When we think of the many great journeys in history, we are faced with human stories of hardship, triumph, success, tragedy and astounding courage in adversity. The journey of any breast cancer patient is no different, especially when you become a breast cancer survivor. And it is that mere word 'survivor' that embeds many layers of deeper meaning. In a true sense, a survivor is a person who has shown the perseverance to carry on no matter what the circumstances, but most of all a survivor is a person of extreme courage. A survivor is able to persist and carry on their lives, stronger and more appreciative of the fragility of life.
I am a survivor and for me, my story starts much the same as many. I found my lump in my left breast November 20, 2010 and was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer on December 7. With no family history and aged 41, I had no understanding of the journey I was about to embark on. I remained in a daze for weeks, planning the year I was to have ahead. Working full-time as an Assistant Principal and class teacher, I knew that work would need to be put on hold, at least until I had my surgery to remove the lump and had completed my chemotherapy treatment.
Of course, like many breast cancer patients, things didn’t go to plan. What started out as one tumour, ended up being two that were multi-focal. I had a left mastectomy and axillary clearance, chemotherapy for six months, numerous scans, tests and MRI to assess two rectal lesions and a right mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. Early onset of menopause and low bone density were to follow, along with mild depression.
It was during my time of darkness, following my tumultuous year that I felt most alone, most confused and extremely disconnected. For it was at this time that I despised the word 'survivor' the most, like I had been on an incredible 'journey' and made it through some great experience. I sure didn't feel like it. I also had no idea how I was to persist and carry on with my life now that I was a completely different person.
A friendly comment, meaning no harm, described me as “looking great” and “you must be happy it's all over so you can get on with your life”. I don't think it hit me until that moment. I really didn't know how to move forward from this point. I was no longer a patient, my cancer had gone but I didn't feel any better. It was at this time that I finally broke down and I cried for the first time, thinking and remembering all the things I endured over the last 12 months.
Thankfully, I was lucky enough to seek support from Breast Cancer Care WA and along with help from my doctor and oncologist; I was put on medication and commenced counselling with Cathie. She was an amazing support for me, helping me to find ways to deal with what I had been through and how to move forward and enjoy life again. My sessions were personalised and lead toward some practical ways to deal with everyday issues that arise. I had the opportunity to talk about me, about my worries, fears and what I could tackle first.
Amongst my armful of coping strategies, I had been trying meditation during my treatment and read many books about mindfulness. Of course, Cathie encouraged me to continue my mindfulness meditation and make this a strong focus on a daily basis, something I found very easy to do. Mindfulness helps you become more in touch with the now. Authors like John Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle all stress the importance of living in the moment, living in the now. As a society, we have our heads full of thoughts, doubts, worries, regrets, ideas - full of noise. With so many thoughts, we cannot think clearly anymore. We allow the mind to control us and take over. If we live in the now and become more aware of the present moment we are freed from the controlling mind and we can look at the mind as an entity of its own. We shut the mind down, eliminate the noise and forget about the future, the past and all our worries. For me, knowing I can control something such as meditation and that it will improve my health, gives me hope that life will be normal again. It calms my mind and reduces stress, something I had suffered prior to my diagnosis.
For anyone who finds themselves in the same position I did, I cannot recommend enough the benefit of contacting the team at Breast Cancer Care WA. They offer great support, information and friendly services. I am forever thankful for seeking their support.
I now look forward to a new life, renewed and redefined. I have my beautiful family and some very special friends that love and support me, no matter what I decide I might like to do on any given day. I resigned from my position and promised myself some 'time out' to find out what it is that I love to do. A new journey awaits me now and I am so blessed to have travelled the rough road for a while. I have a great love for life and a great joy in the simple things in life. Calmer, quieter and more focused.