It was at my annual medical review that the doctors first saw something underneath my arm.
“Not sure about this,” they said. “We want you to go for a scan.”
Close to Christmas 2015, they called me in again. This time to give me the worst news they could possibly give me: “It’s cancer”. But not only was it cancer, it was triple negative breast cancer – one of the worst cancers you can get.
The trouble with triple negative breast cancer is that it’s very aggressive, and it’s very fast growing. Recurrence rates are higher than other cancers and it used to be known as a death sentence. However, because we got there early and my cancer was looking super-aggressive, my doctors gave me the strongest treatment plan possible, always aiming for a cure.
I’m an analytical, rational person, and so I did a lot of research on how we die – what happens to your body, who survives and who doesn’t survive. And I decided I wasn’t going to let cancer just ‘happen’ to me.
“The most devastating side effect is one they don’t often tell you about: my treatment brought on chemically-induced early menopause...”
From the beginning, I was clear I wanted to keep on working. I was running a team spread across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I found it very difficult to show any kind of weakness being a woman in an IT environment, which is very male-dominated, and I was scared of being perceived as inadequate, or even worse that my illness would jeopardise my job. However, I found that people were softer, kinder and more considerate than I expected. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or to make special arrangements for me. I just wanted to be me and be known for what I could do and the value I can add, not for what I now couldn’t do.
Fortunately, I responded well to chemotherapy. I know many other triple negative patients don’t respond to the chemotherapy and unfortunately the outcome can be very uncertain. When you’re being treated, it’s a very difficult thing to think about – that some people survive it, and some people don’t.
Physically, though, I struggled. My cancer treatment really knocked my confidence and stripped me of something I wasn’t expecting: my femininity.
As a woman, the way cancer treatment changed my body was devastating. Your skin noticeably goes thinner, making you age. Suddenly, you get a little bit more around your waist where’s you’ve never had it before (and you don’t understand why you can’t get rid of it so easily).
Strangely, I struggled to wear high-heeled shoes. It turns out chemotherapy damages the nerves in your body causing weakness in muscles and this interferes with your ability to function normally and comfortably so it hurts wear high shoes.
I lost my hair, which made me very insecure. My long dark hair was, and is, one of my features, and it was really, really scary to lose it. Firstly, because you really don’t realise how much your hair keeps you warm until you don’t have it anymore, but also because it makes you extremely vulnerable – people immediately know you are very ill. When you’re sick, you want to be able to control it, but when there’s an outer sign of it, it’s hard to control people’s perception of you. Plus, I couldn’t get on with wigs at all. And even once the hair started growing back in that pixie style, people would tell me “I love your hair” (to which I always thought, “seriously?”).
But the most devastating side effect is one they don’t often tell you about: my treatment brought on chemically-induced early menopause. I didn’t know it was going to happen, and then you really get slammed into it – for me around month two of chemotherapy.
They kind of say it could happen, but they don’t actually tell you what’s going to happen. You have hot flashes like never before. You must dress in layers because you’ve got to get cool as fast as you possibly can. You must have ice cold water with you all the time or else you seriously can’t function. You get crawly skin and you can’t sleep. Then there’s the shock that you just do not function as a woman anymore.
“Before my cancer, I never got sick. I never appreciated what it was like to lose your health.”
And you know what? Nobody really tells you how to manage any of the symptoms and whether it’s the chemotherapy or the menopause you’re now going through. You have to go and say, “Well, listen, now I’ve got this problem, what’s that?” Cancer suddenly turned me from a young, strong, healthy woman straight into a… not-so-young woman.
And so, to others going through cancer, there are two things I want to tell you.
First, listen to your body. It’s very stressful going through cancer treatment so it’s more important than ever to sleep well, eat well, walk, breathe deeply and things like that.
Second, be kind – both to yourself, and to those around you. Be present with your loved ones, your children, friends and colleagues. Before, when I was really busy with work, my little boy would come and chat to me, tell me stories, and the whole time I would be thinking about ten other things I had to do. I was with him, but I wasn’t present. Now, I put whatever I’m doing down and really listen to him. I am thankful for that as there is nothing better than the enthusiasm, positivity and sparkle of a child.
Before my cancer, I never got sick. I never appreciated what it was like to lose your health. And there are a lot of people that do lose their health but are getting on with life, trying to work hard and keep their families together. My experience has taught me it’s incumbent on all of us to be mindful of other people around us. I realised that I have a lot of facets to myself: I’m not just ‘Annette, vice president of insights & data’ but I’m Annette a mother, Annette a vulnerable woman, Annette a friend. It’s important to remember everyone else around us has those facets to their life too.
Since overcoming triple negative breast cancer I’m feeling stronger, both mentally and physically. The hot flashes are not as frequent, but I do have to listen to my body and take it a little bit easy sometimes when I don’t sleep or get super stressed. But I am happy.
I’m even back into my high heels.
Annette is supporting Cancer Research UK’s work to beat cancer right now. To find out more visit cruk.org
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on email@example.com