Finding the Silver Linings
It may be a cliché to say that on Friday 13th October 2017 – the day I was diagnosed with Stage 3 primary occult breast cancer - everything changed. But it did. Just over a year on, I feel physically and mentally different.
My best friend, who was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer over 7 years previously, didn’t pull any punches. She told me that the treatment would be tough. She also told me I would be able to find good things – “silver linings” she called them – even on bad days. She told me to focus on those and keep a diary. I failed massively at keeping a diary but I did keep a tally of those silver linings. They tell a story of overwhelming relief when scans were clear, an appreciation of pain relief and anti-sickness drugs, of fabulous NHS nursing care, and most of all, they say a lot about friendship, family and love.
I consider myself lucky to have found a network of people on social media, particularly Twitter, who absolutely rock at sticking two fingers up to cancer. I made a mental note of all the things they talked about that helped them recover. As I started to emerge from the haze of chemotherapy, I had already made plans. I think that part of me recognised the need to branch out a bit more on my own, to take responsibility for my recovery, and see where that would lead me.
What does 'taking responsibility' mean to me?
I didn’t do anything staggering or adventurous but I initially decided to spend some time simply recuperating. I went to Northern Ireland on my own to visit my brother and his family for a few days. I relaxed. I took deep breaths. I enjoyed their company. Then I spent a fabulous, and slightly boozy, spa weekend with my best friend, had a massage and tried Pilates. For my next trip away I will be visiting the ‘Paris Photo’ exhibition with my 25-year old daughter to indulge in our love of photography and, well, just be in Paris.
I recognise the huge stress that my husband and teenage son went through as they watched me experience the hell of chemotherapy, then saw me gradually emerge again after surgery and radiotherapy. My son, in particular, wanted to come with me on my travels. However, I still felt that I had to go without them, to have that time on my own, so I insisted on going it alone. I believe I was right to insist. I have found that being away from home has given us some much-needed space from the effects that my treatment has had on us all, and continues to have even now.
I rejoined Slimming World in July as I had gained a stone in weight during treatment, despite having spent quite a lot of time unable to eat. During one group session there was a discussion about exercise and I found out about the local Parkrun. Suddenly I found myself agreeing to give it a go, despite the fact that I have always avoided running anywhere! After my seventh Parkrun I had already knocked 10 minutes off my original time, plus I had volunteered as a marshall.
The exercise is tough. I may not be fast, and I may not be truly running that much, but I do my best while getting progressively redder and redder in the face! I am meeting new people, getting out in the fresh air and I find that it helps to clear my head. One year post-diagnosis I fell across the finishing line in a flood of tears having completed a new personal best, and it felt amazing.
A couple of years ago I thought about joining the local ‘Rock Choir’, but somehow never got past thinking about it. I was always too busy, too caught up with work, and probably a little bit too embarrassed to mention it to anyone. Without telling my husband or son I signed up for a free taster session after seeing a post on Facebook. Now, I’m a member and I have discovered the absolute joy of singing in a choir. Every time I go it lifts my soul – the feeling is priceless, even though my son thinks it is extraordinary that they have even let me join!
Oddly, it appears that my experience of cancer has in some way given me permission to step outside my comfort zone, to be bolder and to try new things. I’m not sure that this is about grabbing life, facing my own mortality, or anything profound, but I know now that if I wait to try new things I may never get to try them at all. Most importantly, I know that I am loved and that those around me will support me in my ventures, wherever they lead me next.
I''m Rachel, 54 years old, and married to a trade union national officer. We have two wonderful children, a daughter aged 25 and a son aged 14, who both delight in keeping me on my toes. I am a solicitor (non-practising) and a Senior Tutor in Law at our local college. I am studying for a Masters in Medical Law and Ethics, although last October breast cancer very rudely interrupted my studies and life in general. After the exhausting indignities of treatment, I'm gradually recovering and getting used to my new grey, curly hair. Now I live with the uncertainty and challenges of the aftermath of cancer, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have the support of family and friends while I reshape and rebuild my life.
I joined the Southport Rock Choir 1 year ago just after being diagnosed with Lymphoma and have had wonderful support from my felloe Rockies. Good luck.