My usual world, as I know it, has been put somewhat on hold of late. Three weeks ago I found a lump in my chest. Since then I have had waves of thinking the worst, through to times of thinking everything will be fine. It’s a cliché to say that we take our health for granted but in my case it really is true.
At times of thinking the worst I do wonder – what if it is breast cancer? Will my life become a series of trips to chemotherapy, surgical procedures and, ultimately, a shorter existence? One of my many thoughts was that I was lucky at least to have these options – I’m sure plenty of women in the world do not. I also realised I am fortunate to have had the education to know what a lump in your breast might mean, and the access to a free GP, a free hospital referral and a wealth of online information to look up my next steps. A lump is certainly a more fortunate lump in the economically developed world.
Statistically I can take comfort in the fact that this may not be cancer. Although as many as 1 in 8 women (or men) will unfortunately develop breast cancer in their lifetime, around 90% of breast lumps are non-cancerous. That’s not to say it isn’t a little scary when you find one.
I wondered, if it was, could I be as brave as Angelina Jolie, and countless other women out there, or would I crumble under the weight of self-pity and indecision? I even, narcissistically, worry about what I would look like if I had to have surgery – just where would I be without my boobs (except, perhaps, a few inches further forward)?
When you have a mini heath crisis it does tend to send you a little over the edge (or, it does me at least). I began to frantically Google life assurance terms and conditions, vaguely plan letters I might write to my nearest and dearest (in dramatic P.S I Love You style), and even which wig I would choose if I had to have chemotherapy (a long straight one, by the way – the hair I always wanted. There would have to be some sort of silver lining). After all this planning I realised something: my breasts define me no more than my unruly curly hair does (or my penchant for planning every eventuality). Sure, I was known at university for having a cup size that was almost the same diameter as my head (when running, shopping for swimwear or trying to look demure this is never a good thing) but this doesn’t define me. Perhaps all these things put together DO, but in the worst case scenario I can certainly afford to lose some of me and still be – well – me.
Two years ago I spent the day with one of the most inspiring ladies that I have ever met. She had had breast cancer, had chosen a double mastectomy and had been given the all-clear. Her husband and son were extremely proud of how she had dealt with the disease and how she had remained upbeat throughout her ordeal. As part of her recovery she had taken up ballet, her childhood hobby, and had managed to become quite an accomplished dancer. She was also modelling for the fantastic Breast Cancer Care annual Fashion Show in London, refusing to wear prosthetics under her glamorous designer gown as she wanted people to see the ‘real’ her. She even spoke of the positives of her diagnosis: that it made her realise how good her life was when she considered how much she had to lose. I learned a lot from this wonderfully brave woman.
Statistically, 3,174 women in the world will have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the three weeks since I found my lump. I am still awaiting my scan to determine the cause of mine but, whatever the result, this experience has certainly opened my eyes to a disease that transcends race, age and social class. The most important thing I have done this week was to support the life-changing charities below. Even if I am lucky enough never to fully empathise with what these women (and men) have gone through it is heartening to know that, when affected by such a cruel turn of fate, there is someone there to help. And perhaps, one day, a prevention (or even a cure) might be a very real possibility.
Against Breast Cancer (Seeking a vaccine against breast cancer)
Breast Cancer Africa (focuses on the advancement of breast cancer surveillance and improved survival rates targeted to the most neglected population in the low income communities of East Africa)
Breast Cancer Care (a wonderful charity supporting patients and their families affected by the disease)