Being diagnosed with breast cancer was the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me. Seven years later, there was worse to come when I was diagnosed again with incurable, secondary cancer. It's fair to say that the big 'C' has literally turned mine and my family's lives upside down and inside out and I feel especially awful for having caused my loved ones so much worry and suffering.
I think back over the past nine years or so, since my first diagnosis and I remember the journey of highs and lows, the roller coaster ride of events and it hits me, the reality is surreal. Sometimes I can almost pretend none of this ever happened to me and then I catch my breath and I have no choice but to accept that it did. I'm a firm believer in making the best of every situation, and learning from it, so despite all of this, I think breast cancer has shaped me in ways that I could never have imagined. I often wonder how different my life would have been, had I not been diagnosed with cancer and it probably sounds crazy, but that thought is almost inconceivable.
There are no pros and cons to this situation, it's just shit. Period. People often say, "Well, you could walk out of your front door and get knocked down by a bus!" Guess what, being diagnosed with cancer makes you feel exactly like that!
Nevertheless, one can't help but become philosophical when faced with this kind of adversity. I've even gained the prestigious nickname 'the voice of reason', and as a result I've managed to find eight positive outcomes from having breast cancer. Unbelievable, I know, yet true.
1. It's a cliché, but you begin to live with purpose and a renewed perspective
I think it's fair to say that at one point or another, we've all thought about our own death. None of us will leave this world alive, nothing is more certain. A cancer diagnosis magnifies this fact immeasurably and it either consumes you or makes you more determined to live each day to the max. The latter is the preferred choice so you get busy with what matters and suddenly, there is a reason for your existence. You can even go on to achieve great things, sometimes, even knowing that your life will be cut short.
You don't sweat the small stuff anymore. You learn how to approach life with a different view point. You see the goodness in everyone and everything. You notice a beautiful scene, a sunset or delight in a sun filled day. The moon and the stars seem different, emphatic, and more joyous than ever before. You find inspiration in the littlest things. You appreciate the fragility of life but you relish it. You try to keep your world balanced and harmonious. You avoid stressful situations, evade arguments and confrontations. You actively seek peace and serenity.
I would be lying if I told you that I didn't have days when I feel panic stricken with the blackest cancer thoughts or breathless and paralysed in the middle of the night, the fear of dying coursing through my veins. Fortunately, I've learned to mentally slap myself and make a swift U-turn on my thoughts. I've learned to take deep breaths and calm my mind, to make positive affirmations or to place my hands on my chest and meditate myself back to sleep.
2. You Learn the art of gratitude
Why do we take so much for granted? We become so engrossed in our own selfish worlds that we often overlook the obvious aspects of our lives for which we should be truly grateful. These are usually our nearest and dearest and quite often, sometimes through no fault of our own, we distance ourselves from them.
When I was given the news of my diagnosis, my initial thoughts immediately turned to my children and family; I felt sick to the stomach contemplating the real possibility of leaving them and it took that gut wrenching moment to make me realise just how much they mean to me. It's very easy to say that you feel gratitude for what you have but to truly feel it is very different.
I feel blessed to be given the chance to wake and make the most of every day. I don't dispute the fact that there are plenty of people much worse off than me. I only have to think about the friends whom I've met and lost on this journey, some, so young that they were on the cusp of life. I think of those who don't have access to the toxic but lifesaving cancer drugs. I then think of others who suffer with all manner of illness or disability. There is pain and suffering all over the world. So, although I may be far from being healthy in the true sense of the word, my quality of life is good and that's a valid enough reason to give thanks.
3. Your life and career can take a turn for the better
When I was first diagnosed, I was a personal trainer and after finishing my treatments, I decided to add a Pilates qualification to my skill set. I was right to make that decision as Pilates has not only helped me enormously in my own recovery but it has enabled me to help dozens of other women in my situation; to regain their health, fitness, and confidence.
My misfortune has also given me the chance to work with breast cancer charities, to raise both funds and awareness. Two years ago, I was lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you see it!) enough to have been chosen to appear in a ground-breaking and powerful advert made by Breast Cancer Now called #TheLastOne and most recently the same charity asked me to speak at the Houses of Parliament as a patient representative.
I regularly deliver motivational talks, telling my story with the hope of inspiring others and to prove that you can still live life to the full and achieve your goals even when you suffer major setbacks.
4. Humility and Assertiveness
There has never been anything more humbling than my breast cancer experience. The diagnosis renders you completely at a loss. Numb and weightless. You're not sure which way to turn in this new and terrifying world of the unknown. I went from being in control of my life, thinking freely, busy doing, and just living to feeling like I was drowning in an ocean. I felt like I'd been stripped of my identity and that I was no longer me. At this point, I realised that my only possible chance would be to dig deep into my inner mind set and reboot my thought process.
Part of this process meant I had to assert myself and take back some control. As much as I didn't want to know what grade 3 breast cancer meant, I knew I had to educate myself. I needed to know, to ask questions, to be informed. Once I knew what I was dealing with and my treatment plan was made clear, I kept my eyes on the most positive outcome. There was no alternative. I had to live.
5. You make a shed load of new friends and acquaintances
As you embark on your cancer journey, you will come across others in your situation. You will meet them at hospital appointments, at face to face support groups, at charity events and even through other friends. Social media will also open a whole new world of communication and joining online forums and Facebook groups can lead you to an entire army of people ready to advise, encourage and support. Some of these could even become proper 'best' friends!
These special friends are probably on that exact same rollercoaster that you're on. They really 'get you' and become your allies by default. At last, you no longer feel isolated and although you wouldn't wish this awful disease upon anyone, it's comforting knowing them. There's an instant bond, a mutual look of understanding and a feeling of solidarity that you only sense in the presence of another like you.
6. You let go of friends
If you ask any cancer survivor about how their friends reacted to their diagnosis, you will find a common theme. Cancer has an uncanny way of sifting out those who, quite frankly, don't warrant being called friends. Honestly, you'd think that cancer is contagious the way some people act.
In times of need, you would expect your chums to rally round and provide encouragement and support, but unfortunately this isn't always the case. Quite often, it's those who you considered to be just acquaintances who turn out to be your rock, the shoulder to cry on and the one to offer round the clock help. The realisation that some friends are simply not what they seem can be upsetting. However, your 'new assertive, don't bullshit me' attitude means that you're happy to let those friendships dissolve.
7. You learn to love yourself just the way you are
Before my cancer diagnosis, I always wished for bigger boobs. I'd often tell myself that if there were something I could change, then it would be just that. Then, the breast cancer cruelly robbed me of my right breast. Then, suddenly, all I wanted was to have that small but beautiful breast back in my life. There wasn't much that I wouldn't have done to see myself as I once was because having two small boobs, as God intended, was so much better than having just the one.
The time soon came when I realised that being a one boobed wonder wasn't too bad after all and it certainly wasn't the end of the world. You learn so much about yourself and I've certainly learned to see beyond the scars. My appearance is now so very unimportant in the scheme of things. Of course, I'd be lying if I said that, even today, I don't sometimes get boob or cleavage envy, but those moments are rare and very fleeting. After all, I'm alive, that's what matters.
8. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger
I often get told how brave I am or how strong and positive I am. I get asked how I've managed to keep up the pace and achieve so much since my first diagnosis almost 10 years ago. I'm not entirely sure how I should react to these statements or answer those questions. Yep, I'm here to tell the tale but it's hardly been a walk in the park. It's been a long and arduous journey.
A positive outlook and a healthy mind, body, and soul, have all undoubtedly kept me in good stead. Whatever your views are regarding your wellbeing, there's no denying the proven benefits of exercise. Being a personal trainer means I'm slightly biased, I know, but despite that fact, to me it's logical.
I've always enjoyed most types of exercise, particularly cardio, weights and running but since being diagnosed, I've tried to integrate some holistic exercise into my slower, less high functioning anxious life. Pilates, yoga, mindfulness, and Reiki have all played a huge part in my mental and physical wellbeing. There's nothing more cleansing and nurturing than to quieten the mind and to still the body.
There's no doubt that my general attitude has a lot to do with the fact that I'm still here today, or at least that's what I'll keep telling myself, and others. My message is that you can still experience life and its many joys, despite major setbacks, if you put your mind to it.
You can accept the card you're dealt, embrace change and rise like a phoenix from the fire.
To read more of my blogs about breast cancer please visit my website: www.breakthroughfitness.co.uk
Breast cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK. This year alone, more than 50,000 women will be told they have the disease, and one in eight women will face it in their lifetime.
Breast Cancer Now is the UK's largest breast cancer charity, dedicated to funding research into this devastating disease. To find out more visit www.breastcancernow.org