Special Feature Edition: Pathways to Resilience: Embracing our Vulnerability, Celebrating our Resilience
Today for our month long feature we are delighted to share Sarah-Jane’s story.
October, - Breast Cancer Awareness month, the month that seems to symbolise moments of reflection for me. It is nine years since I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and there are times today, when I look back, that I feel it is unbelievable to think I experienced something so absolutely harrowing; that a tiny lump in my left breast would cause so much heartache and pain: that my contented life was momentarily turned upside down in a split second.
It’s true, no matter how far down the road you may be from your diagnosis, how you wear a continuously radiant smile because you are fortunate to belong to a group known as the survivors, and continue to be one of the lucky ones, you are reminded of all that you went through, but equally of just how far you have come in rebuilding your life. I write that sentence with my fingers and toes crossed and pray this will always be the case. I also find myself taking a moment to think of all those who have not been as lucky as me, those that face a secondary diagnosis and live every day with enormous strength and bravery along with huge uncertainty.
I believe the majority of people faced with such a devastating diagnosis of hearing the petrifying word ‘cancer’ quickly cascade into a lonely, terrifying deep and dark black hole where the heavy clouds prevent any glimmer of light to touch you. Your carry all of your fears on your shoulders and you feel as though they will never be lifted. Then you start on the treadmill with treatment, most commonly surgery, chemotherapy, perhaps radiotherapy. We lose our femininity. For me, initially, it was my breasts, then my hair, then chronic bloating a common side effect of chemo. Every wave of emotion was felt. Then miraculously, almost in what appeared to feel like a few moments the light began to penetrate the darkness -unknown opportunities quickly blinded me. I emerged strong, ironic that you are faced with adversity to realise your inner strength and real potential. I wanted to share my own experience to educate some but also to empower others and inspire those who are about to begin on their own breast cancer journey. That journey is a tough one.
It felt like my breast cancer journey was a long one. Complicated by my previous childhood cancer when I was only sixteen years old. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease or Hodgkins Lymphoma as it more commonly known these days, a cancer of the Lymphatic system which affects the white blood cells. At 16 I faced rigorous chemotherapy followed by pretty horrific radiotherapy which was given to me every day for six weeks. People have asked me frequently how I actually felt facing cancer as a child. The truth is I felt as if my parents protected me from the serious consequences of a life threatening illness and I didn’t fully comprehend such a diagnosis until I was diagnosed at the age of 36 with triple negative breast cancer and a mummy to two young daughters. That’s when I fully comprehended the extent of what cancer was capable of within the body and psychologically and what major impact it would have on my future life. It’s true to say, like many others faced with any kind of personal misfortune, I am determined and there have been many occasions that I have needed to prove this in life. It was my encounter with breast cancer that made me passionate to try and make a small difference to the lives of those facing a diagnosis today.
As soon as I reached the end of my treatment, which incidentally involved a full mastectomy with immediate free tram diep flap reconstruction, followed by 8 sessions of chemotherapy, a preventative second mastectomy again with immediate Igap reconstruction which actually failed and was followed a few months later with a second Igap reconstruction which took a very long 26 hours in surgery for my surgeon to perform, I was adamant that I wanted to go and try to help others as I want their experience to be a positive one. As bizarre as it may sound I felt as though I had been very lucky to have an amazing medical team around me who also had access to ensure that I was given the best care and the latest drugs that were available at the time. A classic scenario of wanting to give something back for the amazing care that I had received.
Research is vitally important to me. We need to improve the quality of life for patients going through treatment so I chose to support an amazing charity called Breast Cancer Now as they specialised in the area of research amongst other things. Not being a runner at all I thought I would compete in the London Marathon to raise much needed funds exactly 12 months from the date of my end of treatment. I learnt then, that the mind is incredibly powerful when pushed to the absolute maximum. How I trained for it will probably remain a complete blur especially as I was a total novice but I did complete it with huge satisfaction that the pain was worth it as I managed to raise over £10,000, and that was the focus that inspired me putting one step in front of the other!! I still don’t know how I actually did it, but I have a little medal that I am extremely proud of that reminds me that my dedication to the cause was definitely all worth it.
So the marathon was me giving something back to research. Then an opportunity came to set up a local support group for the charity Keeping Abreast for the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire region. Primarily to offer support to ladies considering breast reconstruction following their mastectomies. I absolutely love it, especially meeting new people and helping them through their surgery and beyond. It is something that I am really passionate about as I feel like we are supporting the ladies through a very daunting and difficult time and we all feel within the group that this is rewarding for all of us. We love our fundraising too which allows us to provide patients with a bra voucher after their surgery just so that they can treat themselves to a new bra to try and help them feel special and feminine when they have healed.
My cancer experiences, especially breast cancer has allowed me to grow in ways that would never have been possible previously. I was such a frightened vulnerable patient who required constant reassurance that I really would be ok. Cancer has taught me to be many lessons. I am so grateful to everyone who helped me reach where I am today. I have met some equally inspiring ladies, some are involved in this group as well and it has been so moving to see them come through their ordeal and go on to help others too with such a selfless approach.
I did go on and write my ‘life story’ in my book called Worms on Parachutes, which is my thank you gift to the NHS who have helped me to be where I am today. If you do get an opportunity to read it I know you will love it, as many ladies who have shared their thoughts with me have expressed just how helpful they found reading it.
I hope you enjoy reading this little piece during Breast Cancer Awareness month.
Lots of love