As a breast surgeon, I was always vaguely aware of World Cancer Day, but the significance of it passed me by. And then I got diagnosed with breast cancer myself, and I went from being a doctor to a patient, having the very illness that I was an expert in. I never thought breast cancer could happen to me, and I didn’t check my breasts regularly – which goes against everything I tell my patients. But I did get cancer, and I got the full works when it came to treatment, as you all know. Five months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and implant reconstruction, followed by further lymph node removal and then radiotherapy. The finishing touch was an instant chemical menopause, which was not what I had planned at the age of 40.
Once my husband and I had done the hard bit of telling our friends and family, they all asked us what they could do to help. And I had no idea. I’d never had cancer before. We all learned to muddle through together. What I’ve learned is that it’s the little things that really make a difference. From close friends to followers on Twitter whom I’d never met – I would regularly get texts and messages, throughout the duration of treatment. Most of them would just be to say ‘Hi’ and send me a virtual hug. Distant family members sent me cards every Friday without fail, filling me in on the local gossip. Friends treated me like the Liz of old, and gave me a chance to feel like a normal young woman instead of a bald, sick chemo patient.
Once my hospital treatment had ended, there was a huge sigh of relief from most people I knew. Finally, they could all get on with our lives again. But for me, I was about to start a whole new life. And this is what World Cancer Day now means to me. It’s understanding and appreciating the reality of life after treatment ends – when your doctors have discharged you and you’re left on your own. That is when the support from friends and family is often needed the most. To understand that we will still get ‘those’ days, for no apparent reason, and that a well-timed hug can work wonders.
I’ve learned the reality of the aftermath of cancer treatment. The mental burden that we all carry to some extent. The fear of what might happen in the future. Every little symptom that makes you stop and check. It’s called ‘scanxiety‘, that I talked about in my last blog, and it’s real. But it’s not just the mental burden. We also have to live with the side effects of cancer treatment. For breast cancer that could mean a visible scar, the menopause, losing one or both breasts, losing your hair, or losing your sexuality, your confidence or your identity. None of these are easy to deal with, however time is a great healer, and life does carry on.
I do think though that it’s just as hard for our loved ones who can feel excluded and left out, and struggle to really understand what we’re feeling. And they’re the ones who often get left out when the cards and flowers and presents are being dished out. I had over 100 cards at the end of chemo, and my husband had 2 (both from my wonderful parents). As much as I would like it all to be about me, it’s not all about me. I wouldn’t have survived without my amazing husband.
And so I ask all of you on World Cancer Day to promise to get in touch with the people you know who’ve been affected, whether they’re a patient, a relative or a friend, no matter how long ago, and give them a hug from me.