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Popstar to yoga teacher

JACQUIE HEADSHOT

Viva Las Vegas!

I had big plans for 2020. In March, I was rehearsing with my band, The Shillelagh Sisters, in preparation for a comeback gig at the Viva Las Vegas festival, my first time visiting Vegas. After playing the festival, I planned to go to Mexico for three months, and later in the year was due to spend a month celebrating my big 6-0 with my mates in a villa with rooftop pool in Portugal.

2020 hadn’t started well as, after fifteen years of running a film studio in Soho, I’d been made redundant. And, of course, in March, Covid and the first lockdown happened. At that time, I was teaching yoga all around central London and running retreats. The live classes obviously stopped, but I quickly adapted and started teaching online, reconnecting with all the lovely yoga students I had previously taught all over the world.

Enter the dragon 

And then, in May, I found a small lump in my right breast. I didn’t initially worry as I was very healthy and had no history of breast cancer in my family. After being referred to the MacMillan Cancer Centre at UCLH in London, however, I was told that I had Triple Negative breast cancer and that ‘my life would be very different from now on.’ I really didn’t have a clue what I was in for. Chemotherapy was started within two weeks, and I had to do it all on my own as the lockdown meant I couldn’t have any visitors with me at the hospital or at my house where I lived alone.

Chemo schmemo

At first I think I was a bit too cocky and managed chemo reasonably well for the first two months. Then it started to build up in my body, I lost all my hair and around Month 4 it was time for a different chemo drug – The Red Devil! After the first infusion of the drug, I went to bed at home, was soon unable to stand or walk, and went in and out of consciousness for two days. I finally remembered the nurses telling me that you should never feel really terrible, so I phoned 999 and ended up with sirens, flashing lights, and ambulance men carrying me down the stairs. I had developed a dangerously high temperature, called neutropenic sepsis, and was given a life-saving blood transfusion. (Blimey, I loved that blood transfusion. My friends started calling me Jacula as I wanted MORE BLOOD!)

I just wanted to get through chemotherapy as quickly as possible and then I felt as if things would go back to normal. I wanted this thing nuked, blasted, wiped off the face of the earth. I pleaded to have both breasts removed, they had become weapons of mass destruction. I didn’t want them anymore – they meant nothing to me.QUOTE 1

Natural alternatives to chemo

I also had a strong desire to keep some control over my body with natural medicine to counterbalance the aggressive chemo. I had become friends with two wonderful women (the two Jo’s) when I was teaching on a retreat, one of whom was a dietician. After telling them my diagnosis, they generously funded a clinical dietician for me, from a company called Linda Sims Nutrition. I knew right away that I wanted to have input from a specialist dietician who treated cancer patients. After giving Linda access to all my medical data – from type of cancer, bloods, chemo, etc, she offered me advice and a tailored diet plan, which involved drinking three litres of filtered water a day, no microwaved food in plastic, and a special dosage of mushrooms to balance out the effects of chemo and keep my microbial gut healthy. I did ask my oncologist if it was ok to take them, but after she told me not to, I took them anyway! I’m convinced they helped me, and I still take a daily dose of mushrooms now.

Yoga was my safe placeJACQUIE DOING YOGA

I think being stupidly optimistic and twenty-eight years of practising and teaching yoga was what got me through the long and lonely lockdown months. Yoga was my safe place, and although I wasn’t able to teach anymore (too foggy) or do much of a physical practice (too tired), it didn’t matter – yoga was a home deep within me. I had access to that peaceful space within, I just had to keep breathing. Breathwork was where the healing was for me, alongside Yoga Nidra and meditation. It wasn’t too demanding on my foggy brain, and it doesn’t need to be complicated. You can do it in the bath (I did have a lot of baths) or in bed in your pyjamas (I did have a lot of pyjamas). Sometimes it just involved sitting in the third bath of the day at 3am and chanting Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Paying attention to breathing in and out helps to ground you in the present moment and that means you’re not dwelling in the past or for me, trying not to think too much about the future.

Cancer brings you face to face with your mortality, and I thought about death a lot. My doctor told me that TNBC was a death sentence six or seven years ago as they didn’t have the same knowledge or treatments. The outcome now is so much more positive. Please don’t google it if you are diagnosed with TNBC as they only predicted I would live for five years, and it’s simply not true anymore.

My support network

One of the things that kept me sane was talking to my sister, Angie, every day. I felt her rise up and become strong for her little sister. We are forever grateful to have each other. My close-knit group of friends, Sally, Polly, and Simper were also bloody amazing. They helped me through the worst times during treatment, made me laugh, took me away when allowed, and cleaned my house when I couldn’t stand up. I’m rubbish at being sick and didn’t want people coming and staring at my bald head or seeing me when I was at my worst. Aside from these incredible friends I didn’t want lots of interaction. No social media posts until after I was in recovery.

Failed surgery

Covid meant that all operations were cancelled apart from cancer and my operation was moved from The Royal Free to a Harley Street private hospital (very nice food but very noisy).  Nine hours later I woke up feeling as if I’d been run over by a two-ton truck and then given a good kicking by twenty burly blokes (I’m still having therapy). They did let me have free reign on the morphine pump though. My operation was a diep flap surgery, which unfortunately failed, and I am still having corrective surgery three years later. Having cancer was bad enough, but the failed surgery and subsequent operations have been the biggest mental challenge. It all caused me to disassociate with my body, which I’m still trying to reclaim by having targeted therapy, provided for people who have had plastic surgery failures like mine. Once the fifth surgery is done, I’m going to get tattoos to cover the large scarring on my breasts and stomach. I’m so excited at the prospect I’ve already had the tattoo designs drawn. Due to the trauma of failed surgery, I haven’t returned to teaching yoga. I don’t have the right amount of energy for sharing with others and my scar tissue inhibits my arm movements, plus I now have lung damage, osteoarthritis, amongst many other side effects.QUOTE 2

DOGGYOnwards and pupwards

Cancer does focus the mind, and although I do love my own company, I realised it was time to fulfil the dream of getting my own dog. I applied for a rescue from Romania and so Gigi entered my life. Same as me she only has one good eye and half a tail – we were meant to be together. Shockingly, a year after getting her, she also got breast cancer. She had three pre-cancerous growths behind her breasts removed and had a mastectomy two weeks after I had corrective surgery for mine. If you were to ask what the single thing was that helped me recover after Covid and cancer, I’d say it was my little babe. I wake up laughing and go to bed laughing. She loves to burp, just like me, and also likes a good laugh. She is my reason to get up and go out, but she is also my joy – I’m besotted!

I need my fairy dust back!

I can’t honestly say that I’m fully back to normal or that I have mentally or physically recovered. Any ache or pain worries me much more than before, but I’m lucky to have a doctor who calls me to see how I’m doing. I have lost some of my fairy dust and wonder if it will ever come back, but with the help of friends, family, and places like the Future Dreams House in Kings Cross, London, I’m starting to sparkle again. I go to a few yoga classes there, have scar tissue massage with an amazing specialist, Rebecca Heath, who gets deep into that tight scar tissue, and I can now knit, thanks to Nicky Weller and The Yarn Therapy Group.

You will not believe that there will be normality again, but there will be, and soon you’ll notice that the fear of cancer coming back starts to fade into the background (a little). As the months go by, you do return to a version of yourself that is slightly different. Embrace that difference, it opens the door to new possibilities, and all hail to the brand new you – conqueror of Covid, chemo, and cancer – you slayed those dragons. I’m off in search of some more Fairy Dust!

JACQUIES TIPS

Jacquie O’Sullivan, 63, lives in Bloomsbury, London. Dog Lover, Traveller, Yoga Teacher, Musician, Film Studio Manager. Mud larker, Knitter, Belly dancer, Mosaic Maker, ex Pop Star in Bananarama. She was diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer in May 2020. Treatment included six months of chemotherapy, Diep Flap mastectomy, removal of four lymph nodes, radiotherapy, and ongoing corrective surgery.

 

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