I’m Sara and following my breast cancer diagnosis in October 2016 and then my treatment - surgery, chemo and radiotherapy - I set up www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com which is website to help people going through breast cancer treatment.
I’ve also got a book called Ticking Off Breast Cancer which gives a heads up of what to expect from breast cancer treatment plus lots of checklists. When the wonderful team at Jennifer Young asked if I’d like to write a blog post for them as part of breast cancer awareness month I was really happy to do so - I love writing but I haven’t actually written anything for a while. But I didn’t want to write about what it was like to have breast cancer (which I’ve written about a lot in the past), I wanted to write about breast cancer’s legacy. Breast cancer isn’t just about checking your boobs, finding a lump and going through treatment. Breast cancer also plays a part in how you life the rest of your life after you’ve heard those words, “you’ve got cancer”. Whether living life after treatment has been successfully completed (like me) or living with secondary cancer, things inevitably change and life’s priorities can often shift. And that’s what I want to raise awareness of in this blog post.
Going through a traumatic life experience throws your world into turmoil. It turns it on its head and shakes you around. But then, after a while (weeks, months or even years) the chances are that things will settle down into a calmer period and this is when you might find time to reflect on what just happened and how it has impacted your life in a wider sense.
This is what happened to me following my breast cancer diagnosis in 2016. In the four years since my diagnosis (both during treatment and since) I have contemplated the way I was living my life before cancer and what is actually important to me. Factor in a national lockdown for a large chunk of this period and there’s been even more reason for me to reflect on these things. I’d like to share a few of my musings with you …
Slow down, life isn’t a race or a competition. This has become a daily mantra for me and I’m actually fairly good at complying now. I wasn’t very good at this before cancer. I was rushing through my life: school, university, career, marriage, kids, family life and so on. Rushing from one thing to the next like it was a race and I was desperate to get the “look at my perfect life” medal. But there is no such medal and actually I now believe that we’ll make personal wins if we slow down and savour every moment of our life as it happens. We need to take the time to treasure every minute we have with our loved ones and make unforgettable memories with them.
It’s okay to be sensitive and vulnerable. Life often instils in us an understanding that being sensitive and vulnerable is a sign of weakness: don’t cry in front of people, put on a brave face, keep a stiff upper lip. You know the drill. It’s also instilled in us women from a young age, that in order to compete in a man’s world we need to show the world that we are strong, self-assured, courageous women. And we get to be those women by pushing down our sensitivities and vulnerability. By virtue of this, we come to believe that sensitivity and vulnerability are weaknesses that should be hidden. But no, I think it’s actually a sign of strength to show these sides of our personality. Go onto social media and read the accounts of people going through trauma, be it cancer, grief, divorce, depression or whatever their trauma may be. These are the strong people putting their vulnerabilities out there for all to see, rather than shamefully hiding them away and putting on a brave face.
Always be true to yourself. I think that authenticity and integrity are highly underrated. Most, if not all, of us often put on an exterior version of ourselves in order to fit in or conform to situations in life. We might do this subconsciously, or maybe at times we do it consciously. But the point is that we’re not really showing our true selves to others. We may wear certain outfits to go and pick the kids up from school because we think we’ll only be accepted by the other mums if we look the part. We may put on a false air of confidence at work in order to be heard among the alphas in the team meetings. We may join in the gossip on a girls’ night out because we want to fit in. By doing this, maybe we’re subconsciously telling ourselves that our true selves are not good enough for other people. This will inevitably lead to unhappiness and insecurity. So, stop and take a look at yourself. Are you showing the authentic you when you interact with your friends, when you meet up with other parents, when you go to work, when you post on social media? Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable, happier, liberated, if you were showing your true authentic self?
You can’t pour from an empty cup. This is another favourite mantra of mine (as those of you who’ve read my book will know). We rush through life often putting ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list (that is if we even make it onto the to-do list in the first place). We run around putting the kids (if we have them), partners, work, home, friends and even pets before ourselves. And then we end up going to bed not having given ourselves a minute of attention throughout the day. We’re too tired to sleep and we feel guilty about everything we haven’t done for everyone else. This is not good. We need to look after ourselves first and foremost so that we can give ourselves to all these other things that are wanting/needing a part of us. We need to regularly practice selfcare, top up our reserves when they are low and recognise when things need to take a break. As I say in my book, we keep on going until something breaks us, but surely it’s better to not get to the point of being broken in the first place.
The chances are you’re doing the best you can. Whether that is being a parent, doing your job, running a business, looking after an elderly family member or being a good sibling or friend. But we are often our own harshest critics and the chances are we all experience the 3am guilts at some point: my son is going to fail his GCSEs - I’m not a good enough parent; I can’t be in two places at once and pick up the kids from school and take mum to the hospital - I am not a good enough daughter; I had such a busy day that I forgot to text my friend to wish her happy birthday – I am such a terrible friend. But life is busy – too busy – and things will happen that make us question if we’re doing a good enough job. But we are! We’re doing our best and that is all that we should expect from ourselves.
Get in tune with your body and mind. Get to know what is normal for you so that if something changes you can get it checked out quickly. Sometimes when we’re rushing through life, not taking a break, putting ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list, we don’t even notice what’s going on in our bodies and minds until things get serious. And by that point it can be a tall order to sort it out. But if we can become tuned in to what is normal for us, this will enable us to notice when things are out of balance or something unusual appears, allowing us to deal with it at an earlier stage. Whether this is depression, anxiety or a health issue like cancer. The earlier we spot the signs of something not being quite right, the better.
People are not talking about you behind your back. And in any event, it doesn’t matter what people think about you. It matters what you think about yourself. This goes back to my point about authenticity and integrity. If we can be comfortable in ourselves, then we will have less reason to fear what other people think.
You are not defined by your trauma. Going through a traumatic experience can take over life for a while. We end up living it, sleeping it, breathing it. Everything revolves around this traumatic experience. But then, like I said at the start of this article, things can settle, life changes course and we tentatively move forward. But this trauma will often stay with us, even though to the outside world we’ve moved on. Of course it will – it was huge! But remember that the trauma doesn’t define you. You are not just the trauma. You’re made up from lots of parts: mother, daughter, sister, wife, friend, writer, dog-lover, cyclist, whatever it is you do. Factor in all your characteristics: quiet/loud, confident/shy, organised/disorganised… Your trauma is only a small part of you. It is not the whole of you and nor is it the biggest part.
Nothing stays the same for ever. Everything in life is in a state of impermanence. Have you heard the Buddhist notion (Anicca) that all things and experiences are inconstant, unsteady, and constantly changing? Someone once told me this years ago at a point when I really needed to hear it and it’s stayed with me ever since. And it’s true. Whatever is going on today, will change over time and things won’t be the same in maybe a week, a month or a number of years. It applies to everything in life, for example, friendships, jobs, health, emotions as well as things like nature and the changing seasons. So if something isn’t going quite right for you at a particular moment remember Anicca and patiently wait for things to change. And equally, if things are going well, remember Anicca - savour this time, make the most of it and enjoy it.
Sara is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, a book about juggling a busy life with treatment for primary breast cancer. This book follows the physical and emotional impact of breast cancer on Sara’s life, and provides practical help for patients, and their friends and family, by way of checklists at the end of each chapter. The book is available from Hashtag Press, Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles. Sara is also the founder of www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, a website dedicated to supporting those who don’t know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the breast cancer resources online and those just looking for a comfortable, safe, calm place to turn for help. The website provides practical advice for each step of the way, together with many signposts to other online resources and lots of personal stories. Follow her on FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram.