Four years ago today, on Friday the 16th of October 2015, I received a devastating phone call.
“We have found a lump”, the Breast Screen nurse said.
I was sitting at my desk at work when she called. It was a usual busy day with an office full of people.
As I tried to register the words she had just matter-of-factly blurted out to me, I remember losing awareness of my surroundings. It took all my strength to calmly make an excuse to leave without giving anything away to my colleagues.
Little did we know that it would be eighteen months before I would return.
Two hours later we were at the clinic and I was having a biopsy. An hour after that, Phil and I were sitting in the car in disbelief, crying as we held each other when he said to me, “you have only just become my wife, you can’t leave me now”.
I knew I had been a little complacent and had left it a bit too long for my yearly mammogram. Because my own Mother and Grandmother both passed away from breast cancer when I was just 16, I underwent regular screenings from the age of 31. I was shocked when the radiographer told me my last appointment was three years prior.
The next few days were a whirlwind of appointments, scans, conversations and tears. So many tears. Each hour was a see-saw between horror and the determination to survive.
Ironically, it was the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness month.
My husband and I kept our closely guarded secret to ourselves until we knew what we were facing. Had the cancer spread? Would I survive? Would my family lose me so young as I had lost my own family members to this horrible disease?
Sitting our six children down and sharing the news with them shattered all the ideals of being the mother who would always protect her babies.
For seventeen years I nurtured, encouraged, held, consoled and fought for my kids. In one moment, in one conversation, we delivered news that utterly devastated them, and I couldn’t do anything to prevent their trauma.
I felt that I had failed them as their Mum.
The next two years were consumed with six surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hair loss, along with equal amounts of vulnerability and fierce strength.
Phil and I were overwhelmed with the incredible support we received from some amazing angels in our lives. We had meals delivered to help feed our large Brady bunch, and our families stepped in to make sure Christmas and birthday celebrations went ahead as planned when all I was capable of was laying on the lounge and watching it all unfold after being hit by the chemo Mack truck.
Coming to terms with the physical changes to my body has pushed the boundaries of self acceptance to a new level. I lost my left breast and had a new one reconstructed from the lat muscle in my back, that causes ongoing issues. My scars resemble a patchwork quilt and I suffer with lymphoedema in my left arm that I will now need to manage for the rest of my life. Then there’s all the wonderful benefits of being forced into early menopause. There are many foods I can no longer tolerate, I am a cadbury girl when it comes to alcohol and the days of high intensity exercise and running are long gone.
During the last four years we have found out who is in our corner, and who isn’t. Then there has been the financial devastation, as well as further family trauma as everyone struggled through in their own way.
My darkest days saw me sitting on the side of my bed with my head in my hands saying out loud, “take me now, I can’t do this any more”, and staring at my packet of strong painkillers wondering what would happen if I took them all at once.
My old nemesis, anxiety, returned and earlier this year reached the point of seeing me spending an entire weekend binge watching a Foxtel show curled up either in bed or on the lounge so that I could escape the constant turmoil of my own thoughts. I couldn’t leave the house and I shut down all communication with anyone outside my family.
Even though it has been several years since going through my journey, some of the side effects are lasting.
But out of the darkness, has also come some pure magic.
I found strength in allowing myself to be vulnerable. I learned to accept help. I surrendered to what was and forgave myself for not being the super mum and martyr I thought I needed to be.
However, I have never felt like a victim of cancer, and have come to appreciate the part it has played in my life.
It has been a very difficult journey, but breast cancer has been my greatest teacher.
My life will never been the same again, and there are many aspects that have formed the “new normal” which is a term that is thrown around a lot for cancer survivors. But I see things differently now and have a chance to live like never before.
Every day I wake up is a good day, and there will be many more.
That I am sure of.
As for today, even though it brings up many memories, I am not sad. I am grateful.
And I will be celebrating!