Hello, my name is Penny, I live in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire and I am 48. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of lockdown, 2020.
After losing someone I loved very dearly to cancer in 2018, I promised him that I would continue with my passion for home staging and being creative, which was a business I had just started. During his final weeks, I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to tell him that I loved him very much. After he passed away, I was determined to make him so proud of me, even though I knew he already was.
So, I was delighted by the end of 2019 to have been involved with styling for a local pizzeria restaurant. I felt that I needed to turn my sadness into something creative and that would ease the pain of grief that was consuming me.
I was beginning to feel like 2020 would be my year. I started to feel as if I was taking my foot of the peddle of grief when….
BANG cancer knocked on my door two weeks before the first lockdown.
When I found out I had cancer
I checked regularly and was so aware of my health, so I knew immediately when I had cancer. I remember even saying to myself "I have cancer" out loud when I found the lump. I didn’t cry, I just knew. However, I also knew that this journey had only just begun and that it was going to get a whole lot harder.
The waiting was absolutely terrifying, "what if?, am I...?, what will happen to me?, to my house?, who will look after me?, can they save me?". It felt like a pack of cards that had hit the deck; there was no order, you just keep picking them up as they continue to fall.
When I was ushered into another room where nurses were looking at a screen, I became certain that something wasn't right. By this stage, it felt like I had been lying on the same bed forever, with needles being inserted and my legs beginning to shake. I felt very cold and wanted it all to stop. I was taken into yet another room and I was told that they had found something, and that I should go home and prepare myself.
Later that evening, a friend drove me to A & E because I was bleeding where the biopsy had burst. It was cold that night. Upon leaving A & E, I could see the breath in the air of those arriving, yet I walked out in a thin vest covered in blood.
Looking around, everyone else seemed cosy and wrapped up. I felt unprotected and exposed. My adrenaline kicked in.
The minute I got to the door of my next appointment, I remember saying to the nurse, "I know what you are going to tell me".
"What are we going to tell you, Penny?"
"You are going to tell me I have cancer."
“Yes we are."
I sat looking out the living room window that night, all night, while my friend stayed over. Just total shock. It is difficult to recall, all I can say is that there was no order to it. It was as if someone had pushed the first domino over and the rest were beginning to fall. It was so traumatic that processing and remembering the event is difficult. I just stared out the window all night and never slept once. I do remember that.
Once I was told what was going to happened with my treatment plan, the next ride of the rollercoaster began. I quickly got myself together and knew what I needed to do. I said to myself that it would take around two years before I started feel ok. I would be 50 by then. This became my target and is still my target.
Eventually, I realised that I am no different from any other woman/man who has gone through this. This year is my turn to face it, and next year it will be someone else’s.
Mushrooms, plants and don’t forget your lipstick. This may sound like the beginning of a bizarre shopping list for most, but for me, this was how I got through cancer.
Once I started chemotherapy, it gave me the time to spend on cooking and preparing meals for myself. I cooked every single day from scratch: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mushrooms quickly became a craving for me, along with parsley, so much so that I was sourcing parsley like a drug dealer!
When I heard other patients talking about losing their appetite, I thought “Please God, don’t let me go off food”. Fortunately, I think he heard my prayers because I never did lose enthusiasm for it.
After reading into it, I found that mushrooms have antioxidants and vitamin B, and parsley is high iron which my body obviously was craving and needed whilst fighting cancer. I really fell in love with cooking again and started to experiment with vegan recipes. I spent my lockdown days planning meals, preparing food and loading and unloading the dishwasher.
I didn’t have any control over my own life, that was in someone else's hands. So everyday, I recorded what I ate and what exercise I had done. This became a way of gaining some of that control back again. In a time when I was very busy and preoccupied with a new business and other things outside of work, cancer had allowed me to take a breath and slow down. I wanted to do everything I could to help myself at this time, and if writing down what I ate would help me in some way, that is exactly what I was going to do. I practiced yoga everyday and ran pretty much every other. I would punch the air and smile up at the sky and I didn't give a shit if anyone saw me, I was alive!
I pushed myself though with exercise and didn’t have any side effects, only aches the expected aches and joint pains which were routine with injections. I had no ulcers, skin breakage, scalp dryness or nail damage. I was told I would have difficulty moving and would be in pain. I replied "I won't, you just watch me. Don't worry about that, I'll still be moving".
Injecting myself is not a hobby I would like to resume. An hour afterwards, my body would ache and my legs would feel as though I was dragging lead. Sometimes It was like running with a sack of potatoes strapped to both my legs, but still I kept going with walking, yoga and running. I was very lucky that these there were the only symptoms I got. I didn’t suffer with fatigue, despite being told the injections would make it difficult to move and especially get out of the bath.
I was determined to move, no matter how heavy my limbs felt. I recorded my injection days on my calendar. The pain would start almost straight away, but 3 days or so later, it would be gone. I was just kinder to myself on the days when I had injections and went with it. I could build my fitness up again for the next two weeks before the next round of chemo. On the first night, I remember a friend phoning me to see how I was. I told him I felt this heaviness as if I could feel the chemo going around my body. He told me to write it down, which I did, because it made it less frightening and I became more familiar with what was coming. I had a direct line to the hospital but didn’t ever use it. I felt that I had cost the NHS enough. I felt so so lucky to live in a country with a wonderful NHS.
Once I had injected myself some 30 times, I was glad to see the back of the needles.
I was determined not to look like shit when going through cancer. I might have been going to chemotherapy with a mask on, but I was still wearing my lippy underneath.
I have always loved lipsticks. I’d loved them before cancer knocked on my door and I was most certainly going to love them after. I was not going to allow cancer to take my appearance away, because it had taken away so much already, and who I was as a woman.
Having a diagnosis two weeks before the official lockdown, meant that hairdressing salons closed. It was advised by the hospital to have my hair cut shorter so that it was less of a shock, but unfortunately I couldn’t get anyone to cut my hair so I had to do this task myself.
I would run my hand through my hair and it will fall away like sand slipping through my fingers. I would catch what I could in the bath, but in the morning the pillow would be full of my hair. The change was beginning, physically and emotionally .
My hair being quite long, I had to cut it off myself. Tina who is the owner of Christos's Hair clinic stood at the end of the garden, with a bin bag attached to a long pole. Tina was absolutely fantastic at talking me through the steps. She told me to place my hair in bunches, then I slowly cut away. I placed it in the fire pit and set it alight, because I didn't want to look at it. When I was done, I thought "by the time this comes back I will be a different me".
It wasn’t the hairdressing apprenticeship that I thought I would ever do, but I must admit I did a good job. Maybe hairdressing is a career I should consider after all.
It was when my eyebrows and eyelashes disappeared that I started to struggle. They frame your face and I felt I had lost that and who I was temporarily. I attended workshops where they showed me how to enhance my eyebrows and eyelashes.
I also had a ritual of running around the car park after every appointment. It was just my way of getting it out of my system. I often finished running in the heat, while yelling a swear word out loud. I’ll let you use your imagination, but it always ended in "….YOU". My team at work and my manager were also fantastic, as were my neighbours, and there was never a day when I didn’t get a lovely message or gift from friends, family and work colleagues. It felt like a whole Mexican wave behind me at every appointment.
Eventually, what I looked like didn’t feel like a big deal and I just didn’t care. Some days I wore a wigs, some days I wore a headscarfs, some days I wore a hats. Friends saw me at my worst and they saw me at my best, but I was alive and that’s was all that mattered to me.
I stopped my home staging business when I was diagnosed. Plants and nature provided a creative outlook I had been missing.
I have always loved my home and interiors. This was my passion, but I knew I would be spending the next 12 months in my home, so I needed to make it as comfortable and as accessible to me as possible.
I surrounded myself with lovely things and banished needles, medication and the tell-tale signs of a hospital visit.
I began to review my environment and look at the things that I love. I reviewed my existing skincare collection and choose skincare that was gentle and nourishing enough for skin going through treatment. This was how I discovered Jennifer Young's Beauty Despite Cancer. I put up lovely wicker baskets of Jennifer Young skincare to make it grab quickly. I also rearranged my kitchen cupboards, but the thing with the biggest impact was my garden.
Being in a garden was something I’ve always loved, with plants and nature. I would watch the small and delicate things grow stronger everyday. I felt that the plants around me represented how I felt. Seeing the bulbs grow, I felt like I was going to blossom too, with time and patience.
Spending time outside really helped me and it became my little slice of paradise where I could relax, rest and heal. I ate, slept, laughed, cried and danced in my garden.
I have always liked being outside. Lockdown allowed the birds to sing and the butterflies to flutter and that was so beautiful to see and hear. It allowed me time to stop. In the green spaces I created, I felt like time had stood still; there was no noise or planes, only birds and butterflies.
My parents were devastated when they found out I had cancer. I felt guilty about how my diagnosis was affecting other people (ridiculous, I know). I was the first in the family to get it. If I hadn't have had a garden to see them in, I’m not sure what I would have done.
If I was to give advice to someone else going through this, I would tell them not to read books or articles that tell you’re going to get this or that. It is very different for each person but you will find your way.
The best way I can describe cancer is like you are going hiking. You have all of the gear and you’re standing ready on the edge of the cliff face... and then someone just pushes you. You don’t have time to think, it’s just too quick, then suddenly you stop. You can see the ground below and your breathing is so quick. Your heart is racing and you tell yourself that it's ok, that you can see the ground now and you know what to do. Then you fall again.
You’re trusting someone else with your treatments and with your life, so finding a sense of control is important. I gained control through the small things in my life, through rituals like cooking and recording meals, my self care routine, and through my gardening. Going to appointments was extremely difficult, especially alone. I found it difficult to retain information and this was very overwhelming sometimes. To gain control in this area, I would write down all of my questions for the nurses the day before, so they could fill in the blanks. I would also video the conversation so that I could listen to it again later.
I had appointments at different times and long waits. The journey took at hour or so, but I was always so grateful. Being driven through chocolate box Cotswolds villages to get to the hospital took my mind elsewhere and I loved looking at the Christmas decorations. I'd wonder how on earth all this had all happened.
I trusted all of the staff at Milton Keynes and Oxford hospital from the my surgeon, the radiographers, the chemotherapy nurses, all of them. I made sure I remembered all their names and gave them chocolates and homemade cards. I will be forever indebted to them. I would run down the corridor saying "take care, see you tomorrow, thank you". The staff at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford were amazingly kind to my when I first arrived for radiotherapy. I want to thank everybody I came across with during this time. They were all just wonderful.
Evaluating my perspective of my cancer experience was also very helpful. I was positive almost from the beginning. From the start, I knew that there would be difficult times, but that brighter days were waiting ahead of me. On the difficult days, I could relax and take a break from my routine, whilst knowing that I could pick it back up on a day when I was feeling more up to it. Recognising that you're only human is important.
I promised myself that once I had finished my last chemo I would ring that bloody bell on the wall and cartwheel down the corridor. I was certain I would, and my friends were also. When my treatment finished, I was very emotional and thanked the NHS for looking after me. I felt they had done the hardest part, not me. I know I couldn’t administer chemotherapy for someone. I rung the bell so hard that the cord broke and I did 3 cartwheels down the corridor. I was checking of the chemo club and I never want to check in again.
By this stage I was going into hospital everyday and I'd had enough. I had written the next month off. On entering the hospital, the enormity of what I had done, hit me like a hard slap across the face.
I arrive for the first time, I don't want to do it, but of course I really do. The tears roll and roll down my face as I undress. There's just no sound, just tears. Once I am on the machine, my breathing is controlled and I am calm. The nurse squeezes my hand, I get myself together and they lower the panel closer to my face. They had tattooed me earlier and strapped a box to my chest. I know that if the box moves, the machine stops and I don't want that to happen. I tell myself that I can do this. The nurses asks me if I am ok whilst the tears continue to fall. I say "Yes. Let's get this shit show on the road".
One of the nurses is a similar age to me and she squeezes my hand. They leave the room and the machine starts moving. I close my eyes. I only listen to my breathe, breathing in and out, but only when instructed to do so by a voice from another room over a speaker.
Seeing so many patients at radiotherapy, I won't lie to you, it really affected me. I realised that I had gone through this journey without seeing another cancer patient up until this point. That is why I think blogging communities like Jennifer Young's are so important. You can read about other people's experience and know that you're not alone in going through this.
Radiotherapy represented the end of the treatment for me, but it wasn't over. It then becomes learning to live with it and managing your fear
In a way, 2020 had very positive outcomes. I would never wish cancer on anybody; it changes you, it leaves you battered, broken and bruised, but there are positives to it and it certainly makes you more grateful and appreciative of the smaller things in life. It changes your outlook and perspective for sure, and it makes you realise what is important to you and what is not. Some things just stop mattering and that is a good thing.
My world stopped in 2020, with my cancer diagnosis. Someone had hit the pause button for me and I learnt how resilient I was and could be. It was like, after years of supporting others and driving forward, that the world was saying “This is enough. You need to take a break. Look at what’s important to you." Cancer gives that to you and provides the opportunity to step back and reassess.
I have reflected and started to let go in the last couple of months. It’s like the dust is beginning to settle. Getting it down on paper has been good for my soul. It’s now about readjusting, accepting and understanding. It takes time to process what my body and mind have done. Chemo will take a while yet to leave my body. I am now managing the side effects of my new medication and building myself back up again, giving my body time and patience to heal from surgery and the sensations that it is leaving in my body. I am taking advantage of the good days and being kind to myself on the days that my physically strength is not as strong as I would like it to be. I am dealing with "chemo brain" some days, where your cognitive processing is harder, but I don’t think I had too many cogs to start with so I can’t blame it all on chemo! It leaves a mark like red wine on a shirt but, over time, it will fade. It’s about me being kind to myself and taking day by day.
I’ve always referred to life as being like a bus journey. Some stay on for the ride, some get off and back on again and others get off far sooner that you ever wanted them to. When I hear people saying that we don’t know what’s around the corner and that you could be hit by a bus tomorrow, I know this isn't always the case. I had a snuck around the corner and saw the bus coming. I wasn’t sure if it was going to hit me and that experience brought a totally different take on life and a feeling of being incredibly grateful.
Cancer changes everything. It changed relationships that I never imagined it would, but I am glad it did. It changes things that I never saw coming or expected, but it also gave me opportunity to be creative. If this brief account of what I went through inspires or helps someone, that could only be a good thing. I’ve never felt so loved in my life and it’s funny that it took getting cancer to feel that. Feeling loved can only be positive. For all of us, 2020 has been a year of change that we wont ever forget.
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