“I am living with incurable breast cancer, and I have never felt more alive.
All the clichés are true: You never know what you have until it’s gone. Many of us take for granted our health, the expectation we will grow old.
When the likelihood of longevity of life got taken away from me, I realized how much I was wasting precious time and energy. Wasting time worrying about what people thought of me, my own limitations, feeling small, and obsessing over every day problems. So, I stopped.
This is when I truly realized my own power – the power we all have – to choose. Our thoughts determine our reality, and we get to choose each and every thought we have, every moment of every day. So, while having an incurable disease could fill me with fear, anger and anxiety – and sometimes it does – I choose not to spend my days thinking this way.
I am here today, and I have never felt more grateful that I am. I choose to live the life I have with joy, hope, kindness and most importantly, love. I believe living with hope – and belief I will be cured – will heal me. And my purpose in life is to inspire others to do the same, to step into their power.
So, how did I get here? Who am I? I am someone who has struggled for most of my life to feel like I belong. So much of who I am and the life I have lived have made me feel inferior. I used to believe everyone else around me has it together, and has more of a right to be here, to take up space. As a result, I ended up later in life feeling like I constantly had to prove my worth.
I applied so much of myself to school, and later work. In all my relationships, I would go out of my way to please others. To the point where I ignored my own needs so much, I forgot what they were. That’s the first time I was diagnosed with a different type of cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was diagnosed in 2012 after being ill for over two years.
It started with itching, and eventually symptoms grew to fatigue, a persistent cough, and eventually night sweats and fever. I kept ignoring them, pushing my body on, thinking I was just tired from work, I was just run down – until it reached the point where I could no longer ignore the symptoms. My chest was x-rayed and I was called in for an emergency appointment with the comment: ‘I don’t know how you are walking around without passing out!’ One of my lungs had collapsed and completely clouded up.
Some three months later, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. A tough, long year later, I had completed six rounds of IV chemotherapy and was in remission. I quit my job in HR working for a global bank and joined a medical devices company in pursuit of a more purposeful career.
Back then, I felt I had a second chance at life. But I believed it was about gathering experiences, so I just said yes to everything. To travelling, new experiences, putting myself out there. And eventually to becoming pregnant (naturally) and giving birth to my daughter, Kayla.
It wasn’t long, however, until I had reverted back to my old ways. Pushing myself to the limit. Working unsustainable hours, but this time in addition to keeping a house and an active social life, I was juggling the demands of motherhood. Rest, self-care and recuperating were not options to me; at least that’s what I believed.
I would push myself to the point of falling into bed, completely fatigued. Looking back, I was in a near constant state of stress, that flight or fight state. My marriage became more and more strained. I would have frequent meltdowns. And when I found myself regularly having fits of (uncharacteristic) screaming rage in front of my daughter, I realized I needed to make a change.
I realized how unhappy I was, and that I had a choice, and made steps to separate. A year later, I separated from my husband and started out life as a single, co-parenting mom. Living on my own, I felt a new sense of freedom. I started to feel I was coming back to myself. I had switched myself off from life, from feeling, and I wanted to invite it all back in.
I started making changes and I thought I was doing better. My Hodgkin’s experience was a lot more traumatic than I’ve described here. It showed me how truly interconnected the mind and body are. Following a state of sepsis-induced fever, for example, I suffered a long period of psychosis because of the intense strains I had put on my mind and body.
I have always been interested in psychology. Becoming a mother motived me to learn about infant psychology and what makes us tick as human beings. Over the years, I started to gain knowledge from books I’d read, people I was meeting, talks and podcasts.
Without realizing, I was exploring all the various threads that tie together to explain the mind-body connection – to our connection as a human community to the workings of the world and universe. From this, and with the onset of COVID, I decided to write a mental resilience program for my company’s employees.
It was a huge task, as in HR, the height of COVID was the busiest time for us, and I already had a very demanding role. But I strongly believed our people needed help with resilience then more than ever. So, I dedicated more of my evenings and weekend time to writing it. It resulted in a six-month program, that once trialed, delivered immediate results. We measured the ‘perceived stress scales’ of the delegates and they all reduced more than 50% after the program. We had comments about how the program had changed lives, kicked life-long addictions and bad habits. It inspired me, too. Through creating the program, I feel I grew my own resilience.
I started meditating, got back into yoga, focused on good nutrition and better hydration. I started giving talks at my company and became a spokesperson for our medical device products – the same products that played a role in saving my life during my Hodgkin’s treatment. My life had changed, my journey felt satisfying, and I felt I was in a better place than I had been for years.
So, it came as a complete surprise when I found a lump in my breast. Looking back now, I realize I had felt the lump growing, but I just couldn’t imagine after all I had been through I would get breast cancer. Like everyone, there’s a sense of ‘this can’t be happening to me.’ But I felt I had finally come to the point of finding purpose in my previous illness – I was supposed to be the role model for health and wellbeing.
When it started to hurt, that’s the first time I checked my breast. I felt a long, hard lump on my right breast. I had clearly found something there that shouldn’t be. I called my GP and made an immediate appointment for the following day. She sent me for an urgent referral for further investigation, but the signs were there.
That afternoon I came home feeling like I was living in an alternate universe. How could I have breast cancer? What would that mean for my daughter? She had grown to be a precocious five-year-old, such a bright spark and a real mama’s girl. The idea of being forced to leave her alone to fend for herself was untenable, unimaginable.
She would have her dad, but it wouldn’t be the same. I know how often she just wants her mother. I was sent to boarding school when I was 9 and felt abandoned as I was fending for myself for 10 months of the year. I promised I would never do that to my child, but this could be the ultimate abandonment.
It’s your greatest fear as a mother that you can’t get to your child when they need you, to look after them, guide them, help make sure they are okay. My grief was so real and thick and so much more powerful than my first-time round with cancer, as this time the stakes felt so much higher. And I hadn’t even been diagnosed yet.
Then, I started to Google. That’s when I found the concept of secondary breast cancer. The words incurable came up. I couldn’t get my head around it. I had had Stage 4 Hodgkin’s before, but I was cured. Why couldn’t I cure this, if I had it? There were no answers. Just confirmation after confirmation if your breast cancer spreads, it can’t be cured. And the prognosis is three to five years. Three to five years! This means my darling daughter, Kayla, would be just 8 when she would lose her mother, 10 as best-case scenario. I couldn’t, wouldn’t accept it. It became something to obsess over as my greatest fear.
By the time I got to the point of scans and biopsies, my greatest fear was realized. I had a 7cm tumor in my breast – considered large by any method of measurement. It had spread to surrounding lymph nodes and to my liver. It was a small amount of metastasis, but even though small, it is still deemed secondary – and therefore incurable.
That’s when I started desperately looking for role models. People who had beat the odds. Lived beyond their prognosis. I found the concept of ‘radical remission,’ a growing movement interested in the power of the mind and body. All the role models and different books said the same thing: How it’s possible to take control and heal yourself of chronic conditions.
Books like Heal, Radical Remissions, and authors like Dr. Joe Dispenza. They all gave me hope, but most importantly helped to give me back a sense of control. I had already started working with a therapist, although she is much more than that. She practices a combination of therapies, from hypnotherapy to EFT to joy-inducing dance healing practice. She is very focused on healing the body, again subscribing to the mind-body connection. Working with her gave me renewed belief in myself, my power, and my strength. Yes, I was up against the challenge of a lifetime – but one that with the right approach and diligence, I could overcome.
I learned how I could overcome my emotions of fear, anxiety, a sense of losing control, all of which are sending psychological signals to my body I am sick. Instead, with the power of my mind, focus on hope, joy and a deep belief and gratitude I am already healed, I could compliment the treatment I am receiving. I could speed up my body’s ability to heal itself, and then stay healthy.
Learning about this, I went back to my practices, but elevated them. What I started to realize is all my wellbeing practices before, while the actions were good, were missing a vital element. And that element was compassion – for myself. I realized I was still not taking care of myself. I would even punish myself for not hitting my wellness targets. I had to start applying the level of kindness to myself I willingly give to others.
Being kind and compassionate, I learned even thinking about being kind to others or ourselves takes us out of threat mode and puts us back into our natural ‘rest and digest’ mode. Studies I have come across demonstrated regular compassionate acts or compassion-based meditation practices can reduce negative neuroendocrine interactions in our brains – the interactions between our nervous system and endocrine system.
When this switch happens, our heart rate variability increases, which causes a boost in our immune system. This immune system boost can then, of course, help us fight off infections or illnesses. So, this knowledge has driven me to become better at listening to my body. I do not feel guilty for resting when I need to, and I’ve learned to be kind to me first. I am still working through my treatment plan, but I still have a goal to become cancer-free.
I would love my experience to trigger small but meaningful changes for others. One of the biggest changes I’d like to see, and I’m using my social media channels as a force for positive change, is simply remembering to check your breasts regularly and listening to your body, because cancer affects 1 in 2 people these days. Catching it early saves lives.
My learning and teaching, I hope, will encourage others to avoid becoming ill in the first place by finding ways to step in your power, through first being kind and compassionate to yourself. There are many ways to do this, but I believe many of us are becoming ill because we don’t give our minds and bodies the chance to rest, recuperate and heal from every day stresses.
By doing this, I think it not only means we can be healthier, but that we can find our true purpose, the joy in every day and experience immense gratitude for being here to experience it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jenny of Southwater, Horsham, West Sussex, UK. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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