Being diagnosed with breast cancer was the worst thing that could have possibly happened. That was in August 2007. Seven years later, there was worse to come when I was diagnosed again with incurable, secondary cancer. The big ‘C’ has literally turned mine and my loved ones’ lives upside down and inside out. They have felt the worry and suffering as much as I have.
I think back over the past 13 years or so, since my first diagnosis, and I remember the highs and lows; the roller coaster ride of events and emotions, and it hits me. The reality is surreal or is the surreality real? Sometimes I can almost pretend none of this was a thing and then I catch my breath and I have no choice but to accept that it was and is. I’m a firm believer in making the best of every situation, and learning from it, so despite all of this, I think breast cancer has shaped me in ways that I could never have imagined. I often wonder how different my life would have been, had I not been diagnosed with cancer, and yet that thought is almost inconceivable.
There are no pros and cons to this situation, it’s just shit. Period. That’s putting it mildly. People often say, “Well, you could walk out of your front door and get knocked down by a bus.” or “None of us know what’s around the corner.” I hate to break it to you but being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer means I’ve already been hit by the proverbial bus and yep, I sort of already know what’s around the corner.
One can’t help but become philosophical when faced with this kind of adversity. I’ve even gained the prestigious nickname ‘the voice of reason’, and as a result I’ve managed to find eight positive outcomes from having breast cancer. Unbelievable, I know, yet true.
1. It’s a cliché, but you do begin to live with purpose and a renewed perspective
I think it’s fair to say that at one point or another, we’ve all thought about our own death. None of us will leave this world alive. Nothing is more certain and constant. A cancer diagnosis magnifies this fact immeasurably and it either consumes you or makes you more determined to live each day fully. The latter is the preferred choice, so you get busy with what matters and suddenly, there is a reason for your existence. You can even go on to achieve great things, even knowing that your life will be cut short.
Another cliché. You don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, but if truth be told, you still sometimes do. You learn how to approach life with a different viewpoint though. You see the goodness in everyone and everything. You notice a beautiful scene, delight in a sun filled day and dance in the rain. The moon and the stars seem different, emphatic, and brighter and more joyous than ever before. You find inspiration in the littlest things. You appreciate the fragility of life, so you relish it. You try to keep your world balanced and harmonious. You avoid stressful situations, avoiding arguments and confrontations along the way. You actively seek peace and serenity.
Sadly, none of us are wearing those rose-tinted glasses 24/7. I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t have days when I feel panic stricken with the blackest cancer thoughts or breathless and paralysed in the middle of the night, with the fear of dying coursing through my veins. Fortunately, I’ve learned some coping mechanisms, helping me to make a swift U-turn on my tendencies.
2. You Learn the art of gratitude
Why do we take so much for granted? We become so engrossed in our own selfish worlds that we often overlook the obvious aspects of our lives for which we should be profoundly grateful. These are usually our nearest and dearest and quite often, sometimes through no fault of our own, we distance ourselves from them.
When I was given the news of my diagnosis, my initial thoughts immediately turned to my children and family; I felt sick to the stomach contemplating the real possibility of leaving them and it took that gut wrenching moment to make me realise just how much they mean to me. It’s too easy to say that we feel gratitude for what we have but to truly feel it is quite different.
I feel blessed to be given the chance to wake and make the most of every day. I don’t dispute the fact that there are plenty of people much worse off than me. I only have to think about the friends whom I’ve met and lost to cancer, some, so young and on the cusp of life. I think of those who don’t have access to the toxic but lifesaving cancer drugs. I then think of others who suffer with all manner of illness or disability. There is pain and suffering all over the world. So, although I may be far from being healthy in the true sense of the word, my quality of life is good and that’s a valid enough reason to give thanks.
3. Your life and career can take a turn for the better
From the day I was told that I had breast cancer, I vowed that something good would come out of my diagnosis. With that in mind, my first achievement would be to add a Pilates qualification to my Personal Trainer skill set. I was right to make that decision as Pilates has not only helped me enormously in my own recovery, but it has enabled me to help dozens of other women in my situation; to regain their health, fitness, and confidence.
My misfortune has also given me the chance to work with breast cancer charities, to raise both funds and awareness. A few years ago, I was lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you see it!) enough to have been chosen to appear in a ground-breaking and powerful advert made by Breast Cancer Now called #TheLastOne and I’ve even spoken at the Houses of Parliament as a patient representative.
I’ve appeared in publications and on TV. I blog and I deliver motivational talks. I’m even writing a book which has been a lifelong ambition. I’m a passionate patient advocate for secondary breast cancer and have recently been made a patient champion for a charity. I’ll keep telling my story to give hope, to improve the lives of others, to inspire and to prove that you can still live life to the full. If you set your mind to it, you can achieve your goals even when you suffer major setbacks. Anything is possible.
4. Humility and Assertiveness
There has never been anything more humbling than my breast cancer experience. Something quite extraordinary which renders you completely at a loss and brings you down to earth with a monumental bump. You’re not sure which way to turn in this new and terrifying world of the unknown. I went from being in control of my life, thinking freely, busy doing, and just living to feeling like I was drowning in fear and uncertainty. My mind blown, I felt like I’d been stripped of my identity. I was weightless. I was numb. As helpless as I felt, I soon came to realise that my only possible chance would be to dig deep into my inner mind set and reboot my thought process.
This meant I had to assert myself and take back some control. As much as I didn’t want to know what grade 3 breast cancer meant, I knew I had to educate myself. I needed to know, to ask questions, to be informed. To be empowered. Once I knew what I was dealing with and my treatment plan was made clear, I kept my eyes on the most positive outcome. There was no alternative. I had to live. To this day I live by this mantra.
5. You make a shed load of new friends and acquaintances
As you embark on your cancer experience, you will come across others in your situation. You will meet them at hospital appointments, at support groups, at charity events and even through other friends. Social media also opens up a whole new world of communication which can lead you to an entire army of people ready to advise, encourage and support. Some of these can even become proper ‘best’ friends.
These special friends are usually on that exact same rollercoaster as you. They’re holding on, just like you, one minute exhilarated, the next petrified. They really ‘get you’ and become your allies by default. At last, you no longer feel isolated and although you wouldn’t wish this awful disease upon anyone, it’s comforting knowing them. There’s an instant bond, a mutual look of understanding and a feeling of solidarity that you only sense in the presence of another like you.
6. You let go of friends
If you ask any cancer person about how their friends reacted to their diagnosis, you will find a common and surprising theme. Cancer has an uncanny way of sifting out those who, quite frankly, don’t warrant being called friends anymore.
In times of need, you would expect your chums to rally round and provide encouragement and support, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Quite often, it’s those who you considered to be just acquaintances who turn out to be your rock, the shoulder to cry on and the one to offer round the clock help. Honestly, you’d think that cancer is contagious!
The realisation that some friends are not what they seem can be upsetting. However, your new ‘assertive’ attitude means that you’re happy to let those friendships dissolve. Hence, why this is a definite positive.
7. You learn to love yourself just the way you are
Before my cancer diagnosis, I always wished for bigger boobs. I’d often tell myself that if there was something I could change, then it would be just that. Then, the breast cancer cruelly robbed me of my right breast, and suddenly, all I wanted was to have that small but beautiful breast back in my life. There wasn’t much that I wouldn’t have done to see myself as I once was because having two small boobs, as God intended, was so much better than having just the one.
Having refused a reconstruction, the time of acceptance soon came. Being a one boobed wonder wasn’t too bad after all and it certainly wasn’t the end of the world. You learn so much about yourself. I’ve certainly learned to see beyond the scars. My appearance is now so very unimportant in the scheme of things. Of course, I’d be lying if I said that, even today, I don’t sometimes get boob or cleavage envy, but those moments are rare and very fleeting. After all, I’m alive, that’s what matters.
8. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
I often get told how brave or how strong and positive I am. I get asked how I’ve managed to keep up the pace and achieve so much since my first diagnosis over 13 years ago. I’m not entirely sure how I should react to these statements or answer those questions. Yes, I’m here to tell the tale but it’s hardly been a walk in the park. It’s been a long and arduous slog.
A positive outlook and a healthy mind, body, and soul have all undoubtedly kept me in good stead. Whatever your views are regarding your wellbeing, there’s no denying the proven benefits of exercise. Being a personal trainer makes me biased, I know, but despite that fact, to me it’s still logical.
I’ve always enjoyed most types of exercise, particularly cardio, weights and running but since being diagnosed, I’ve tried to integrate some holistic exercise into my slower, less high-functioning anxious life. Pilates, yoga, mindfulness, and Reiki have all played a huge part in my mental and physical wellbeing. There’s nothing more cleansing and nurturing than to quieten the mind and to still the body.
There’s no doubt that my general attitude has a lot to do with the fact that I’m still here today, or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself, and others. My message is that you can still experience life and its many joys, despite major setbacks, if you put your mind to it.
You can accept the card you’re dealt, embrace change, and rise like a phoenix from the fire. It just takes a little bit of ducking and diving, pivoting, turning, adapting and growing!
To read more of Mary's blogs about breast cancer please visit her website: www.breakthroughfitness.co.uk
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