What happened when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 26.
1. You become very casual about getting your boobs out.
The first time I went to see a doctor about the lump that had appeared in my right breast, I felt uncomfortable about the fact I was exposing myself to a stranger. I had all the body hangups of the average 26-year-old woman. I felt exposed. My bare chest and squidgy stomach were on display in front of a complete stranger. I laughed off the awkwardness of the situation, otherwise feeling incredibly relaxed about the mysterious mass my hand had brushed in the shower a few days earlier.
The second time I got my boobs out in front of a stranger, a surgeon at the hospital’s breast unit, I still felt more anxious about being laid bare in such a way than about what the lump could be. Until all this kicked off, I could have counted the people who had seen my chest in all its naked glory on one hand.
I knew I had cancer the fourth time I got my boobs out in front of a stranger. I’d been told just a few days earlier and this time, I found myself in front of a mammography machine. This time I cared significantly less about people seeing my boobs. This was no longer exploratory. This was real. This had just got serious.
These days, I’m so used to being prodded and poked that sometimes I get the Artist Formerly Known as Boob out before I’m even asked to. No, Alice. The nurse giving you your travel jabs does NOT need to examine your breasts. Keep your top on.
2. You stop sweating the small stuff (most of the time).
I know how clichéd it sounds, but when you’re diagnosed with cancer, you start to look at the world differently. From the moment they told me there were mutated, cancerous cells making a home in my boob and trying to kill me, my perspective shifted. I was no longer stressed out by work or trying hard to be the person I, or society, thought I should be. I stopped caring about what I looked like. My weight. The length of my legs. I couldn’t concentrate on being a good friend, daughter, girlfriend, employee, citizen. I had to concentrate on surviving.
When faced with my mortality, the worries I could do nothing about slipped away and were replaced with new concerns. Concerns about surgical risks. Worries about hygiene during chemo. Decisions had to be made about my treatment plan. Did I want chemotherapy first, or surgery first? Did I want to have fertility treatment? (Answer: No I bloody DID NOT want to have fertility treatment, but I did it for Future Alice, even though I don’t think she will want kids). Did I want to have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy? Did I want to have radiotherapy for the best possible reduction in recurrence rates? Would the treatment work? Would the cancer come back?
For the first time in my life, I had to make myself my priority. I didn’t have the time, energy, or space to worry about what my hair was doing. It would soon fall out anyway.
3. You will be stronger than you ever could have imagined.
I live with depression. Have done for years. I take tablets to deal with the shadows. Sometimes, I go to really dark places in my mind. They’re the sort of places I don’t want to go, and sometimes they’re the sort of places I’m not sure I’ll ever make it back from.
So when they said the words “breast cancer” I was not confident that I had the mental strength to make it through what lay ahead of me. There were times when I didn’t have the energy to be anything other than a weak, snotty, tearful mess, but overall I surprised myself.
Some people called it bravery. Some people said it was inspirational. I know it was just a stubborn streak and belligerence. I was not going to let my breast kill me, nor was I going to let it stop me from living while I was going through the hell of treatment.
The time following my diagnosis has been the hardest thing I have ever done. But I was consistently surprised by the wealth of strength I found in myself. Even when I hit rock bottom – and believe me, there were times when I thought about giving up – somehow, I managed to pull myself out of bed, even if I only made it to the living room.
But I’m not altogether sure I can take the credit for this…
4. Your people will be your salvation.
I quickly learned that some people were going to let me down. There were people who weren’t there as much as I would have hoped. There were people who retreated for their own protection. I get it. I totally get it.
But then there were the people who became my heroes. The ones who took me to hospital appointments when I couldn’t make it on my own. The ones who called me pretty much every day to check in. The ones who treated me like myself. The ones who didn’t give me the “cancer look” (grim expression, watery eyes, head tilted slightly to the left). The ones who realise that even though my treatment is done, cancer is never really, truly over. The ones who brought me Nando’s after five days in hospital. The ones who aren’t scared when I tell them I feel emotionally, physically, and mentally battered after treatment. The ones who realise I’m just coming out of a war zone.
My people were my salvation. Are my salvation. My husband, my parents, my family, my friends – they all pulled together in ways I never could have imagined. My gratitude for that is endless. It’s another cliché but it really is true that you learn who is important in times of crisis.
5. Anyone who’s had any kind of cancer becomes part of your tribe.
Cancer is a cruel and indiscriminate disease that worms its way into the lives of so many people across the UK and the world every single day. I’d been so lucky before I got sick. My family were largely well and healthy. We had never been touched by cancer, so I didn’t really know much about it.
People who’ve lived through cancer form a bit of a tribe. There’s an understanding that’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t been through treatment. There’s a camaraderie, a knowledge, and an empathy that’s impossible to recreate and one you hope your loved ones will never have to experience.
I’m so lucky to have discovered some incredible people on my cancer travels. From the Boob Gang girls I went through treatment with, to the CoppaFeel! Boobettes who make it their mission to spread boob love across the country, the brilliantly brave and wonderful models I walked with in the Breast Cancer Care Fashion Show, and the newly diagnosed women who stumble across my blog and get in touch every week.
But this tribe isn’t just limited to the type of cancer you have. I know people who have had lymphoma or ovarian cancer and even though their experience is different, I “get” it. And I know that they “get” breast cancer in the same way.
We’re all united by one of the very worst human experiences. It’s a horrible thing that unites us. But it’s an incredibly special bond.
6. Breast cancer is not just an old person’s disease.
I was so naive when I found the lump.
I had a vague sense that young women could get breast cancer, but I never really anticipated that it would happen to me. Even when I found the lump, even when my lymph nodes were swollen, even when the radiographer’s face changed, ever so slightly, as she examined the mass on her screen, even when they stuck a biopsy needle into my boob, I never really thought that it could happen to me.
According to Breast Cancer Care around 5,000 women under 45 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. The number of those women under 30 is minuscule. Luckily, I was in the habit of checking myself, so I found the lump early. But despite it being only small when it was removed, the cancer was aggressive and growing quickly. I was also exceptionally lucky because the NHS system worked like a well oiled machine and I got referred for all the relevant tests, despite my age making it incredibly unlikely it was cancer. Had my cancer not been picked up early, I could be facing a very different narrative to the one I live with now – that my cancer was curable – and has gone, for the time being at least.
That’s why I bang on about bangers all the time, encouraging everyone to check their boobs and bits and pieces. Knowing your body could save your life. Knowing my body probably saved mine.
7. You will find humour in the very darkest of times.
It’s hard to understand until you’re living in the midst of it, but really, really funny things happen when you’re getting treated for breast cancer at 26 years old. I mean, that’s not to say it was a laugh a minute every day for the nine months I was in treatment. Obviously. But there were times I laughed harder than I ever had before.
I was forced to cut onions with sunglasses on when my eyelashes disappeared. One day I glanced at the telly and realised I was the spitting image of Gregg Wallace. I threw up in a recycling bin and worried that the hospital would get fined. Still to this day we joke about what sandwich my surgeon ate before he took off my boob. When my husband put my wig on. Maybe you had to be there. But for all the times I cried and raged, I laughed and laughed and laughed too.
Alistair Barrie, who wrote the stand-up show No More Stage 3 about his wife’s run in with breast cancer, nailed it for me when he said, “If you stop laughing, you’re not living. If you’re not living, the cancer has won.”