So Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around again: yet another disease awareness campaign during which the women’s mags, weekend supplements, Twitter and Facebook feeds will be full of pink ribbons, real-life stories, tips for examining yourself and reminders of the importance of a Healthy Lifestyle. If you, or people you love, haven’t had a brush with cancer, it’s pretty easy to skip over those pages. I know I used to: those features and posts just didn’t seem relevant because young women don’t get breast cancer, right? And anyway, it’s too scary. And maybe even a bit too much information. And then, ironically, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer actually during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, four years ago. I’ve always had immaculate timing.
Funnily enough (not funny, obviously, but I’ve always needed to laugh blackly about this stuff – the alternative is dissolving into a soggy pile of woe, which is not really my style), the week I was diagnosed I had, in fact, just read one of those ‘real life experiences’ about a young woman with breast cancer in Grazia, about which I wrote a couple of years ago. I was 37 years old, with a four-year-old daughter who had just started school, and a two-year-old son. That month, everything changed.
Four years on from that surreal whirlwind – from discovery of lump to oncology department in a matter of days – Breast Cancer Awareness Month resonates rather more. But it’s complicated. I sort of glance at the features and the information sideways. I still can’t look at them head on. Even having gone through it – or perhaps because – it’s possible to have ‘cancer fatigue’. And it’s just too close to home – I have my Year 4 mammogram at the end of this month, won’t be officially in remission for another year, and my consultant is now making noises about me being a candidate for the new 10-year protocol of taking the crazy-making Tamoxifen instead of the standard five years. And even when I’ve got through all of that without so much as another twinge, cancer haunts.
People I know who are well past the five years, even ten, 15 years after diagnosis, still say they are not ‘over’ it. That it never really leaves you, having had cancer. That every year around the anniversary of diagnosis, even if it was decades ago, they still have a frisson of fear. The memory of that utterly life-changing, bowel-liquidising moment when they say ‘chemotherapy’ to you for the first time is too powerful to ever fade completely.
And then, inevitably, giving rising rates of all cancers, someone else you know is diagnosed and starts going through the exact same treatment pathway as you, and it brings it all back again. This happened recently to me – an old colleague posted her shocking news on Facebook and it knocked me sideways with nausea. She is handling the treatment with humour, eloquence, stoicism and immense calm, which I much admire. She says my blog posts when I went through it were inspiring, which is very kind, but I think it’s more that the human spirit is quite remarkable. Many, many people who have complete breakdowns at stuff like lost luggage or being hit up the arse by a man in a white van will end up dealing much better with a genuine, life-threatening crisis.
Nevertheless, reading her upbeat updates on her treatment was, I think, the reason why I found myself sobbing in the car park at Surrey Sports Park a couple of weeks ago. I was due to meet my best friend for a swim after dropping the children at school, and just as I parked the car, a propos of bugger all, I had a flashback. During which I was lying topless on the bed in the assessment room at the Royal Surrey County Hospital’s breast unit, with one arm in the air and the consultant taking a biopsy of the lymph lump under my armpit. On the computer, there was the mammogram of my right breast, the terrifying, obviously-not-good-news white mass of tumours shining out of the screen. It was a split-second memory, but it was very, very vivid, and I just burst into tears and sat in the car crying by myself, thinking ‘I am not in any way over this. I have not really dealt with the utter nightmare of what happened, and I am really scared of it happening again’.
It’s over (probably forever), but it’s not ever going be be over, at the exact same time. You forget, and then you remember, and it’s like being winded all over again.
I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. I love the colours and the leaves and the conkers and the low sun, and the return of my preferred uniform of opaque tights, short skirts and long boots. I love the ‘return to school’ feeling, the hard-wired desire to buy new stationery, the urge to make the home organised and cosy in preparation for winter nesting. I love the start of ‘roastie season’, where every Sunday involves friends, family, red wine, open fires, a sizzling joint (the meaty kind, obvs) and all the trimmings. But on top of that, autumn has become my most fearful season, and October is now the weirdest month. There are so many layers of reminders: every year it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, every year I am getting jittery as my annual mammogram approaches, every year I remember all over again those dates: the 6th, when I went to the doctor to report The Lumps; and the 13th, when I had the first mammogram and was immediately diagnosed. (October 6th is also the day we moved into our silver lining house three years ago, even more weirdly).
There is, though, the lightness and exhalation when the good news comes back from the radiography department: all-clear, I can relax and start planning Christmas. And the bigger picture stuff: I am so, so blessed. I had the most amazing treatment, from my incredible surgeon to my risk-taking oncologist and the lovely radiotherapy team. I am still well looked after, and in very good hands, and if I have any worries at all, I know I will be seen within days. I can tick off another year and am almost there, almost signed off! And then we can open the vintage Dom Perignon I have squirrelled away!
And, of course, I am still here, and well, and life is to be lived and enjoyed. I’m still around to see my babies grow up into wonderful, kind, funny, clever, dazzling young people and to hug them endlessly. Still here to laugh and cry and eat and drink and dance with my husband and my friends and my family, all of whom are so special and lovely and generally awesome, I must be the luckiest girl alive.
None of which would have been possible if I hadn’t known, via my flicking through all the features in women’s magazines over the years, what to look for, how to examine myself, and the importance of reporting anything that ‘just doesn’t seem right’ as soon as possible. Most breast lumps and bumps and pain are benign, and your mind will have been put at rest. If that’s not the case, and Stuff Needs Sorting Out, you’ll be whisked through our amazing healthcare system and have the best chance of effective treatment. So do give Breast Cancer Awareness Month a tiny bit of attention this October. It might just save your life.