“I never thought I’d be calling my husband on a Tuesday morning the week before my 28th birthday to inform him ‘it’s cancer.’ I sat on the phone, tears streaming down my face, in utter shock at the diagnosis I’d just been given. Stage two breast cancer. Although I knew there was something wrong after I noticed blood stains in my bra a few weeks prior, I had convinced myself it was only an infection. I was too young to get cancer. There was no way I could possibly have cancer. I was fit and healthy, currently in the best shape of my life training for a trip to Everest basecamp this November. A full-time mental health nurse who worked crazy hours for months to fund the trip.
When the consultant first mentioned the words cancer, I sat in utter disbelief as my best friend collapsed in floods of tears on top of me. Surprisingly my initial response was ‘that’s fine.’ It was only when the consultant said, ‘It’s very extensive in your breast, you will require a full mastectomy,’ that I burst into tears. I felt I would be ugly and deformed forever and my body that I had trained so hard in the gym for had totally let me down. When the nurse asked, ‘Do you have any questions?,’ surprisingly my only question was, ‘Can I still train?’
I left the hospital in silent tears feeling completely numb inside. I made the phone calls to family members and close friends, feeling completely exhausted every time I had to tell someone new. I went to bed holding my husband’s hand, sobbing uncontrollably until I fell asleep. At 3 a.m. I woke and immediately burst into tears. I just couldn’t accept that this was happening to me. I got up and sat on my sofa with my Labrador puppy bear cuddling him and cried until the sun came up. And this became the daily routine over the next few weeks. I would wake at 3 a.m. every morning, come downstairs and sit with my dog crying until daylight. I’d then go to the gym and train and then return home and cry some more. I’d meet friends for coffee, lunch, dinner and pretend I was ok, and then come home and cry some more – and so the days went on.
I was poked and prodded during extensive scans to see if the cancer had spread, all the time feeling like I wasn’t here. I felt like my body wasn’t my own. Almost like I was just floating along in someone else’s body. I went on a trip to France with my husband which had been previously booked for my birthday and allowed myself some time to reflect and relax. Every day I tried to appreciate the scenery around me, thinking all the while this may be the last time I ever see this place, the last time I sunbathe on a beach, the last time I enjoy the foreign sun on my skin, or swim in the sea. I bought an expensive plunge swimsuit and sat on the beach and cried knowing I would never be able to wear anything like this again once my breast was removed. I would never feel confident or sexy again. I would forever have to hide my body in shame. I constantly thought about death and couldn’t shake the feeling and absolute fear that I was going to die.
On the outside I appeared positive as I continued to carry on with my life. But on the inside I mourned for the girl I was. I grieved for her like she was already dead. I feared I would become a shadow of my former self and the cancer would completely consume me making me bitter and twisted. I hated the world and everything in it. My mood plummeted lower and lower and I was powerless to stop it. I tried to repeat the words and old colleague had said to me, ‘You have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have you.’ But cancer did have me!
Then came the first chemo. I had done my homework, read all the possible side effects; many of which I had never heard before such as the possibility I could lose all my finger and toenails and I may become incontinent of urine and faeces. I prepared myself for the hair loss. Had purchased my wigs, made a day of it with friends, tried them on like I was trying on wedding dresses. I had my eyebrows micro bladed the week before. Bought nail strengthening gel, eye lash strengthening gel, expensive moisturizer, etc. I prepared my chemo bag carrying sentimental items with me in the hope it would give me strength. Including the necklace my dad had around his neck when he passed away, and my Minnie mouse teddy that I’ve had from a child. I was ready for this.
But when I walked into the hospital and saw all the elderly ladies around me wearing head scarves, I instantly felt a fear I could not describe. I turned my face away so no one could see me and felt like an imposter that didn’t belong here. I hid in a corner seat with my husband beside me holding my hand and waited for 5 hours for my first chemo. The nerves building inside me like emotional vomit, to the point I thought I might just run out the door and refuse treatment altogether.
But nonetheless I forced myself to sit in the chemo chair, signed the consent form and allowed the nurse to flood poison into my veins. I posed for a photo afterwards like I’d been a big brave girl and left feeling relatively normal. I thought, ‘Well actually this isn’t so bad. I don’t feel much different.’ Three hours later, I was sitting on the bathroom floor with my head down the toilet projectile vomiting, cold sweat lashing off me in complete terror. I had never been so sick before. The sickness continued all through the night relentlessly. By 6 a.m. I finally gave in and called the hospital. I was admitted overnight, given fluids and anti-sickness injections and returned home for the weekend.
I attempted to do bits and pieces. I walked the dog, went for lunch, the whole time my legs felt like jelly, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking, my body felt weak and drained off all energy. I continued to feel nauseated, my head ached continuously for days, I struggled to eat or drink, the food tasted like cardboard in my mouth and was difficult to swallow. After a few days the side effects gradually wore off and I slowly was able to do more and started to feel back to my normal self. So I attempted the gym and was devastated by how little I could do, how sick I felt and just how weak my body had become. I sat on the gym floor crying as my PT and friend attempted to cheer me up and remain positive. I left the gym totally defeated. For the first time in years I wanted to quit the gym which I love and just quit my life altogether.
That day was the day everything changed. I had reached rock bottom. I was done with myself and I was done with cancer. I genuinely just wanted to die. After some strong and powerful words from my friend Gillian, who came and literally lifted me off the bathroom floor in a crumpled mess, I knew something needed to change or I would let cancer beat me. But I didn’t know what. That night my Personal Trainer messaged to check in with me and said, ‘Think of a year from now and what you want to be doing, then work towards it, do that every day until you see it. Your goal for tomorrow is to wake up and be brave. It’s easy to be down, so take the hard road. That’s where you will grow as a person.’
I considered his words over and over in my mind and went to bed that night lost in thought. I woke at my usual 3 a.m., but this time I did not sit and cry. I sat and wrote. I wrote my ideas of where I wanted to be in a years’ time and what I wanted to achieve. I then wrote a social media post to share my story with the world in an attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer in young women. I wrote ideas of how I want to change how breast cancer is dealt with for younger women so they don’t feel alone like I did. The social media response was phenomenal, each and every comment lifted me from that dark place and empowered me to fight this. I wrote a chemo bucket list of all the nice things I wanted to do with my friends and family while I undergo chemo and have been ticking them off weekly, enjoying each experience and appreciating the beauty around me and the amazing company I keep. I started making plans for how I was going to fight cancer and have been working on them daily ever since.
I started to feel like me again, but a stronger, wiser and better version of me. By sharing this story I wanted to highlight that cancer doesn’t just affect the body, but it eats away at the mind if you let it. As a mental health nurse, I feel this really needs to be looked at and big changes need to be made. It’s been 8 weeks since my diagnosis and I still am waiting to see a counsellor and receive specialist help. If it wasn’t for the amazing support I have from my incredible family and friends, I may not be here today. Over the last few weeks I have learned to love myself again, with or without hair, and develop a new thirst for life I didn’t think was possible – believing that opportunities can often come disguised as misfortune, and this is MY opportunity.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alex Quinn of Northern Ireland. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more empowering stories from people diagnosed with cancer:
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‘In the shower, he felt a dime-sized lump behind his nipple. Examination signs boldly exclaimed ‘WOMEN ONLY’. The c-word never crossed our minds. We didn’t even know it was a thing.’
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