I always thought I’d live to a ripe old age. I looked after my health, exercised regularly, gave up smoking nearly a quarter of a century ago, barely drank any alcohol, wasn’t overweight and even ate quinoa and spinach regularly! I was as strong as an ox, and worried that my inadequate pension savings wouldn’t last very long in my retirement which would hopefully span at least 15 years, hopefully longer! Then I found a lump in my breast and my prospects of even reaching retirement age took a dive…
Just in case you get bored with my story and don’t make it to the end, I want to put my hands on your shoulders, look you in the eye and ask you to check your bits please. Do it today. Don’t put it off.
Whether you’re a bloke or a lady, please take some time to see what your boobs or balls feel like so that if there’s anything unusual, either now or in the future, then you’ll notice any changes. If it can happen to me then it can happen to anybody!
My lump wasn’t the size of a pea, or even a marble. It was a proper cherry tomato, almost a Ferrero Rocher! Where had that suddenly sprung from? It was unmistakeable yet I hadn’t noticed it before. I was proper petrified. I rang my surgery first thing the next day to make an appointment, and although I’d rung as soon as the lines opened they didn’t have any spare slots. However, the helpful receptionist squeezed me in at an after-hours clinic at another surgery where I saw a locum doctor. She immediately referred me under the ‘two week rule’ where you get to see a specialist within a fortnight if the GP thinks you have cancer. She said I didn’t fit the most common profile though, not being overweight or a big drinker, but this wasn’t much consolation.
Less than two weeks later I reported to my local hospital to see the breast surgeon. She examined the lump and also found some bumpy bits on the other side which seemed unusual, so I had a mammogram. This didn’t show up anything odd so I then had an ultrasound. The radiologist could immediately see the lump, and also some dodgy looking lymph nodes. He said that I have dense breast tissue (who knew that was even a thing?!) and therefore mammogram inspections ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ – a lovely analogy! So the mammogram I had the previous year wouldn’t have shown anything anyway, due to my compacted boobies, so was a waste of time.
The only good news that was he couldn’t find anything wrong with the bumpy bits that the doctor had found on the other side so that was a mild relief. He asked if I would consent to him taking some biopsies there and then, which I did, so they numbed my chest and armpit and he stabbed me with a thin spikey device which grabbed a bit of flesh from the lump and a lymph node and put it in a container to be tested. It didn’t hurt, but I did jump out of my skin each time it clicked to take the sample! A nurse applied a small dressing over the microscopic wound and I went back to see the surgeon. She told me she thought it was definitely ‘suspicious’, but that she’d been proved wrong in the past. This was really helpful as I wasn’t given any false hope and actually helped prepare me for what was to come.
I then had two weeks of biting my nails and waiting for the biopsies to be reviewed in the lab, to see what they contained. It’s really scary to face your mortality. Not only that, I had chats with a couple of friends and family members who’d been through it and the reality of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy really hit. Ultimately, I think any of us would walk over hot coals to preserve our lives, but we don’t think too much about what it could involve. I didn’t Google anything though. Although I’m an internet addict, I don’t use it for medical matters. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and I just wanted to listen to my medical team and let them guide me to useful data sources.
Two weeks later I reported back to the breast clinic. The surgeon came right out with it and kindly explained I had a treatable cancer in my breast and lymph nodes. I would have a lumpectomy and some of my nodes removed in a few weeks, to be followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
I was obviously emotional but appreciated the straightforward explanations given to me, and the subsequent information provided by the Macmillan nurse. Wow, I had my own Macmillan nurse. Shit! They talked about how to tell my children, which upset me again… Armed with leaflets and booklets I went home and then had the horrible task of telling my husband, so there were more tears. How had this even happened?
I then had the job of letting my close family and friends know my news. I mostly did it by text as I didn’t trust myself not to cry if I called them. I wanted to be as open as possible and not make it a big secret. I decided not to talk about it on social media, mainly as I wanted to be ‘normal Ali’ on there, rather than ‘cancer girl’. I’m not one for posting big, personal news like this. I completely respect those that do, and we all decide how much of our lives to share, and who with. You may find it odd then that I’m writing this now, but I want this website to be my way of telling the story, not in short snatches on Facebook, but in measured, considered posts. I will share it on social media as I want to demystify the scary world of cancer, and show that it isn’t necessarily the end of life as we know it.
My surgery was booked for the end of July, so I embarked on a manic series of fun days out with family and friends, a kind of bucket list to make as many memories as I could. I had an awesome time, learning to paddleboard, going to scooter rallies, days out in Brighton and London, and spa visits. I was determined to make the most of that time, to squeeze in as much as possible with my nearest and dearest.
The hardest part was telling my ten year old son. His initial reaction was sheer terror that I was going to die, but I reassured him by telling him about all the people he knows who have had cancer and survived. His auntie, some close friends, and a few other examples that I reeled off. He was very brave, and I promised we would have fun as much as possible. I might get poorly but it wouldn’t be forever and there was every chance that I would get back to normal afterwards.
What I was so grateful for is that we’d had a couple of awesome family holidays in the last couple of years, precisely for this reason. Friends of my age kept getting ill, and couldn’t do the things they wanted to, so I was determined to create memories just in case the same thing happened to me (which I didn’t actually expect it to). We went to Toronto, Niagara Falls and New York last summer, and then this Easter did a Californian road trip from Los Angeles to San Franciso and back again.
Throughout this period I keep being told that I’m so positive. And brave. Which is flattering, but I think bravery involves a choice, and I have no choice about what’s happening to me so am not brave. I think positivity is a choice, but it’s also ingrained, and I’m a naturally positive person. I have very low times, suffer from stress and anxiety, but am generally a ‘glass half full’ kind of girl. Although I really wish this hadn’t happened, and want to pinch myself and wake up from this horrible nightmare (if only I could do a Bobby Ewing and wake up in the shower!) I strongly believe that you have to make the best of things.
If my life is shortened by this illness then that’s even more reason to make the most out of every day. Make every hug count. See the world through a clear lens rather than living life on autopilot. I’m sure some people think that the worst thing ever is to have cancer, but really there are plenty of people who are worse off than me. I have so much to live for so why wouldn’t I be positive? Happiness breeds happiness. If you smile at someone then they are probably going to smile back at you. A hug is one of the most powerful solutions for anxiety!
I have had amazing support from friends and family, from people I barely know, and offers of help from virtual strangers. It’s truly incredible. I’d like to thank everyone who has sent me a message, a gift, or given me a hug (whether physical or virtual!). You’ve no idea how much it means to me.
I think I’ll leave it there for now and see how baring my soul on this subject feels once this post is published. If I have positive feedback then there’s plenty more to come, including my first surgery, some bad news and the wait for chemo to start. I also have lots of tips for people with and without cancer! My diet has changed, my exercise habits have altered drastically and I’ve learned so much about this horrible disease.
At the bottom of this post is a link to my affiliates, which are a way of me making some money which is even more important now that I will be taking time off work over the next few months. I’m self employed so I get no sick pay, but I love writing the posts on this website and have a list of massive brands who will pay me a small commission if you buy something from them (including M&S, John Lewis, Amazon etc). You pay the normal price for something you’d buy anyway, and I make a bit of cash from it! Thank you if you do this, you don’t know how much it means to me!
If you want to read more about my ‘journey’ (that’s such a horrible term!) then the next stage was my first surgery. I was also given details of an amazing website yesterday, Ticking Off Breast Cancer, which has tons of information about breast cancer, from a lady who has been through it.
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