In March I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have tried a number of times to write about this before, but never quite summoned up the courage to do so – until now.
That’s mostly because when cancer hits you, it feels like your whole life has been turned upside down. You literally don’t know what to do with yourself.
After being told I had breast cancer, I walked around in a daze, looking and acting more like a zombie than Lauretta. I couldn’t think straight – I was in total shock. And that's the first thing you feel after being told you have breast cancer.
It’s fair to say that all my family were dumbstruck too. We hugged each other (and told each other that we loved one another) more in those immediate days that followed than we had ever done before. It’s funny what something as serious as cancer does to a family isn’t it?
For a start, it really puts things in perspective. I very quickly learned to ignore things that would ordinarily have been daily irritations. Things that used to wind me up very quickly became insignificant overnight; I had much bigger things on my plate.
Finding my happy
A couple of days after finding out, I called up two friends: Kerry and Tania. Kerry (from Kerry’s Life and Loves) was a sound bet to call. Her husband has cancer and I knew that she would know exactly what to say. Poor Kerry though; when I told her I think she was driving at the time and had to pull over for fear of having an accident!
Although Kerry was initially upset by my news, she didn’t falter in delivering some powerful words of wisdom to me, telling me that I’d get through this and to remain strong and positive. I’m glad I called her – at this point I was hanging onto every word of advice and I needed to hear some positive words to combat the negativity that had consumed my whole being.
The second person I called was Tania. Tania was my brother’s ex girlfriend from way back and I had heard that she had beaten breast cancer twice.
Bear in mind that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Tania in about 20 or so years. Now imagine me calling her up out of the blue and trying to tell her (incoherently through my sobbing) that I had breast cancer. It was actually a bit embarrassing, as she had to ask me to repeat myself a few times. When she finally understood what I was trying to say, she too was full of positivity.
And there I was expecting these two awesome ladies to dish out the full sympathy: oh no, they were having none of that “feeling sorry for yourself” – it was all about empowering me to stay strong. At the time I didn’t feel like staying strong; I had all the wind knocked out of my sails and I was mulling over the options while I was down.
But, interestingly, Tania said something to me that would come to be a huge help to me through the initial dark days. She told me to write.
“You’re a journalist Lauretta. You’d be great to write down your thoughts, feelings and experiences. It will be therapeutic. And one day, when you’re out the other end, you can look back on all this and be proud of yourself. And maybe help others too.”
Her words struck a chord with me. Actually, it was the part where she said it might help others that piqued my interest. If I could pass on any knowledge or positivity to someone else going through something similar, then it would be worth doing. And as I started to write, I found it cathartic. But I was just still scared to put it on the blog and share my deepest darkest secrets with everyone else – until now.
The Secret Sea
When I started to write my little diary VIP and I hadn’t told the kids about the cancer. I wanted to try and protect them, as I didn’t know the full story (how bad it was, if it had spread, if it was treatable etc).
But young Nadja must have a sixth sense or something and picked up on every little detail. That girl is something else. I joked to VIP that she should be a police officer, work in MI5 or just be a human lie detector – she’s a natural.
But still, we hid things from her. And so I gave my diary the working title of “The Secret Sea” (as I had to keep ‘C’ secret from the kids). Those first two weeks were the hardest. If the kids were around we couldn’t talk about it and that meant not showing our emotions – try doing that when you’re riding an emotional rollercoaster; when the kids were in bed we’d talk in secret, sharing our fears. It helped but it was so hard not being able to do that openly.
Anyway, the Secret Sea is where I started a new chapter of my life – just four days after my diagnosis. So, I thought I’d share some of the extracts of the diary that I wrote in those very early days…
“It’s day four since I was told I have Sea and I’m still in shock. I woke up this morning and wondered why I hadn’t yet had a nightmare about what has just happened to my family and I. And then I thought about the irony in that thought. I don’t need to have a nightmare, I’m living it the moment I open my eyes every morning and I want to go back to sleep so I don’t have to deal with this sickening reality.
“I actually don’t know what Sea is. You know, the real nitty gritty. All I know is that it’s very dangerous and it can kill you. I don’t want to die, I’m too young. I have young children. How can I leave them now? They would both be devastated.
So it’s day four and I’m none the wiser about my “condition”. I somehow feel that if I read about it and acknowledge it, then it’s really there. It reminds me of a plane incident I experienced back in 2014.
I was on my way back from a conference in Turkey with a few other delegates. It was crazy o’clock in the morning and a few hours into the flight, when everyone was comfortably asleep, the steward started running down the aisle shouting for everyone to put their seat belts on. An automated voice came over the tannoy telling us to brace for impact. And then, without any explanation whatsoever, the plane went into a steep nosedive. I’m not even talking about dropping a few hundred feet at a time, I’m talking the nose was literally pointing at the ground.
And as we went down, there was an eerie silence, broken only by the woman behind me who started to sob about her children and the tannoy reminding us to brace. I remember looking down at the trainers on the floor and wondering if I should be wearing my trainers or not when they found my body. The things that go through your mind in what you think are your last moments!
I looked around me. Everyone was bracing – even the air stewards. And for some reason I just couldn’t brace. In my mind I thought that if I braced I was going to accept that I was going to die and I refused. Something inside me was telling me whatever happens I can survive this.
The story ends with us making an emergency landing at Izmir airport. Four years later I learned that due to Pegasus Airlines’ inability to provide us with real time information as the incident occurred (apparently they were very low on oxygen and had to take the plane down quickly to get some back in the cabin), and us fearing the worst, we all celebrated the fact that we made it out alive, hugging and holding each other and making calls to our loved ones.
I later discovered that most of the delegates on that flight had counselling in the months and years that followed. I was one of the few that didn’t – and now I can’t get on a plane without having a mini panic attack inside. Shame, as I used to love flying. I’m still highly suspicious as to what happened that day, questioning the reasons why the oxygen masks didn’t fall if we were low on oxygen. Some people suggested as we were close to Syria, flying bullets had something to do with it. I guess I’ll never really know. All I know is that they handled the delivery of the news very badly.
Talking about the bad delivery of news, let me talk about Mr Kasem, my consultant. The way he delivered my cancer diagnosis was so dramatic. His pauses in between his sentences were probably only nano seconds, but they seemed like minutes.
“Spit it out” I wanted to shout. The nurse’s eyes were fixed on me. I could feel them burning a hole in my head. And by this alone, I knew it wasn’t great news.
I can’t really tell you much about what happened or what was said in those few moments after learning about my illness. I do remember saying “Oh, Ok!” while my brain desperately tried to catch up with what was happening.
I didn’t cry – I was in shock. I remember being led into another room and being given about 100 brochures and leaflets. It was only when the nurse said four little words to me that I broke down.
“What about the children?”
She had found my Achilles heel. And it seems since that day when she asked me about my kids, I haven’t been able to stop the tears.
Back to the present
Of course there’s much more to the story in those early days after the diagnosis and it seems like so much has happened since.
In short, we told the kids, I told the rest my friends, I had hospital scans left, right and centre, I then had the operation to remove the tumour; I got my hair cut short and donated it to The Little Princesses Trust, raised almost £600 through my Facebook page, got two infections, ended up in A&E with a reaction to my antibiotics, had a shed load of dental work done, found a breast cancer charity to have some reflexology, minfulness and nutrition classes, discovered clean living and then got a tooth infection and ended up on more antibiotics. And that’s just the start of things…!
And now? Now I’m recovering from my operation and desperately trying to get full use of my arm back. It’s amazing what removing a tumour from your breast does to other parts of your body – I would never have guessed!
I’m also counting down the days to my first chemo session. I have no idea what to expect as everyone reacts differently, but I’m hoping that I’m one of those people that just feels a bit tired – I can only hope!
So that’s basically where my life is right now. One thing I would say throughout all of this though is that being told you have cancer really puts things in perspective.
In the months leading up to the diagnosis I had never felt fitter, healthier or happier than I have done at any other time in my life.
I have two beautiful children, a husband that dotes on me, a wonderful work/life balance and a strong, fit and healthy body. I suppose that’s why the cancer news was such a huge shock. How can I have cancer when I don’t feel ill?
And as much as the news was catastrophic for us as a family, I’m grateful for all the good things in life – and that’s what I’m trying to take away from this whole experience. To focus on the positives, the wonderful moments I enjoy with my family, the memories we create and that sense of being loved and cared for. And there’s no greater feeling than that is there?
A Pin For Your Health Board