Friday 13 May 2016

Worms On Parachutes ~ Sarah-Jane

“Breast cancer has taught me to reach for the stars as everything is possible if you remain positive and believe you can achieve everything you set out to do.”

I will always remember the waiting room on that Friday morning in June 2007. It was the day the words were muttered “it’s not good news afraid, its cancer.” I know many of us will resonate with the numbness that runs through our entire body and the immediate fears that flash through our minds as the consultant delivers this news in the softest manner possible.

Cancer and breast cancer was something I naively felt would never happen to me in my adulthood. After all my childhood had been plagued with ill health. Just as I was about to sit my final school exams, a blood test followed by a biopsy from a lump in my neck revealed the shocking news to myself and my parents. I had stage 2b Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I had cancer in my neck, under my arms and both sides of my lungs. The only way to ‘cure’ me was to have 6 months of aggressive chemotherapy and 6 weeks of daily mantle field radiotherapy I remember sitting my GCSE’s two days after the end of my radiation treatment. As I write this I can still feel the heat of the school hall that afternoon. I remember sitting with my elbows pointing outwards to protect my underarms that had been burnt from this treatment and were weepy and sore. I was determined to sit my exams which had given me the focus I needed to get me through all of the treatment and would allow me to move forward with my life and bury the harrowing experience in my life which had been life threatening at such a tender age.

That’s just what I did. I moved on with life. I met my soulmate, we married and rather miraculously went on to have two beautiful daughters. I was told the implications of treatment may leave me infertile. I actually conceived naturally and really without planning!! Hence the arrival of my girls who were born 20 months apart.

Some of us just are not dealt a smooth ride in life. Something happens and we are faced with a cruel and bumpy journey. I discovered a tiny lump in my breast in the bath one evening. I hoped my worst fears wouldn’t come true but it wasn’t to be. I was diagnosed with grade 3 triple negative breast cancer. I recall being calm and phoning my friend immediately to collect my girls from school at the end of the day. They were only 7 and 5 at the time and I was 36. As I put the phone down I fell to pieces in the consulting room. I honestly thought I wouldn’t survive and I certainly wouldn’t be here to watch my children grow up and flourish. I was so scared with visions of all scenarios flashing through my mind. I took all the treatment offered to me, and I was going to do everything I could to help myself and survive. I was the patient who didn’t want to know too much. I needed comfort and reassurance from my medical team that they were there to save my life. At home I was so brave and I shielded my family from everything including my inner most thoughts. I was ‘mum’ the home still needed to run smoothly and I needed to be there for my children. Every morning throughout my treatment I would get up and put my makeup on in an attempt to try and make myself look the best I could even though I felt so rough. Behind all of that the only place I could allow myself to crumble were the consulting rooms of my local hospital when I attended for my treatment. 8 sessions of chemo and surgery. Initially a Mastectomy with immediate diep flap breast reconstruction. My choice 18 months later was to have a second mastectomy and reconstruction this time using the tissue from my bottom. But the reconstruction failed on that occasion and I made the decision to have a third attempt using my other buttock. (even bum lift hurrah!) 26 hours of surgery with the most amazing surgeon in my eyes anyway, but I know we all feel the same about our surgeons.

With my treatment coming to an end I found this enormous strength growing within me. I wanted to do something that could potentially help others at the same time as healing myself both mentally and physically. I decided to run the next London Marathon on behalf of the charity Breast Cancer Now (formerly breakthrough breast cancer) I wanted to raise funds to ensure that better treatments are constantly being developed to treat future patients to make their journey a little more bearable. I would also look after myself with the training regime and once more it gave me the focus I needed. I think it’s so important not to dwell too much on the negative things that can happen in your life. I organised fundraising events to attempt to reach my £2000 target and boy did it feel like an enormous amount of money to raise. I was blown away with people’s generosity and support to the cause that I have to believe is going to help to save thousands of lives. So as I pounded the street in all weathers the donations steadily kept coming. As I stood on the start line of the 2010 London marathon the realisation of what I was about to achieve suddenly hit me. I needed to cross the finish Line to feel worthy of raising a staggering £10,289 for the cause. That’s one challenge to have on your shoulders. Today those 26 miles remain the hardest miles of my life as I reflected on everything that I had been through. Thousands of lives are lost each year from this terrible disease but here I was running the marathon and raising thousands of pounds that would benefit others. That was the reason for my huge smile as I crossed the finish line weary and sore some hours later.

So with the marathon behind me the final part of restoring myself to my former self, the cherry on top of the cake, nipple reconstruction followed by Tattooing! The day I walked away from the hospital wards following that final stage of surgery I wailed like a baby and I was crying for different reasons than those on the day I entered the hospital to be faced with my diagnosis. When I didn’t know what lay ahead for me. This time I was leaving behind the team of people who had got me through things so graciously and had become my best friends. Nothing prepares you for that sense of loss you will feel when you say goodbye to those who save your life.

I had to do something to recognise these heroes of mine. I decided to write my memoir with proceeds going to the NHS Trust that ultimately held me together through my challenging moments and I have been overwhelmed by the positivity my book has received. A story I wanted to be inspirational to anyone facing their own journey today. I am an ordinary mum treated by my local NHS hospital a hospital I feel many people really value when it is needed the most. I’m delighted that many breast cancer patients have taken great strength from reading it.

Today nearly 9 years since my diagnosis I am in great health. I’m actually writing this sitting in the sunshine enjoying a coffee as I look out on to the Mediterranean taking a break visiting my family.

I’m now an avid supporter of Breast Cancer Now and continue to fundraise on their behalf. I really would love to see the day when nobody has to face the fear of dying of this devastating disease. I only organise simple events like afternoon teas. But by bringing people together to enjoy coffee and cake could actually save the life of someone else, after all it is perhaps what has helped to save my life.

I have set up a local group on behalf of another charity called Keeping Abreast, to support those considering breast reconstruction. It’s certainly where I feel my passion lies today and it’s important for others to see that you can come through your experience and achieve things that you would have never imagined would be possible. I know it may only seem like A very small gesture but I can’t wait for our lovely group to reach the stage that we can purchase our first bra vouchers so that patients can leave hospital with a voucher to treat themselves once they have recovered from surgery and to know that there are others thinking of them at a time when they are living a daunting experience in their life. I’m absolutely convinced my fundraising efforts won’t finish here as I think this is my way of bouncing back from my own difficult experience.

For those who would love to read Worms On Parachutes it is available from Amazon.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

Lots of love

Sarah-Jane Phillips

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