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As my consultant uttered those dreaded words...you have CANCER, my world fell apart. I felt I had just been handed a slow, painful, undignified death sentence. My future, previously roughly mapped out, became a big black question mark. I was scared of the surgery and treatment, but knew the alternative was worse. I suddenly had no choices or control over anything in my life.
I can remember that day and the endless tears, sadness, darkness and confusion that followed. Rather than meaningless platitudes, I wish someone could have hugged me tight and given me the following advice to help me through the following weeks.
1. THE DISPAIR WONT LAST
It can't. That amount of sadness is not sustainable. You will feel broken and alone and scared and it will feel like it will never lift and you will never be able to smile or be happy again. But you will be. It's part of the process of grieving for the carefree life you have just lost.
2. THE FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN IS OFTEN WORSE THAN THE REALITY
I was utterly terrified of body mutilating surgery and the treatment. 4 days after my diagnosis I started chemo. And it honestly wasn't that bad. My first was the worst. It was like a bad hangover with relentless nausea and I ended up in hospital with neutropenia. With the remaining sessions they upped my meds and I felt nothing more than tiredness and a bit queasy. Similarly, once I started researching surgery options I discovered that they can do some pretty amazing things nowadays! And 6 operations later I quite enjoy a bit of anaesthetic!
3. NEVER, EVER GOOGLE
Or read the Daily Mail! There are out of date 'facts', statistics and stories about other people's cancer. Not YOUR cancer or YOUR treatment plan. Stick to trusted sites such as Macmillan or Breast Cancer Care, try one of the many helplines run by professionals such as Breast Cancer Care or call your breast care nurse or Macmillan nurse.
4. TAKE BACK SOME CONTROL
Remember, it's YOUR body and YOUR life and YOU have some say in what happens to it. You may feel like you are on a rollercoaster that you can't get off and that you have no say or control, however, you need to trust and believe in your medical team. You will feel so much more positive when you have solid treatment and surgery plans in place. Hope will be restored. Everyone is entitled to a second opinion and if you have private health insurance you can have even more say in your surgery and treatment options.
5. RETAIN SOME NORMALITY
Try to retain some normality in life. Do normal, everyday things to make the constant cancer stuff less all-consuming. Maybe some work, the school runs, walk the dog, see friends, redecorate a room...whatever works for you.
6. OK TO DEAL WITH IT HOW YOU WANT TO
Deal with it in a way that suits YOU and YOUR circumstances. Some are very open about their diagnosis and treatment and keep running commentary on blogs and Facebook. Others (maybe with young children) don't want anyone to know, don't tell anyone, and do all they can to assume normality. There's no right or wrong way to deal with it - you just have to deal with it in the way that is best for you.
7. IT IS OK TO ACCEPT OR ASK FOR HELP FROM LOVED ONES....
If the tables were turned you would be there for your partner/friend/family member wouldn't you? So make use of the offers of help and support when you need it. Most people are desperate to help out in some way, but don't know where to start.
8. ...AND PROFESSIONALS
This is A LOT to deal with and it and affects so many areas of your life; your mortality, your future, your family, your body confidence. It is enough to deal with even if you have a perfect life, but unfortunately most of us don't and life doesn't stop, so if things weren't great beforehand, those issues will still be present, and other shit can hit the fan while you're dealing with your cancer treatment. There is no shame in getting some help if you need it and don't feel as though you're coping very well. Most cancer hospitals and support centres (such as The Haven) offer free counselling, otherwise your GP will be able to refer you and discuss antidepressants with you to give you a helping hand through this difficult period.
9. DON'T BE SCARED OF ASKING QUESTIONS
I kept a notebook constantly at hand to note questions. Sometimes a question would pop into my head in the middle of the night but your mind can go blank during appointments through the emotional turmoil. Many consultants are not very forthcoming with information unless you ask them - as many patients don't actually want to know about their pathology or which drugs are being administered. I wanted to know EVERYTHING and wanted to understand EVERYTHING. I was probably a bit of a pain, but it was what I needed in order to cope, and once I had a better understanding, knew the treatment plan and what was in store I felt much calmer and much more in control.
10. REMEMBER YOU ARE NOT ALONE
I was in a very isolated, lonely and scary place at the beginning, but slowly felt less alone as I met others going through the same thing. There are some fantastic support groups and forums out there. I went on the Breast Cancer Care Younger Women's Forum a few weeks after I was diagnosed which was a godsend for me. There were fantastic seminars on issues such as fertility, reconstruction, nutrition etc, which were really useful - but most importantly for me I met some great girls my age, going through the same crappy thing and it was wonderful to make some friends who just "got it". We could talk about everything - from the embarrassing side effects to the more morbid side of dealing with a life-threatening illness - which non-cancer people just feel a bit awkward discussing.