When I received my breast cancer diagnosis in December 2019, all I thought about was the date that I would finish all treatment. Tick off the 16 chemos, the major surgery, the 3 weeks of radiotherapy and the immunotherapies. Put it behind me and move forward from this chapter. However, the problem is that there is no final date for how long it takes to pick up the pieces after active treatment finishes, to piece myself back together after so much trauma, to move forward. There is no countdown for the length of time rebuilding life will take after a cancer diagnosis.
Having watched my own beautiful Mother go through treatment with her initial Breast Cancer diagnosis, and suffer terribly with her mental health when everything finished, I tried to protect my mental health whilst battling with my physical health. When I was diagnosed, I was already seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety. Things had been feeling overwhelming for a while and I have never been more grateful to have had that support to begin the journey of uncertainty and unknown that is being told you have cancer.
Then lockdown hit halfway through my chemos and homechooling became a top priority to my days. Therapy was put on the back burner. I knew the importance of allowing all the roller coaster of emotions to be felt after years of therapy – the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. However, survival mode went into full force to get through cancer during a pandemic. Solo chemos, juggling the children with my husband, and all the usual support networks being taken away, all alongside the fear of being classed as vulnerable in a pandemic. It was full blown survival mode. Somewhere along the way I forgot to watch out for my mental well-being quite so closely.
So, when in September I begun radiotherapy, after everything that had come before, my mental health was well and truly on the floor. However, for the first time in a long time there was also some hope. The children were back at school. There was time to rest without guilt, to focus on my wellbeing in full, and slow down the pace totally and completely, to focus on recuperating and resting. Healing is exceptionally messy and non-linear. It takes time and insight. With what felt like the end of active treatment, came a lot of huge realisations about navigating my way in the world as someone who'd had cancer, but was no longer living with it. Adjusting to being the new me, so transformed in every way, mentally, physically and spiritually. Moving forward never ever felt so daunting.
From everyone I was speaking to in the cancer community, PTSD after finishing active treatment was so common. Generally, a diagnosis of cancer comes with a whirlwind of appointments and a very quick thrust into treatment, or as I referred to it boarding the chemo train. Only after you arrive at the destination are you able to take stock of the magnitude of all that has happened. Feeling like I have every physical ailment known to man (other than cancer, and for that I’m eternally grateful!), a mind plagued with anxiety and a soul that feels awakened to wanting to live life in its entirety, the work seemed to well and truly begin to find a way to find my feet… to pick up the pieces. Here are just a few things that helped me to come through some of my hardest days. Because the truth is some of the hardest days come after the treatment finishes.
After 16 rounds of chemo, multiple infections, a major operation and 3 weeks of radiotherapy, not only was I feeling on the floor, but my skin was screaming for some TLC. Chemo made my skin incredibly itchy, left me with sore painful feet, and gave me massive welts all over my face (the one good thing from lockdown meant that I didn’t have to socialise at the point I felt so incredibly vulnerable from my physical appearance) to name a few of the side effects. Having tried a lot of products during my treatment timeline, discovering Beauty Despite Cancer products was like receiving the biggest hug on your darkest day. The Defiant Beauty Cleanse & Moisturise was simply the most soothing, kind and enriching product I have used on my skin and transformed it from dull and lacklustre to glowing and clear. And the Foot Soaks were exactly what my feet were crying out for.
Chemo strips every part of your body from goodness as it attacks the cancer cells – from your head to your toes, quite literally, every part of me was affected. My nails were in the worst state – and the Defiant Beauty Nail Oil was a miracle product which I cannot recommend highly enough. Every chemo patient needs to have one of these little magical bottles to see them through, in my humble opinion.
The first week of my radiotherapy ended up with me arriving for treatment one day only to be struck down by the fiercest gastric bug. Talk about kicking a girl when she was down. At the same time I contracted yet another UTI and was on another course of antibiotics. I was an emotional wreck and the staff treating me for radiotherapy could see how much I was struggling. They said how used to seeing women at their wits end at this point. Everyone had told me radiotherapy would be a breeze which made it even harder for me to understand why I was struggling so much. They referred me to an oncology therapist and it was an absolute lifeline. Therapy has always been my safe place and this was no exception. With a focus on compassion to myself and others – usually I am the first to diminish what I am feeling because someone else has it worse but, I am slowly realising that this is so unhealthy and to acknowledge that what I go through and experience is allowed to feel hard and my feelings are valid. This was my biggest step into feeling stronger by acknowledging that I was in fact feeling broken.
I also started to focus on my spiritual well-being more and attended the most sublime sound bath sessions at the House of Wisdom, on Euston Road. If you are London based, when things open up again, I cannot recommend this venue more. It is a sanctuary of calm and the focus is on healing from within. Along with talking therapy, my Throat Chakra Balancing Crystal set from Beauty Despite Cancer providing support in speaking out more and asking for help more, crystal healing sessions with Life Rocks, and guided meditations, I slowly found my way back to a calmer state of well-being, and finding my way with the new me after cancer.
I bought rollerblades. Facing my own mortality made me realise how much joy can be found from the simplest of things. I wanted to reconnect with all the hobbies that brought me joy as a child. Skating, rollerblading, ice skating, cycling – all those activities where you feel young and care free I wanted back in my life. To dance without feeling inhibited. To laugh to the pits of my belly. To cry like a child who has misplaced their favourite toy. To feel it all because this life is for living, and feeling and loving. My blades were also rainbow pastel covered unicorn inspired blades ticking every single inner child fantasy!
Life after a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming, intense, magical, wondrous, exhausting, soul searching, momentous stuff. You cannot flick a switch and be better – if only. You can be told you are better, which is the best news you can ever wish to hear, but the pieces of you that have been cut up and put back together, both literally in surgery and metaphorically, take time. One day at a time. You will never be the same again after a cancer diagnosis, but believe me when I say, you may not want to be because I prefer the new me. Messy, feeling, raw, vulnerable, authentic me. A work in progress each day embracing life forever changed by cancer. Appreciating the small things more than ever before. Cancer did that to me. Opened my eyes to the magic right in front of me and within.