace this fear and it is important that we do not simply GIVE UP, but thrive the roller coaster with the highs and the lows. This, I have learned from many of my friends with secondary breast cancer whose control is much more limited than mine.

Whatever the circumstances, we take our cancer forward with us. This doesn’t mean that it can take over our thoughts and what we do. It has its place. An important place because it is from this place, from this platform, that we can rise to our best.

This is why.

I am not breast cancer free."

Naz

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Winter lockdown tips: BRiC's Collective Voice

Be the first to comment!

 

‘Please let there be light.’

Our heartfelt request to see us through the winter months of lockdown is sunshine. We shared tips for not only surviving but thriving during these winter months when we are restricted in our activities. Everyone who is well enough to get outside agreed that a walk in the fresh air is the best way to keep our spirits up, even better in daylight but for those working who may not be able to get out during the day, then an evening walk is also beneficial. Sunshine can activate parts of the brain that bring us pleasure, and so we grab it when we can. In these days when we can’t plan or look forward to things - in fact we are more likely to have plans scuppered at short notice as the rules fluctuate - we must seize the day and make the best of what we can do. Constant disappointment does get us down, our brains are tired from dealing with our cancer and the additional uncertainty that covid brings, and we can easily feel low and unmotivated.

Many of us are sorely missing our friends, family, activities and freedom. For those who like to plan, having a routine and structure to the day may be helpful, even if we're at home for the day e.g.scheduling in exercise, planning what we're going to cook for dinner, deciding when we're going to take our walk depending on the weather forecast. Goal-setting is useful, short or long term. Many have taken the opportunity to learn new skills, perhaps new craft activities, a musical instrument, painting, calligraphy. Leisure activities at home have brought joy, and we’re making the most of music, television, DIY and board-games. We incorporate exercise, mindfulness or meditation into our day, taking advantage of online classes and courses. We are reading and writing, challenging ourselves with puzzles, dancing and phoning and zooming family and friends. We are cooking new recipes, baking bread and cakes, and sometimes sharing our products with others which brings additional pleasure.




The lockdown rollercoaster that everyone is living with has many parallels with the rollercoaster that is cancer treatment, where we wait for scan results and make a few short term plans where we can. This is especially true when we have secondary breast cancer, when treatment is ongoing and scans and tests become a regular part of our lives. We live from one to the next, hoping for good news, adapting to bad news. ‘Entirely exhausting but end up looking out for little things’ as one member put it. We may be missing activities and people, but we make small plans and live for the moment, making sure that we don’t just fritter our time away or end up ‘slumped with no idea of what next.’

Many of us find our work rewarding and a distraction, though for those working close up to Covid or in different conditions (e.g. working from home) work may be more challenging and stressful than usual. Making sure we get a break from work which includes getting outside is a useful goal to aim for.

Getting closer to nature is a bonus for many of us, and a simple exercise was suggested by one member: sky watching. It can be done from indoors if the weather isn’t good or you’re not feeling up to going out, perhaps with the window open to get the benefits of fresh air. ‘It’s an opportunity to stop, pause and notice the wonder of the sky.’ It can be done anytime, start with five minutes, and just notice the clouds or the stars. It can be very soothing.

Asking for help may also be key to getting through, as we strive to be more honest and authentic in our day-to-day life. One member described how she made a list of things she wanted for Christmas, not just gifts but activities too, and how she bought some items ready made rather than making it all from scratch. She also handed out tea-towels for family members to dry up with. Many of us are practising accepting and making the best of limitations, whether that’s relating to our own physical or mental capability or the restrictions the covid rules put on us. We acknowledge that we are sad about the things we miss, and then we move through these feelings and find ways to be kind to ourselves. If we can’t concentrate to read, we might listen to audio books instead, for example.

Some of us are treasuring the extra time and space that lockdown is providing. Looking at lockdown as a chance to take stock and knowing that although we don’t know how or when it will end, trusting that it will end, can be helpful. ‘Lockdown gave me time for me and I’ve finally realised I’m not selfish putting myself first.’ Not feeling guilty for looking after our own needs was a recurring theme for many of us. ‘Trying to be good to myself and doing something each day for me.’



Wednesday, 23 December 2020

What does Quality of Life mean to you? BRiC's Collective Voice

Be the first to comment!

 

What does quality of life mean to you?

The topic for this Sunday night’s discussion suggested by one of our lovely admin’s, Bal Nanray, focused on the question, ‘What does quality of life mean to you?’ Naz led us into the topic by contexualising this discussion from a research perspective as we explored our thoughts and opinions on the topic:

“In research, quality of life is one of the key outcome measures that is used to assess the psychological well-being of individuals.”

There is a shared understanding that for many of us, quality of life diminishes following a breast cancer diagnosis as we try to navigate our way through surgery and subsequent treatment regimes where long term exposure to cancer treatment affects us physically, emotionally and mentally. Although we have all experienced a breast cancer diagnosis, we know that this affects each of us differently and, in the same way, quality of life means different things to each of us. However, there were many shared views on quality of life that were woven into our discussion.

Many of us felt that quality of life centred on our ability to be physically and mentally well enough to be able to do the things in which we find pleasure. It was noted that often, these are the things that we took for granted prior to our diagnosis of breast cancer, leading to feelings of gratitude for the things that we can do and take joy from. This included a range of things that we enjoy as individuals, including having a level of cognitive functioning and concentration to allow us to read literature. Being able to get outdoors and close to nature rated highly on our list of things that contribute to our quality of life.





For some us of us, hard decisions have had to be made about continuing with breast cancer drug treatment as we have been forced to weigh up the limitations and physical burdens that this poses for our quality of life.

Being able to improve the quality of life for others was another discussion point linked to individuals’ feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. As one of our members expressed, the extent to which she can feel ‘useful, helpful and make a contribution to our local community’ was a really important part of their overall view of quality of life.

Having a dog in the family brings great happiness to several of our members and is another way in which quality of life is enhanced for them. A sense of purpose has a huge impact on our lives, as does being involved in activities that help to contribute to finding inner peace and calm.

For all of us, the COVID pandemic has highlighted the detrimental impact of loss of freedom and choice, both fundamental things that are required to achieve quality of life. Having aspects of our lives severely affected by this virus serves to illustrate that without freedom and choice the quality of our lives is so much less. As women living with and beyond a breast cancer diagnosis, we recognise that it has forced us to look at our lives in microscopic detail. Part of this is cultivating our ability to say ‘no’, to free our time to do things that contribute towards our wellbeing.

The view that quality of life in many ways overrides quantity of life is a strong feeling amongst our group, vocalised in this very safe place that we share. Evermore so following a breast cancer diagnosis, we value our independence and ability to participate in things that we hold dear.

We each have our thoughts and ideas about what quality of life means to us. As is usual in our Sunday night discussions, we have been able to share with one another and explore a hugely important topic. Quality of life is everything. Each of us understands its relevance to our lives.

Thank you to everybody who was able to contribute to our quality of life conversation.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Our favourite books: BRiC's Collective Voice

Be the first to comment!


Books and books’’ Our Favourites!

This week our Sunday discussion was about books, our favourite ones and how they may have shaped us as human beings.

Naz explained that as an academic, she reads books that are more about research than she reads widely about the ‘real’ world!

For many of our members, when we read it helps us relax, and provides a sense of release from negative thoughts, or a bit of pure escapism.
Many of our members found reading can actually make us feel motivated and a sense of happiness.

Some of our members found reading difficult/challenging after a breast cancer diagnosis, due to the traumatic experience of treatment and our ability to concentrate which declines, so therefore some members have turned instead to audio books as an alternative.

We feel as if the books draw us in, trying to make us a part of the storyline. Whenever we read a book, the world vanishes and nothing else matters other than the tiny bundle of pages in our hand.





It’s like an addiction, and its touch makes us feel inspired.

The mere presence of a book in our hands brings a mixture of emotions; laughter, sadness, excitement, inspiration, feeling loved and many more different emotions that we experience.

Many of our members have fond memories of their childhood books and how magical they made us feel and the written word can be so powerful and speak right to our soul.
One of our members even named her granddaughter after a book that she enjoyed so much!

Certain books had the most profound affect which resonated with some members who have experienced and suffered child abuse at the hands of their parent and now instinctively understood the behaviours were wrong and how manipulation can be the cause of us in believing that it’s your fault as a child. But after reading particular books we realise the ugly truth about them and suddenly don’t feel so alone and isolated and choose not to repeat the cycle of cruelty and become an empath instead.

Some of our members enjoyed reading books when they were going through treatment and how moved and inspired they felt and it wasn’t all depressing, in a way, helped make sense of many things that we are feeling at the time, can also be very thought provoking when couples don’t communicate enough when we have had breast cancer and constant injunctions to be positive.

Many of our members have been influenced by books and found them therapeutic before/after breast cancer.

A list of our most loved books, handpicked by our members.


Enjoy!

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Three things with positive impact in 2020: BRiC's Collective Voice

Be the first to comment!

 

“What three things have made a positive impact on you over 2020?”

In our discussion this week, we looked at things which happened or we did over 2020 which has a positive impact on our lives. By introduction, Naz spoke about how depression can be exacerbated by the disparity between where we are and where we want to be. We have spoken in the past about the “positivity coat” we are expected to wear and that this can make us feel we cannot live up to those expectations. This has been a really hard year for all and we accept that we have no control over many of the events of 2020 but we can seek out those diamonds which we call glimmers of hope in our group. Selectively focussing on positive moments whilst not downplaying the negative aspects is very healthy. With this in mind, we asked the question “What three things this year have you done or experienced which resulted in a positive impact”

This was a lively discussion. There were themes which were cancer/health care related, work/education relates and personal/family related. Not surprisingly, very few of us found a cancer diagnosis or treatment a positive experience. Some did however feel grateful for the care they received from the NHS and that their treatment continued despite COVID-19.






Many of our member had positive changes to their employment whether it be returning to work after treatment, new roles, new jobs or even retirement. There was a feeling of satisfaction for some for a job well done. Some reported they had commenced or completed higher qualifications such as PhD or MSC.

By far the greatest impact came from things we did or experienced with family and friends or at home. Many of us saw the time of lock down a chance to spend time with our partners and children and to have more communication with more distant family and friends using online meeting technology. We loved baking (no wonder there was a shortage of flour!), cooking, making jewellery and having time in our gardens - especially with a spell of lovely weather in spring and summer. Some took time to challenge themselves by taking up writing a book or taking on walking or running challenges. New skills were described too - meditation, Reiki or learning a foreign language. Some of us were lucky enough to have taken a short holiday when restrictions allowed. There were small pleasures too - one member was very pleased that her car passed its MOT!




There were joyful events too - new babies in the family, engagement, weddings and new homes.

There was pride in the achievements of our family and friends; our children passed exams, gaining university places. We were full of admiration at how resilient our partners and children are when facing up to the challenges of this year including our cancer. There was also pride in helping out, such as setting up a regular quiz night or volunteering with the NHS.

Finally, we were grateful for the peer support within this group. The support of our members is invaluable.




Thursday, 3 December 2020

Chemotherapy effects and tips: BRiC's Collective Voice

Be the first to comment!

 

A recent Sunday discussion focused on chemotherapy, how we prepare for it, how we deal with it and how it affects us.

Naz explained that along with the physical side effects, research shows that cognitive function can be impaired by chemotherapy and many of our members related experience of “brain fog”, often lasting long after chemo has ended. Cognitive impairment can also be caused by the emotional and psychological effects of a breast cancer diagnosis; and made worse by the ongoing treatment many of us face. Some of us who escaped chemotherapy still recalled a feeling of “chemo brain”. There is hope, as shown in some of BRiC’s research, that we can improve our neural networks with specific training. But chemo-brain is just one of the many side effects we discussed, along with hints and tips on how to cope with chemotherapy, and some of the things we wish we’d known before it started.

For many of our members chemotherapy was the hardest part of their treatment. We recounted tales of horrific mouth ulcers, of sickness, utter exhaustion, diarrhoea, unbelievable constipation, of the well-known hair loss – but why didn’t anyone ever tell us that it would actually hurt when the hair fell out? We talked about broken or lost finger and toe nails, of veins ruined by repeated treatments, of a loss or change in taste and smell (the distinctive smell of the chemo unit, something few can ever forget) and of going off foods and drinks we used to love; there were cases of sepsis and hospital admissions, of chemo induced heart problems and diabetes, weight gain or loss, skin rashes and irritations, eyes and noses that dripped like leaky taps, neuropathy and joint pain, which for many lasts years after chemo. There were headaches and mood swings, there was fear and loneliness, and so many more side effects that can debilitate even the fittest and most determined of us.

Lots of us coped with chemo by reminding ourselves that the benefits would outweigh the side effects and that “it’s just four more treatments” or “it’s just two more treatments”. Having that light at the end of the tunnel gave us hope and strength to carry on. Our members with secondary breast cancer don’t have that luxury. There is no end to treatment; they may be facing many years of chemo side effects and just thinking about that prospect is in itself exhausting.



Our members’ experiences of preparing for chemo varied, with some having lots of information ahead of treatment, honest answers to questions about side effects and good advice on how to treat them. Others were given a leaflet and told to expect hair loss and sickness, but not much else. We all agreed that having the right information prior to starting helps. We wanted to be told what to expect.

You will probably think you are dying at least once.
You will tell yourself you just can’t do another treatment.
You will consider stopping chemo to get some relief.
You will have days where you cannot get out of bed.
You might be a lucky one who suffers very little.
You will probably put on a brave face and people will tell you how well you are doing, even though you don’t feel it – and you will probably get fed up with people telling you your head is a lovely shape and it suits you having no hair!
You will sit up all night in a chemo/steroid induced insomnia.

Members commented that having the BRiC private group was a tremendous help, knowing there would be someone else up in the middle of the night to chat to, knowing there was someone else who’d had the exact same side effect and might know the best way to deal with it, and just knowing that you aren’t alone in what you are going through.

Many of us say we went into some kind of superwoman mode, some had no choice but to continue to work, we often tried to carry on as normal to shield our families from just how bad we really felt. Some of us discovered that trying to be superwoman was not such a good idea, as partners, colleagues and friends didn’t understand how gruelling the treatment really was and as a result had little sympathy when we needed to rest.

Along with practical ideas, like stocking up on ice lollies, laxatives, tasty food, comfy clothes, soft hats (who knew how cold a bald head can be?!), flip flops in case of sore toes, something to do/read during infusions which can take a long time - we often just wanted someone who could sit and listen, hold our hand and not expect anything from us, someone who would do the chores without being asked, who would entertain the children while we rested or bring us our favourite treat.

We did have some members who sailed through chemo with few of the nasty effects and without fail they said they felt extremely lucky. Chemotherapy kills billions of good cells in order to get at the cancerous ones, the overwhelming feeling was that chemo is a special kind of hell, a necessary evil, a war zone, something that isn’t “over” the minute you walk out of your final treatment, and something that not all hospitals prepare us for properly. Knowledge is power and knowing what to expect can help, even if it’s just in a small way.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Impact of breast cancer on our nearest and dearest: BRiC's Collective Voice

4 Comments so far

 

“The impact on my family and parents when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 34 was enormous.”
Our Sunday discussion discussed how breast cancer has affected our loved ones, our dearest and nearest.

We were not surprised that our discussion raised many mixed and diverse experiences when it came to how our cancer had affected our family, our friends, and our children. One thing was certain though: that the emotional toll is there for them too.

Husbands/partners were thought of being excellent with the practical side of things. Some of us talked about how good they were with the housekeeping, hospital appointments and shifting work to be present with us during treatment and so on. Equally though, this dissipated with time, such that as time moved on they had had enough and believed that we should be cured, that they were ‘tired of doing everything’, and that we were lazy. Others not so much, they continued to worry about us, they continued to be our rock. It was agreed that the emotional stuff was harder for them to deal with, and their reluctance to talk and open up, made it harder for them to cope. We heard about depression and suicidal attempts, we also heard about partners leaving and shutting us out.

Telling our children and adjusting what we say and how we communicate, considering their age and disabilities, can be really hard. Our sons, compared with our daughters, some reported, found it harder to digest, but this eased with time. Our children were very instrumental in helping, they took charge, found information, encouraged us. But we also heard that children got bullied at school because of us, and they were uncomfortable to be seen with us in public.

Some of us reported that our children found it hard to talk, to cry, to express their emotions. We can spot the fear in them even when they try to hide it. We get asked if we will die or live with the slightest illness we experience. We make efforts to be honest to the best of our ability so that we can protect them, to look after them, and to nourish them, even so, some break down and need counselling. It helped if our children had friends they could confide in. For some, they have always seen us as a cancer patient, as they were newborns when we were diagnosed.




It can be very hard to talk about our cancer to our parents, especially if they are elderly. In fact we’ve avoided it if they are fragile or suffer from their own vulnerability. For some of us, our mums saw us through treatment, for others our parents abandoned us, either finding it too hard to deal with, and not wanting to discuss it. Because of this belittling effect, some found it easier to distance themselves from their parents. For many, our immediate family did not want to hear that our cancer is ‘ongoing’. Sisters and brothers are important, but again we spoke about how some had abandoned us and/or were not interested in supporting us. The opposite was true as well, with many reporting that their siblings were there in the thick and thin of it.

We acknowledged that for those of us with secondary breast cancer, it can be harder to communicate as pressures can run high for our immediate family. Some of us talked about how writing through our blogs can help them understand how we can be supported.

We were equally grateful for friends who travelled long distances to visit and support us, pleasantly surprising us with kind gestures.

Our members were grateful for having found BRiC: their BRiC family is who they go to. Moving forward courses and other support groups are valuable too.

We concluded that just as much as we need emotional support, our partners, our children and our immediate family need educating and emotional support so that they can care for themselves and us, cope better as well as know how to support us better. They can be better prepared for us and our needs and consequently they can feel stronger in supporting us, and not abandoning us. Hopefully research will emphasise this important point so that we can provide better support for our families.