Finally Coming to Terms with Breast Cancer

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was 15 years old and I’d just come home from a boring day at school.

Like most 15 year olds I was way too cool for school.  The teachers didn’t get me, the lessons were boring and all I really wanted to do was mess around with my mates until the final bell rang.

It was a typical day, just like any other school day really.

I’d walked to the local parade of shops at lunch break (or dinner time as we called it in Newcastle), with my small group of girlfriends.

We waltzed into Greggs the Bakers giggling and screeching as young teenage girls do, to buy our usual cheese and onion pasty and a bottle of pop.  The staple diet of most kids in my school in 1981.

I had no idea as I chatted noisily through my lunch that I was going to go home to the worst news I’d had in my short 15 years of life.

I was about to find out that my Mum, at the age of just 45, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I knew Dad was taking her to the hospital but I believed it was to have a cyst removed, although I didn’t actually know what that meant and I didn’t know where the cyst was.  I think at 15 I was too preoccupied with boys and making sure my leg warmers were the right colour to be concerned about anybody else.

I recall Dad telling me and my brother that when they’d opened Mum’s breast to remove the cyst they’d found that it was, in actual fact, a tumour.

If I’m honest the rest of the story is a bit of a blur after nearly 40 years.

I do have a strange memory of being told that my Dad had been asked to sign a form giving permission to remove the breast there and then, and that the decision to remove the breast or not sat with him.

As I write this it seems somewhat unlikely but that’s certainly how I remember it, and I can only imagine that if that was the case, then it must have been the most horrendous decision for my Dad to have to make.

The following weeks and months are also a blur in my memory.  Although I do recall Mum having to go through radiotherapy and suffering from what I can only liken to the most horrendous sun burn.

An ambulance would pick her up from home and take her to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle where they would blast her with doses of radiation to kill the cancer cells.

I recall having to cook dinner because she simply couldn’t stand to be around any kind of heat in the kitchen.

I believe they can be much more targeted in how they deliver radiotherapy now, but it seemed in those days they just zapped everything like a farmer spraying a field!

She lost one breast and they had to remove some of the lymph nodes under her arm.

I recall going with her to a department store in Newcastle to help her choose mastectomy bras into which she would insert a jelly like prosthetic breast that seemed to weigh a ton and felt ‘funny’.

I recall her crying a lot and being snappy and moody.

I also recall, with deep regret, that I was not always sympathetic.  Looking back I realise I simply didn’t understand.  I was so far out of my depth.

My Mum and I – I was aged about 14 so probably not long before her diagnosis.

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I really was a stroppy teenager!

As the months passed and Mum’s treatment came to an end I recall her getting the all clear after a couple of years, but having to be on a drug called Tamoxifen for quite some time after.

Over the next 7 years Mum seemed to really grow as a person.

She joined groups and made new friends.  She started teaching adult literacy classes to adults with reading difficulties.

She took part in shows and performed on stage.  She and my dad took up lawn bowls and got back into ballroom dancing which they’d always loved.

Mum, about 3 years after her initial diagnosis, on stage with the local WI Group

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It was as though she had been given a new lease of life and was going to live it to the full.

She went to Germany to visit my cousin; the first time she’d ever been abroad.  She was so excited.  My cousin Alison was always her favourite niece!

Six years after her original diagnosis, I married my first husband and went to live in Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

We had no home phone, but Mum and I would talk for hours on the public telephone in the phone box at the end of my road .  This was way before the days of the internet or mobile phones.

In Dec 1987 I moved to the East Midlands.  Mum and Dad came to visit us in our new house but, just one month later, we received the news that we’d all been dreading.

The cancer had returned, but this time it was in her bones – and the prognosis this time was not good.  It was terminal and nothing could be done for her.

What followed was a long, slow, painful death sentence that left Mum paralysed from the waist down.

She lost her battle with cancer on 22 September 1988.  I was 22 years old.

Nearly 30 years later and I still can’t help but cry as I write this.

My experience of breast cancer has, not surprisingly, formed my belief system around this awful disease and whilst I am fully aware that research, treatments and diagnosis are now so much better than they were in 1980, on an emotional level I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that breast cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be.

You might think that having been so closely affected by the effects of this disease I’d have spent the last 30 years finding out about it.  Researching it.  Making sure I knew everything there was to know about it.

Truth is, I avoided it.  Avoided anything to do with it.

I started reading a novel once and the leading female character was diagnosed with breast cancer so I stopped reading it.

I won’t watch anything on TV about it either.

I’m not sure why but maybe it saves me from facing my fears that this could affect me too.

As certain milestone birthdays have come and gone I’ve become more curious about my feelings and emotions where Mum and breast cancer are concerned.

Me on the Left Aged 51, Mum on the right Aged about the Same. 

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I love that we look so alike!

I worried in the few years leading up to my 45th birthday – the age Mum was when she was diagnosed.

I worry too as I head towards 54 – the age she was when cancer finally took her from me.

I lead a completely different life to my Mum though.

I’m fortunate not to have the financial pressures she and my Dad had.

My diet and my lifestyle choices are different to hers.

I don’t smoke, she did.  I exercise regularly, she didn’t.

I have had a much easier life in many ways than she had.

And, of course, modern treatments are so much more sophisticated than they used to be.

I try now to live a ‘cleaner’ life.

I eat fewer processed foods, more whole, fresh foods.

I drink very little alcohol nowadays and limit the amount of caffeine I drink.

I relax more and use meditation and mindfulness to calm my mind.

But that little nagging worry is always there, in the back of my mind.  Could it happen to me too?

MEETING FIONA AND COMING TO TERMS WITH MY FEARS

About 6 months ago I met a lady I’d known ‘virtually’ via a Facebook group, in person.

Her name is Fiona Maunder and I recall thinking that she looked gorgeous. She was in great shape, fit, strong and glowing.

She told me that 6 months earlier she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, had had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and had started blogging her journey.

She also told me that she’d just been given the news that she had come through the treatment and was now officially cancer free.

I started reading her blog, FitnessFi and the Big C and following her on Instagram.  I was inspired by her positivity and her reluctance to let her diagnosis stop her from maintaining her fitness and commitment to exercise.

I began to realise that my own belief – that there was only ever a negative outcome from this awful disease – was simply flawed.

I had the privilege to recently interview Fiona for my Podcast, Generation Exceptional, where she honestly and candidly told me of her journey from diagnosis to the all clear.

Her story has helped me to change my own mindset around breast cancer and fear it less.

Although for a short time, after hearing of her diagnosis, I do recall thinking that if someone as fit and healthy and Fiona can fall victim to this horrible condition, then what is the point of trying to live a healthy, ‘clean’ lifestyle?

As I found out when I interviewed Fiona, her form of breast cancer is known as Triple Negative – which means its cause is genetic rather than hormonal, suggesting that her lifestyle may have played little part in the diagnosis.

But for all I know her health and fitness may have been exactly what helped her to fight and win the battle.

According to the charity Breast Cancer Care, it’s important to eat a balanced diet, low in processed foods and high in whole foods.   And let’s face it, we all know that this is good advice for all manner of reasons, not just cancer prevention.

Cancer Research UK states that almost 8 in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer are predicted to survive the disease for at least 10 years.  They also state that breast cancer survival in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years.  This is all great news.

My intention now is to do more research into the effects of diet and exercise on prevention and long term management of breast cancer and as I learn more I’ll return to blog my findings.

For now, if you’d like to hear Fiona’s story you can listen to my recent podcast by clicking on the link below.

Generation Exceptional Podcast with Fiona Maunder

Fiona is running in The Great North Run in Sep 18 for Breast Cancer Care and you can help her to reach her fund-raising target by donating on her Just Giving Page

If you’re a breast cancer survivor, let us know in the comments.  I can’t believe I’m alone in needing to hear that there is a positive message here.

*****

For more help with eating well, visit me at www.florescofitness.co.uk or find me on Facebook at Floresco Health and Lifestyle Coaching or you might want to join my Facebook Group, Fifty, Fit and Fabulous, a fabulous community full of information, motivation and inspiration for anyone heading towards, through or beyond midlife.

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Bev Thorogood is owner and founder of Floresco Health and Lifestyle Coaching (formerly Fitness and Fat Loss Coaching).  She’s a PN1 Certified Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach, a personal trainer, exercise instructor, wife, mum and Nan!

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