What’s it like to turn 30? For me, it was about trying to put my primary breast cancer diagnosis behind me and live the life that was on pause during my treatment. Travel, work, marriage and kids; all wrapped up in a big bow of hope. A happy ever after.
Ten years on, I’m about to turn 40. Along with many other nearly-thirty year olds, I did go on to marry the love of my life, but some things on my list didn’t go as planned. My breast cancer metastasised to my liver and bones, which meant more chemotherapy, more tablets, and less control.
I lost my hair, put on weight and spent months feeling constantly nauseous. I was so weak that some days I couldn’t leave my flat. But I was lucky, as the six gruelling cycles of chemo made my cancer stable and I was eventually prescribed a clever and equally effective little pill called Anastrazole. I also was lucky to qualify for a targeted treatment called radio frequency ablation which meant my liver mets could be burned away. As time went on, the fog of those early treatment days did clear and life became a little easier, tip-toeing onto a path that those of us in cancer-land describe as our new normal.
I’m incredibly lucky that my metastases were found when they were small, and that the chemotherapy, hormone therapy and surgery I was offered by the NHS were effective. Although I don’t know how long my remission will continue to last, it’s fair to say I got my life back.
But ten years on I know that I’m an outlier and there’s lots of work left to be done. A woman facing the prospect of her independence gradually being diminished, her voice quietened, and her life ebbing away as a result of this disease is a more common reality than the happy pink imagery that dominates Breast Cancer Awareness Month each year might suggest.
Since my diagnosis, it’s been humbling to meet other women with secondary breast cancer who are not afraid to ask for a better future knowing that it’s one they themselves may never see. Campaigning for better access to drugs, and better recognition of secondary breast cancer patients’ needs. Through them, I’ve seen that it’s possible to be full of vitality and yet also be really very ill indeed. But as the years have gone by and I’ve stayed in remission, I’ve been able to push my cancer to the back of my mind and not engage. If we’re going to make progress, engagement is a must.
So in my own way, I guess I’ve used turning 40 as a moment to highlight that secondary breast cancer shouldn’t be taking lives. Nearly ten years on I’ve reflected on my own experience by organising what I affectionately called my FU Cancer Santa Run. Twelve of us donned Santa suits – beards included - and ran 5k on a very cold Saturday morning in Battersea Park. If you ever need a reminder to live in the now, the site of a few hundred Santas (with Christmas pudding and reindeer costumes thrown in) is a pretty good moment from which to make that happen. To Mark, Alex, Mark, David, Charly, Mike, Adam, Donna, Tim, Danny and Hannah who did the run with me, you guys are gems.
To everyone who donated money towards the nearly £1k we’ve raised for Breast Cancer Now so far, I’d like to offer my heartfelt thanks. There is a better future out there where like me, more women with secondary breast cancer are able to get their lives back.
Heather Lawrence ran the Battersea Park 5k Santa Run on 9th December. Her sponsorship page is here: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=HeatherLawrence&pageUrl=7
Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s largest breast cancer charity. To help support their world-class research targeting incurable secondary breast cancer, visit breastcancernow.org/get-involved