Alex’s fridge is emblazoned with the words “f*ck you cancer”. The sign is a daily reminder of how far she and her friend Jo have come in the past two years.
Surprisingly though, their story is not one of tragedy, but one of hope.
Alex and Jo supported each other through the highs and lows of diagnosis and treatment, and now, they want to show other women there’s life after cancer.
London-based Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2015 at 37 years old, after feeling pain in her breast that she initially dismissed as a symptom of PMT.
Shortly after her diagnosis she met Alex, an American also based in the capital. They were introduced at a tennis club and immediately hit it off, with a shared love of hitting the dance floor after practice.
Jo joked that nights out with Alex, getting “utterly drunk” with their tennis team, helped her to maintain a sense of normality throughout treatment.
But just over a year later, their blossoming friendship was dealt another blow when Alex felt a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31. Jo was one of the first people she told.
“I knew if anyone was going to understand what I felt like, it would be Jo,” she told HuffPost UK.
Having only recently ended treatment herself, hearing about Alex’s diagnosis was difficult for Jo.
“It’s actually quite awful to hear that someone else has got it,” she said.
“When you’ve got it yourself, you’re constantly fighting, you’re having the appointments, the meetings with doctors, and you don’t really have time to step back and think about the emotional side of things.
“But when it’s someone close to you, you actually then realise how absolutely terrifying it is. I was devastated. I think it’s worse to look at someone going through it.”
With Alex’s family spread across America, Jo became an invaluable lifeline for her. She became the person Alex went to for fun and distraction, but also the person she lent on during her darkest moments.
“It was so helpful to have somebody who knew what to go through and how it would feel, and to know that no matter how bad my day was, I could always call,” Alex said.
Despite the parallels in their diagnosis, the treatment the two friends received was quite different.
Jo had a mastectomy and implant reconstruction, without chemotherapy, and is currently taking daily tamoxifen tablets and receiving a monthly zoladex implant injection.
Meanwhile Alex had a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which she finished in May of this year. Like Jo, she is also still taking daily tamoxifen tablets and receiving a monthly injection.
Because of the different nature of their treatments, Alex and Jo experienced different side effects, with Alex losing her hair.
“Hair is so easily your identity as a woman,” Alex said.
“I loved my hair. It was very long and hair makes you feel sexy. As soon as you lose it you have a really hard time... I still don’t feel like I look sexy. But you do get used to it.”
Jo added that not losing her hair has also caused problems, as cancer treatment is so often associated with hair loss.
“Weirdly enough, people seem to think I’m either lying about my cancer because I’ve still got my hair, or people ask me why I’ve still got hair if I’ve had cancer - which is a really weird thing to ask somebody,” she said.
Both Alex and Jo were keen to share their stories to prove breast cancer isn’t just an “old lady disease”.
Almost half (48%) of breast cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in people over the age of 65, and as women in their thirties, Alex and Jo struggled to find support they could relate to.
“When you go online and look for help, all the pamphlets that you find have got old ladies on them, it makes you feel like you’ve got an old lady disease,” Jo explained.
“I had a mastectomy with an implant reconstruction, which is something that a lot of young women struggle with because most of the information covering mastectomies uses older women’s experiences.
“I want to show other young people that you can still look normal after a mastectomy - I’m quite proud of my Barbie boob!”
Thankfully, the pair were able to access the information and support they needed thanks to Breast Cancer Haven, a charity that supports women through cancer treatment.
Staff at the Haven offer practical advice on things like managing money and employment, healthy eating and combating stress through treatment.
Women can also join exercise classes or therapy groups specifically tailored to breast cancer patients.
But ultimately, it’s their strong friendship that has helped Alex and Jo navigate diagnosis, treatment and aftercare, together.
“It’s been amazing,” Alex told Jo. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
For more information about Breast Cancer Haven, visit the website here.