Yesterday was a day that my friend Tanya would treasure forever.
A few weeks ago Tanya posted a photo (which you will see below in her story) on her Facebook page and I just couldn't stop thinking about it. This photo from knowyourlemons.com was the first time I actually really took in what breast cancer could be like and what to look for. Like many of us, Tanya is a young busy mum of two kids and despite what every magazine article, shared article, special morning tea and TV advertisement that is in front of you each day, a lot of us including me would look at all these 'awareness campaigns' without actually seeing them. Would you agree? I always see campaigns to check your breasts but honestly, I don't sit there and do it. I actually think to myself I will do that in the shower tomorrow morning, like I would actually remember to do it!
I have had two friends beat cancer and lost my Dad to it. All of which the news came as a shock and has changed the way I look at my life personally. There are no excuses to ignore the fact that we must check and really learn about our bodies and look after it. We can't assume our young age, our healthy lifestyles or lucky genes will never have cancer nor can we live in fear of it. We just need to be truly 'aware' of what to look for.
Tanya and I have known each other since we were kids and I am so honoured to be able to share her story with you. Please share and repost to your friends so we as mums can understand breast cancer from an honest and open breast cancer survivor!
February is a special month for you. Can you share with us your journey of the last year?
Yes it is! It is impossible to put the last year in a nutshell summary (and I'm a details person!) but on February 5th I became 1 YEAR CANCER FREE!!
On 30th Dec 2015 I happened to randomly find a pea-sized lump on my left breast, just below my nipple. I was just nonchalantly running my hand across my breast whilst deciding what after dinner snack to devour when I felt it - and it took my breath away the moment I did! It was HARD. Like a frozen pea just below the surface of my skin. It did not feel right at all. The next morning I was at the GP to have it checked who then referred me to have an ultrasound, as I expected. A couple days later I had this done and as soon as I was in the car to leave, I opened the letter they had given me to go back to the GP with, and tried to decipher the medical terms used in their report. My husband and I googled the words and phrases to try and gain a little bit of insight and perhaps to find anything that would lead us to believe that it probably wasn't serious and nothing to worry about. We didn't find the obvious reassurance we were hoping for. In fact there were a couple of terms used that sounded quite the opposite. Still, I was only 35, considered myself to be reasonably fit and 'healthy' with no family history of breast cancer....surely it had to be nothing more than a cyst or benign lump, we kept thinking??
The results from the ultrasound recommended I have a mammogram and fine needle biopsy done, so the next week was spent getting more procedures done, more wondering and more worrying. The fine needle biopsy was unsuccessful due to the needle repeatedly deflecting off the lump and not grabbing any tissue from the lump itself (because it was so rock hard apparently). So then the next step required would be to have a surgical biopsy. We put this off for a couple weeks as we had a holiday already booked in Airlie Beach for my birthday. I was determined that we were going to go and have a week of ignorant bliss and enjoy my birthday before we proceeded with any more tests and ultimately the pending results. After consulting with the Dr who agreed with us to take our holiday and that a couple of weeks would not make any difference to life or death, regardless of outcome, we went. So glad we did, it was a wonderful, relaxing time away and we did manage to switch off (I actually don't know how I managed that in hindsight) and enjoy our holiday and celebrate my birthday (on a catamaran in the Whitsundays - bliss!!).
Two days after arriving back I had the surgical biopsy then had to wait yet another week for the results which would determine the journey of the year that had just begun. I had actually begun mentally bracing myself that it was going to be bad news as I didn't want to be blind sighted if wasn't good. So I was prepared for the worst but desperately hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the results weren't what we wanted. Stage 2 invasive breast cancer. As much as I had tried to prepare myself for the possibility of this, when the Dr confirmed it in his office, I lost it. Badly. I was a mess and the Dr was surprised with my reaction thinking that I had not prepared myself even for the possibility of cancer. But I had. It was the actual confirmation of it that was hard to accept. No more hope that it 'might not be'. It was, and it was my lot I had been given at that time in life. Hard pill to swallow that's for sure.
So from there, I had my options laid out for me and I chose to have a left breast mastectomy where they also removed any connected lymph nodes to determine if the cancer had started to spread elsewhere in my body. I was diagnosed on the Monday, under the knife on the Friday and trying to wrap my head around it all in between!! The first 24 hours after the mastectomy were the hardest. During the first night I cried when the nurses came in on their rounds to see me and I heard them talking to each other during change over saying how young I was and how I'd only just found out a few days earlier that I had breast cancer. The morning after when my Dr came to see me to check the 'site', he made me look at it which I didn't want to do. More tears at the reality of what had just happened, add to that throwing up from the meds and I was a sorry sight! Thank the Lord, it got better from there. I still had to wait another week for the results of the lymph node biopsy, and they were ALL CLEAR!! Such amazing news to receive!
The next 8 months for me, medically, involved having several more procedures and operations done to reconstruct my breast and nipple. And for me personally, it meant a complete overhaul of my diet and lifestyle. Everything unnatural or unhealthy (food/drinks/alcohol/beauty products/stress) = gone! I feel like I have been blessed with a wake up call, second chance, a course correction or whatever you want to call it, to restore and nourish my body and live my life the way it was intended for, and only use natural, organic food and products on and in my body now. I've done lots of research on what I used to eat and buy plus the beauty products I used, and realised how ignorant I was to what I was actually putting in/on my body, and how much better I could be and feel with my new approach! I don't feel like I am missing out at all. My enjoyment now comes from knowing that I'm nourishing my body!
Looking back on all that has happened this past 12 months, I am amazed at the full circle I have come. What a story to tell. I am the healthiest I have ever been, my body is fully restored and you would not even know to look at me that a year ago I had been faced with cancer and had a breast removed!
How did breast cancer impact your hubby, kids, friends and family? e.g. did you want to share your journey with them and talk about it or keep it private to help you get through it?
My husband and I went through all the emotions together, although from different perspectives as he had to watch his wife go through it all and helpless to do anything for me except be my support through it all. He was amazing and held it together for both of us. He did have his moments however, but had great support around him in his own right to help him deal with it. The amount of support we both received from everywhere was completely overwhelming ! Very humbling.
We never hid anything from the kids, right from when I started having tests to see what the lump was. We didn't go into details and sheltered them a little bit in that regard. We wanted to prepare them for the possibility that it might not be good but didn't harp on about it, and was just very matter of fact with them. When we told them it was in fact breast cancer, they both broke down and cried saying things like 'I don't want you to die mum'. Those awful, deep, heartbreaking sobs that just rock your core and make you hold them close like never before. After that realisation however, they were really good and very positive. My son said in regards to me losing my breast and nipple 'who cares if you don't have a nipple, it's only dad that sees it'. Bless.. I also started a private Facebook page to keep anyone that wanted to know how I was going, informed about my progress and recovery. That way, I didn't have to constantly repeat myself to everyone and the people in that group genuinely cared and offered me lots of support through that medium. I have no problem sharing my story with anyone. If my story can help someone in anyway, I am most humbled and grateful for the opportunity to share it.
How did you manage day to day mum life on top of your treatment and coping with having breast cancer?
I was very fortunate to have my mum fly up from Adelaide every time I had surgery last year. She was an immense support and helped to take the pressure off my husband with needing to take time off work and look after the kids etc as I couldn't drive for a little while after each one. Apart from those times, it was business as usual (kind of) and we tried to keep things as normal as possible. However in saying that, about mid year, last year, I did feel like I was having somewhat of a delayed reaction to what had gone down and was started feeling depressed, lost and was crying a lot for no particular reason. So at this point I went and saw a psychologist to help me debrief and digest it all over again. This was a good decision and helped me gain a better and brighter perspective once again.
You posted a picture on your Facebook with a comment recently that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. All my friends I have since shared that with have also been blown away by it's information. Can you talk about this picture and how you feel about it?
This is one of the best and most practical references to breast cancer and its 'awareness' that I have ever come across! It gave descriptions of what detecting a lump could actually feel and look like. There are many more signs to look out for other than just finding a obvious lump (even though I did, when I wasn't even checking for one!) Sometimes I get so over breast cancer campaigns and awareness plights because surely everyone is already SO aware of breast cancer! (as well as other cancers) I feel like people can become quite desensitised to it all and it can distract from women knowing what real 'breast cancer awareness' should actually involve! This depiction is a much more useful tool in making women aware of the physical symptoms that breast cancer can appear as.
What is your advice on how we as mums can properly check and know what to look for? Is there certain times that are better to check than others? e.g. during our menstrual cycle or after?
Gosh, I know we hear it a lot, but we really do need to check ourselves and at the very least be aware of our bodies and any changes or things that just don't seem quite right; nobody knows it better than you! The best time of the month to check your breasts is usually just after your period due to them not likely being swollen or tender, but honestly, ANYTIME is a good time in my opinion! Whenever you think about it or breast cancer comes to mind for whatever reason, have a quick once over if you are in an appropriate place to do so. Also, I try and do it whilst lying down occasionally as I find the breast shape changes when laying on your back, and helps you to feel your breasts with a different perspective. Have a good read of the lemon post which highlights some of the things and changes to look out for other than just a lump.
Where can we go to find information or seek help about breast cancer? We see so much of it in magazines and advertisements that the information can be so overwhelming, so it's easy to not take the important stuff in.
Yes, there is SO much info out there which can be both useful and overwhelming! If you have any concerns about your own breasts, head straight to your GP as the first point of call who can examine you and put you on the right path from there. Don't put it off or ignore it because of fear! The sooner it is identified the sooner you can seek treatment and do something about it OR put your mind at ease if it turns out to be nothing. Had I dug my head in the sand and didn't start the ball rolling immediately, the cancer would have most certainly begun to make its way out to the rest of my body and advanced in stages in who knows what amount of time, I shudder to think. The younger you are, the more aggressive the cancer - time really is of the essence!
What does your future journey look like from here?
Hmmm, I often still ask myself this question! The week I found out I had breast cancer, was actually the week that I was meant to start a new job and career path that I thought I was meant to go down. Turns out that it wasn't meant to be and I whilst I was ok with that after a while, I didn't have a clue of what I wanted to do and where to from there! All I knew was that I had a paradigm shift and saw things differently now. I needed to do something that added value and that worked in with our family and not try and make our family fit around my job! Family first. So I took some time off last year and it was great not to worry about working and what to do with kids during school holidays etc - less stress! I've only just recently figured out what I am going to do with myself this year and going to do a bit more study for the time being along with some part time work. It feels great to have direction again!
With the breast cancer diagnosis, I feel like while it was such a significant part of my life, it was actually only a blip on the radar for me (fortunately), I have learnt so much from that journey and realised that there was a better way for me to live. I have never felt better than I do now!
For some Realistic Mum questions so we can get to know you as a mum, what do you love most about being a mum and what do you find challenging?
What I love most about being a mum, is first of all just being a mum! All I wanted when I was growing up was to get married and have children, above all else. I am blessed that it all fell into place so easily for me and I have an amazing husband of almost 16 years (!) plus two gorgeous kids, Ashton (12) and Ella (10). The other thing I really love about being a parent is when you see the fruits of your labour blossoming in your kids - the morals, manners, faith, kindness, love and empathy for others you have instilled and tried to lead by example in your own life - when you see glimpses of this, it just makes your heart explode and assures you that you have done something right!
The most challenging part about being a mum for me is the complete opposite to the latter....seeing traits of myself in my children that I don't like and wanting to slap it out of them lol. More an issue with myself, obviously! The other challenge I have is trying to manage and balance the whole 'device time' thing! We butt heads with the kids over this and we are still navigating our way through working out what works and what doesn't, but it drives me crazy the amount of time they want to spend on these things!!
Who are your mum people and how have they influenced you as a mum?
Most of my close friends are all mums and they all influence me and challenge me in many different ways (although they may not even realise!). We all parent differently. Some mums have a similar parenting style to me and others quite different - I try to glean little nuggets from each one! No one mum has it all together, and ultimately we are just doing the best we can with the best we have. My own mum has been a huge influence on me both growing up and still as an adult child. I'm grateful, and I hope that never changes.
What would you say to a mum who is dealing with what you have been and currently going through?
Please don't think that you have to go through this on your own! Open up and share - you will find people and their experiences will literally come out of the woodwork from everywhere, along with their support! It will be a huge source of strength and you will come across others who have travelled the road ahead you, I promise! Life is better with others.
Also, do your own research and find out what is best for you and feels right, regardless of what you are told or how many other people have done what you have been offered. I would encourage you to remember that it is your body and your responsibility to be as informed as possible, and be empowered to make the decision that is right for you. Everyone is different, what works for one person is not necessarily the right path for another. It can feel totally scary and overwhelming but knowledge is power and gut instincts are worth taking the time to listen to!
©The Realistic Mum
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If you love children’s books then I have written a lovely little book on clouds changing into different shapes that you can find on Amazon and iTunes. Look for the title Look At The Clouds, What Can You See?