And the rain fell hard. Like the tears that washed my face while we were driving, the day after New Year’s Day of 2013, to the John Radcliffe Hospital where I was due to check my lump. Arguments had decided that my partner and I were taking a break, yet the caring and loving person that he is to this day, he came to the appointment.
Numerous tests, and yes, suddenly I had no tears to protect me from the cancerous news. Three grade 2 invasive tumours, not one, and 9cm of invasive grade 3 DCIS. My daughter, just under three, was all I could envisage. My partner shocked at the news, speechless. The numbness, and the uncertain road ahead, giving me hope that whatever I throw at my breast cancer, can spark a light in this dark entity.
I started to look for explanations. Why me? What did I do wrong? Running? Spinning? Healthy food with my greens stacked in? No family history? Just been promoted to Full Professorship at one of the most prestigious, top 5, departments in the UK in my 30s? Oh yes, I was thriving. The love of my students behind me, praising me? My daughter, the love of my life, blossoming? My academic success preceded me. And now a Research Associate at St John’s College in Oxford, with high hopes to do amazing work? Time was running out, the past not so vivid anymore, but an ambiguous ocean ahead. Uncertainty plagued my vision. I had two choices: to keep running in the dark or to stop. I chose running – but I could not see. Whatever came my way, I would tackle. I felt optimistic, perhaps blindly so. I was a warrior now, pinning cancer down, onto the ground, or so I thought.
And so my new life began. Multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and Tamoxifen. And then it stopped, once active treatment was over. I was in the uncertain ocean again, this time sinking deep, alone, scared. Who was I? This ‘new’ me. Expectations ran high with offerings of the gratitude cloak. Gratefulness, be happy you are alive, you were given a second chance, embrace it, run high with it. Where was my confidence and self-esteem? Return to work: forgetfulness and fatigue dominating. My sexuality. Where was it? My womanhood: non-existent. I wanted to cry, to scream, to embrace the pain, but I couldn’t. No tears. Keep fighting. No time to cry. It’s running out. Give it your all. Keep going. Your daughter is your strength, she needs you, no time to cry. Emptiness within. Perplexed and confused still searching for explanations. Walk this fine line. Walk.
Today, marks five years since my diagnosis. I am proud to say that the highlight has been the women I’ve friended and known, many who’d been given a timeline to live yet their spirits were timeless. Traumatised women who thrive towards resilience. Post traumatic stress symptoms, clinical rates of anxiety and depression affect a significant proportion of women for many years post diagnosis, and I wanted to tackle this. As an academic specialising in anxiety and depression for many years, I had one mission in mind: to promote and translate my research to boost resilience and reduce emotional vulnerability in women with breast cancer. And so my journey began. A journey with impact and hope, this time not in the dark.
While breast cancer has left me haunted, with fear of recurrence looming high, anxious and depressive episodes lingering, it has taught me one thing, or perhaps more: that in traumatic and highly uncontrollable situations, embracing your fear with self-compassion is the key ingredient towards resilience. It is OK to melt and reshape because being adaptive can make you flexible. Those who bend, seldom (or never) break: a new definition for toughness. They adjust, and yes it is pretty hard and unfair to adjust to a life with the beast looming in the shadows, but it’s the only option. So, I am going to take it. I am turning it into an opportunity to thrive with it.
To all the women out there with breast cancer: we cannot afford to break, we cannot afford to give in; because we are women who have a lot of earth shattering work left to do. And we can, in whatever shape or form.
So, where do I start? My first step is to be able to cry again. And then, I will fire.
Nazanin Derakhshan is the Founder and Director of the BRiC Centre (Building Resilience in Breast Cancer). You can find more about the BRiC Centre here. If you are a woman with a breast cancer diagnosis and would like to join the Centre’s private group, go to the group website here, click on join and we will get back to you.