A handful of times, since my cancer diagnosis, a friend has got in touch to say that someone they know has also been diagnosed with breast cancer. A sister’s friend or a cousin or a colleague or a friend’s neighbour. All these young women, touched by the same bad luck as me. Do I have any advice? My answer is always yes. Yes, I have loads of advice, put me in touch with her, or pass this on, if that’s more appropriate. And then I realised, that rather than sending all this advice out to these people individually, I could post it here, so that it can be shared more easily, as required.
So here it is. To the newly diagnosed. I am sorry. I know a lot of what you have coming, and very little of it is good. And I’m happy to answer questions about all of it, if it helps. About surgery, and recovery, and different reconstruction options. About chemo, and its symptoms, and hair loss, and port fitting, and cold capping. About genetic testing, and the results, and the preventative surgery options, and the recovery from those. About hormone treatment, and lingering side-effects, and the fear that never goes away. I didn’t have radiotherapy, so I can’t answer questions about that. But I know a lot of women who did, who can. Which brings me onto my first piece of proper advice.
If you are a woman and under forty-five, join Younger Breast Cancer Network (YBCN) on Facebook. Go to their page and ask to join the secret group. It’s like opening a hidden door into a world of the exact support you need. Two and a half thousand women who get it, and who are there, day and night, to answer your questions about pretty much anything. It’s the best thing I did, hands down.
If you can, attend one of Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together weekends. It’s an intense way to spend two days, but it’s so worth it. Afterwards, every time you’re sitting in the waiting room and you’re the youngest by several decades, you can bring the women you met at that course to mind, and imagine they are with you. Because they are, in a way.
YBCN and Younger Women Together are truly two of the highlights of having breast cancer. Most of the others are the offerings of these amazing charities:
Look Good Feel Better runs beauty workshops nationwide, and you get an amazing goody bag to take home.
Ellie’s Friends offers freebies and perks to cancer patients.
Something to Look Forward to offers gifts to cancer patients and their families.
The Osborne Trust provides support for children of cancer patients.
Mummy’s Star supports women who are diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy or in the first year of their child’s life.
What else? You’re going to learn so much about yourself, and it’s not all good, but a lot of it is. You’re likely going to learn that you’re stronger than you thought. That you can handle a lot. But only so much, and you should give yourself permission to cry and shout when you need to. You should give yourself permission to not get anything done some days; to wallow and wail.
Don’t bottle everything up. It has to come out, somehow. Chances are, you’ll be offered some kind of counselling. Grab it with both hands. And if it feels right, try your hand at creating some kind of art to reflect your experience. Visit the Breast Cancer Art Project, and see what other people have done. It’s run by one of the incredible women I’ve met along the way (more on this in a moment).
You’re also going to learn a lot about your people, learn which of your family and friends will keep standing by your side no matter what you say or do to them, like Weebles (you know, the ones that wobble but don’t fall down). When people ask you to let them know if there’s anything they can do, say thank you and then give them very specific things to do. Bring me a lasagne on Tuesday, please. You might be surprised by those who do and don’t stand up to the challenges, but try not to be too disappointed. The ones that fall away weren’t worth your time. Let them go. You need to make room, anyway, for the new ones. You’ll meet women on this path who you will come to love, despite never meeting some of them in person.
Laugh. You won’t always be able to, but when you can, laugh. Read this mountain lion thing, which is an accurate and hilarious description of what this whole thing is like. When your fifth chemo comes around and you’re (hopefully) nearly finished, sing ‘chemo number five’ to the tune of Mambo Number Five in the shower. Laugh with your chemo nurses, who (if they’re anything like mine) will be incredible people. Laugh with your friends, who (if they’re anything like mine) might send you gifts like trays of cakes with poo emojis on them.
Take care. I hope that your side effects are minimal and your recoveries are swift. I hope that your genetic test results (if you have them) are negative and your interactions with friends and family are positive. I hope the people around you are kind and thoughtful. I hope they surprise you, in the best ways. I hope you can look back in a year or so and feel that, despite all the bad stuff, you’re probably a better person than you were before.
All the love, Laura