Saturday 2 January 2021

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

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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."