My name is Helen, I’m 42 and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2002.
Two years ago I discovered a small lump (about the size of a malteser) in my right breast – to my relief this turned out to be nothing more harmful than a cyst, which eventually disappeared. However, about a year ago, I found a lump in the same place, and this one felt slightly different. I was referred to the Nigel Porter Unit at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and had a needle test (where a small amount of breast tissue is drawn out). At this time, I thought having the lump checked out was more or less a formality – after all I was OK the first time. A couple of weeks before Christmas I got a letter requesting I return to the Unit, for further tests and had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. Even though by this time I had begun to realise that I might be in line for some bad news, it was still a huge shock to actually hear the consultant tell me I had cancer. I took up the option to have this consultation taped, which was helpful, because my mind went completely blank at this point, so it was good to have the information to listen to at home. It was agreed that I initially needed a right-sided mastectomy.
At first I thought I could cope with this by myself and that I didn’t need any help, but I soon realised that there is lots of support for women with breast cancer and it would be a good idea to take advantage of it. At a follow-up appointment with one of the breast care nurses; I was given details of Laurel Alexander. While I understood that I needed surgery, I was keen to use complementary therapies as much as possible.
When you have cancer, it’s very easy to feel that everything is overwhelming and out of your control. Meeting Laurel was a turning point in my cancer journey. Here was someone who understood and was able to help me make sense of my muddled emotions; it was such a great help to be in a place where I didn’t have to put on a brave face. Apart from the emotional help and support, Laurel gave me lots of advice about nutrition and supplements, and this helped me gain some control over what was going on.
I had my mastectomy in February of this year. In March I started a five-month course of chemotherapy. Alongside the advice given to me by the Cancer Centre, Laurel gave me lots of extra information about making this easier, which was a great help and as I experienced different symptoms, she was able to ease me through them. During this time I also went to a creative writing course run by Laurel. Even though I felt quite rough most of the time, it was great to meet other women and talk and write about our experiences. Never having written in a creative way before, I was surprised at how easily I was able to write about how I felt about my cancer, and what had happened to me.
Nobody can prepare you for how you are going to experience your own personal cancer journey, but here are some of the things I found most helpful:
- Talking about your fears and hopes can help you make some sense of your feelings.
- Support often comes from unexpected sources – use it! People around you are often only too happy to help and it can forge much closer relationship bonds.
- Relaxation techniques, meditation and positive visualisation are all powerful tools. Laurel taught me how to use them, and this helped to make me feel much stronger. I have also taken advantage of Laurel’s other skills, such as massage, reflexology and Reiki.
- Various things can ease nausea through chemotherapy – sucking ice cubes, ginger, chilled soda water, dry biscuits and making sure you never get too hungry. I also found eating mints or cleaning my teeth helped with the strange taste I got in my mouth. At first I tried to fight the fatigue, but realised it was better not to – I became a great fan of afternoon naps!
- When you have appointments with medical staff, it’s a good idea to make a list of what you want to ask and get as much information as you can.
It might seem unlikely initially, but some good often comes out of the cancer experience. Life seems much more precious – so enjoy yours! Good luck.