Monday 24 October 2016

Day 24 #pathways2resilience ~ Penny

Special Feature Edition: Pathways to Resilience: Embracing our Vulnerability, Celebrating our Resilience

The Cowards Guide to Cancer...

Is bravery essential for survival? What do we do when we can’t feel brave? When we are too weak to feel brave? When our vulnerability takes the better of us, and we have no option but to commit to it. Are we a coward then? Or is bravery not an option on the menu of things to do to survive?

For our month long feature #pathways2resilience, Penny, another wonderful member of our centre, shares her resilience story 'The Coward’s Guide to Cancer' here, and how she made it to go public on The Sun Online, when she did not consider herself brave!


A close encounter with a bear while walking with a friend in Canada made me realise just what a coward I am. The bear was approaching us and we were alone. My friend had not seen it. Before setting off on the trail we had taken advice on how to behave should one meet a bear in the wild, but my mind went blank. Instinct took over. So what did I do? I pushed my friend between me and the bear and hid behind her. We survived, and I think we are still friends. We both know I may not be relied upon in moments of crisis.

To me, bravery is that demonstrated by those prepared to dash into a burning building to save others. I see bravery on those 999 style documentaries where firemen and medics put their lives on the line to save a stranger. And yet, from the moment I was diagnosed with cancer I was considered brave. Strangers approached me in cafes, gently touched my arm and remarked on my bravery. What nonsense. Each time I sat in a chemo chair while a nurse fed poison into my veins I felt like the passive recipient of a treatment that sometimes seemed worse than the disease, yet if I wanted to survive this seemed the only option. Hardly a brave a decision. At times I thought, “bring it on, consider me brave”, I’m not immune to the joys of a compliment however ill-deserved. Yet gradually the bravery badge felt like a burden. Once I was labelled and praised for my bravery it seemed there was a heavy expectation on me to cope, to not look ill, to cry only in private, to protect those around me from the realities of a dread disease.

But I did cope. I had no choice. Often I did it through the care of remarkable strangers who became “virtual” friends. I found these people online, in support groups like “Inflammatory Breast Cancer Support UK”, “Building Resilience in Breast Cancer” and “Flat Friends”. These groups are full of women who are not brave, just remarkable. In these closed forums we can rant and rave, share our fears and experiences in a way that we sometimes feel unable to do with our nearest and dearest. I confess to having few people to call in the dead of night complaining of chemo induced constipation and mouth ulcers or who want to hear my steroid fuelled nightmares about dying and being laid to rest in my best dress but bald. Yet online, there was usually someone ready, without judgement, to "listen" and share similar fears and extraordinary body functions. Through the best of intentions, those closest to us often don’t want to hear that we are suffering, that we are scared or, perhaps more significantly, the cancer has changed us. And I realised, that however often I cry, however often I can’t face the changes to my body, however often I mourn the life I feel I lost, like all the other women I am remarkable too.

I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer in 2013. To all intents and purposes I am “doing well”, but I still struggle at times to cope with the after effects of the treatment which include nerve pain from peripheral neuropathy, not to mention the absence of one of my tits. I wish this hadn’t happened to me and yet it has strangely led to some great things.

Whilst going through treatment I was encouraged to keep a diary. For the most part this was pretty dull reading. “Today I felt sick”. “Today my hair fell out”. “Today they lopped off my left tit”. I exaggerate, but you get my drift. Gradually as my hair began to grow, my scars had healed and I tried to resume a “normal” life, my diaries had a bit more to offer as I began to take stock of the emotional impact of the cancer and facing a “new normal”. And I started to blog at . Writing has been therapeutic. The more I shared about the frustrations of life “post treatment” - dating with one tit, buying mastectomy bras, body image -  the more people got in touch with me to share their similar stories. From feeling isolated, I felt connected. I always enjoyed writing but my motivation waxed and waned, but now cancer has given me my writing mojo. I started blogging for The Huffington Post and was interviewed for the Mail and The Sun online – I am no Page 3 babe and so I never imagined my tits (well discussion about my tits) would ever make their way into The Sun.

My marriage failed just before my cancer diagnosis. I’m over 50, single with just one tit. This is not the life I had imagined for myself. Sometimes my future feels bleak. And yet, by opening up about my feelings in public, it has in turn opened up new horizons. These horizons range from the more bizarre, like being an extra in a vibrator advertisement, to those which aid a cause like an invitation next month to attend an All Party reception in Parliament in support of Breast Cancer Now, or being treated to a makeover and wardrobe styling session for a charity video for Macmillan and Clothes Aid or being interviewed for a research project at London Fashion School into how clothes and style impact on recovery in breast cancer. Amongst all the fear, pain and loss, there has been fun. And most of all, throughout it all, apparently I am VERY, VERY BRAVE!!!

#panningforgold #pathways2resilience
#bcresiliencecentre #breastcancerawareness

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