What’s your challenge this year? To truly experience the value of life, some say you have to push yourself to the absolute limit. Run a marathon, climb a mountain, walk, ride or run the length of New Zealand to raise funds for your favourite charity. We live in a society where the figure of the ‘achiever’ or ‘survivor’ is idolised and such extreme activities capture the imagination and elicit the admiration of many.
However, many ordinary people are learning the real value of life on a daily basis – they are pleased just to be here for another day, after surviving a diagnosis of cancer or caring for someone with cancer. It’s a disease that can turn your world upside down and inside out – if you let it.
I’d had a fantastic career, travelling the world working for a prestigious British university. My marriage to Gary was a very happy one and we were keen to start a family. Even after I became pregnant my job took me to Hong Kong, Kenya and Japan. However, I was always looking forward to a return to the UK and some quiet time with our newborn daughter. A breast cancer diagnosis was the last thing I expected and it was to change our lives dramatically.
I didn’t tell anyone about my diagnosis for the first two years. I was too ashamed. My family and close friends knew, but when we returned to New Zealand after living abroad for seven years, I kept it pretty quiet. I felt I had failed, that somehow having breast cancer was my fault, and I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. And like most women when starting a family, I wasn’t very good at putting myself first.
I had found a lump in my breast when I was pregnant with our daughter and, although an ante-natal consultant had taken a look at it, no action was taken. Once Isabella was born, being a mother automatically took first place in my life and, although I knew the lump was there, I kept ‘forgetting’ to raise the issue with my GP. Finally, when visiting the doctor for Isabella’s five-month check-up I was referred for a biopsy. I’d left it far too long. The cancer had spread to several of my lymph nodes, and I had a cancerous tumour in my breast and armpit. What did this mean, I asked myself. Was I going to see my little girl grow up? Would I be there to see her on her first day at school?
My breast cancer turned out to be HER2+, an aggressive form requiring a mastectomy of my left breast, eight rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiotherapy. The treatment regime was a long, long journey, and I would cry my eyes out before each bout of chemo knowing just how awful I was going to feel for the next 10 days or so, slowly regaining my energy levels just in time to undergo another round.
When my hair fell out it was devastating. I didn’t have a beautifully smooth bald head à la Demi Moore when she shaved her head for G.I. Jane – I looked like a science experiment gone wrong, hair sticking out everywhere. I couldn’t wait for my eyebrows, eyelashes and hair to grow back again. Now, every time I apply mascara, I marvel at how wonderful nature is – the body’s ability to knit skin and nerves together, bounce back, rejuvenate and grow despite the surgery and huge quantities of drugs that were injected, infused and swallowed.
Stereotypically, most women diagnosed with breast cancer fall into the 50-plus age group. But younger women are at risk, too. Young women have a lot of questions they want answered – maybe they haven’t yet started a family or are planning on having more children.
When I was given the diagnosis, we were living in the UK and had no direct family support. Everyone rallied behind us and we received support not only from my extended family, who came over to help, but from my amazing friends, some of whom are breast cancer survivors. My family has been fantastic, and Gary is the most understanding, caring and supportive husband and father we could have wished for.
Four years on, I am not only surviving but thriving, and I feel a wonderful sense of gratitude. Time goes by and each year is a milestone. I truly enjoy the simple things in life now. My mantra these days is: ‘Will it matter in a year’s time?’ I use this reflection both in my personal life and in my business and find it makes a big difference.
To anyone reading this story who suspects that all may not be well, I’d say: Be proactive and get yourself checked out now – prostate, breast and bowel cancer and so many other cancers are treatable. If you think something is not right, don’t leave it; it’s not going to go away by itself. If you are diagnosed with cancer you need to stay positive and find like-minded people to talk to.
In fact, looking back, I’d say that not talking about having a cancer diagnosis is probably the worst thing anyone can do. Each year 2600 women in New Zealand and 13,600 women in Australia are diagnosed with breast cancer. This is a disease that can affect any woman and it doesn’t discriminate.
My experience has shown that the level of support needed by young mothers with breast cancer is underestimated. I belong to a self-managed breast cancer support group in Otago called Abreast and Beyond. We have a Facebook page under the same name, and I would love to see more women – especially young women – make contact with our group regardless of where they live.
On a more personal note, if you are diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to look after yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually. There’s no point spending the rest of your life feeling bitter, angry and resentful. An alternative therapist in the UK gave me some valuable advice. She said: “No matter what happens, you’ll be fine” – and I truly believe that.
Isabella is now four and will be starting school next year. I know I’m going to be there with her on the big day.
For more information visit nzbcf.org.nz or nbcf.org.au.