Finding Joy + Taking Back Control
September 22, 2023
Sitting alone, perched on a seat in the corner of the hospital waiting room, clutching a plastic cup, I became aware of a lady walking towards me. She looked kind and had a warm smile. In her hands, she had a couple of leaflets and she crouched down next to me. “Hi, I am Angela, one of the breast care nurses here,” she announced as she gently placed her hand on my shoulder.
I was visibly trembling and utterly bewildered. My eyes were watery and I tried my best to string a few wobbly sentences together whilst Angela kindly explained my next steps.
Moments earlier, I had been lying on the bed in the examination room where the sonographer had taken a couple of painful biopsies after finding two suspicious lumps in my left breast. During the silence, I felt vulnerable like never before and I became gradually more and more panicked, thinking about my children and how they were going to live without me.
Six weeks prior to this dreadful day, I had decided to go for a health check. I had booked in a full assessment which would assure me that at age 44, I could happily continue to make plans for my future, knowing that I was fit and healthy. The appointment included a mammogram and that was that. Perfect, job done!
A week or so later, I received a letter which briefly stated that one of the images were blurred and that there was evidence of calcification in one of my breasts. I would need another mammogram to get further results, but at that time, no one contacted me to clarify what that meant. ‘Calcification,’ I thought to myself. ‘Is that a sign of getting old? Hmm…’ I left it there because I was busy at work and decided to put the letter in the ‘To Do’ pile. I would tick that box at some other point.
Had I not eventually been contacted by a lady from what is called the “one stop breast clinic” in the UK, I am not sure when I would have phoned them, and my story might have been very different to the one I am sharing today.
So, Friday 27 May 2023, will forever be imprinted in my brain as the day my life changed forever. It was a super busy day at school – I was the lead teacher of Years 5 and 6, and we had an open day.
“I know this is really inconvenient,” I blurted out to the school’s Headteacher. “But I should be back in no more than an hour! I just need another mammogram to clear things up.” Those were my parting words, but before I knew it, one hour had turned into four hours and next thing I heard Angela say: “Try to stay calm. We are not sure what it is, but we have found something suspicious.”
And so, my life changed in a flash, without warning and straight away I was in the system. On the rollercoaster that is breast cancer.
At that moment, you feel completely powerless and unable to fathom what has just happened to you. You are catapulted into a new world where the language spoken is far, far different to the parallel universe that you have just left, and you start to wonder: Will my life ever return to normal?
Once in the system, you can be forgiven for thinking that you have lost control of your life. Suddenly, you are forced to make decisions about your future that you have only been given days or moments to consider. What grade is my breast cancer? What does that mean? What type of surgery will I have? Will I need chemotherapy? Has it spread? What will my future look like? You then give yourself in and pray to the heavens above that your medical team will cure you and put you back together again!
After my mastectomy, four months of gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I felt battered and bruised. My body was weak, fatigued, scarred and broken. I had lost my confidence and I was feeling out of control, thinking that my life would never resemble again what it was like before.
And then came the hormone treatment! Hello menopause!!! Just as I thought I couldn’t sink any lower. From having oestrogen in my body to having NO oestrogen felt like an overnight job. I did not recognise myself, nor did the people around me. As the aromatase inhibitors invaded my body, I thought, ‘Something needs to change.’ I knew I needed to regain some control in my life and I needed a plan.
As someone who had a been a gymnast for years, who had loved yoga, walks and healthy, nutritious food pre-diagnosis, I started to reclaim the elements in my life that I so missed. I am a strong and resilient person so I made an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t let cancer, and now the menopause, win.
Gradually, I started to find little pockets of joy in my life. I found a fabulous therapist, I started writing a journal, I wrote positive affirmations on post-its, I listened to podcasts while taking long, mindful walks, I reconnected with a personal trainer who I had seen prior to my diagnosis, I joined a yoga class with a lovely lady who had been through the same as me, and I started making nutritious smoothies and wholesome meals to nurture my healing body. All the while, I was slowly processing what had happened to me and I started to rebuild my life.
Healing, however, isn’t linear, as the saying goes, and there are still days where the trauma of my illness takes over and the side effects of my medication are too overwhelming. But that’s ok because I have given myself the tools to let that pass and move on. Nothing ever stays the same.
Connecting with others in the same situation, has also been hugely beneficial, and as I am a strong believer that knowledge is power, I have joined a group of wonderful women in a cancer and menopause support group where we get to educate ourselves about life after cancer and talk openly about our fears and worries. Being part of a community is hugely important to me; it gives me a sense of belonging and it motivates me to find a new purpose – something that is now even more crucial to me than ever before.
I decided to share my own story via my Instagram account, The Breast Cancer Diary, and I have found that incredibly therapeutic. Not only do I get to connect with other ladies who have gone through the same, I also get to document the things that have helped me on my road to recovery. My hope is that someone else will pick up some valuable nuggets of support that might help them on their own journey.
Life after breast cancer will never be the same, but I believe it can be better. It is tough and it won’t happen overnight, but with a spark in your belly and a zest for life, you ARE able to influence and take control of your future. Educating yourself, advocating for yourself and empowering yourself, is the best thing you can do when life is spiralling out of control.
Do I wish I had never had breast cancer? Yes, I do. But do I believe that my future is positive and that I will come back stronger and healthier? Yes, I do. I’ve been given a second chance and I am going to grab it. — Anja Pedersen
Read more from the community on life after cancer, here!