In May I had a breast cancer scare.
I knew that I wanted to write about this experience but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about exactly. It’s all still pretty raw for me emotionally and I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of what happened. I’m sure you can all imagine what it entailed: a lot of doctors and hospital appointments, a lot of tests, a lot of waiting for results and a lot of anxiety.
Thankfully a story about being diagnosed with breast cancer is not a story that I have to share with you today and I have now been given the all clear with no further tests required. So I suppose that what I want to talk about is how this experience has changed me and what it has taught me because it has changed me, significantly.
For the past year I’ve been working on battling my anxiety and fears with my therapist, this usually involves taking small but steady steps one after the other over a period of time. When I found an unusual change in my right breast it forced me to abandon the baby steps that I’d been working on and run up onto a whole other staircase right at the very top of the anxiety building. Me, the girl who struggles to leave the house alone, suddenly had to go through a very real and terrifying situation that most people would find hard to deal with never mind someone with severe anxiety. I definitely felt like I’d been chucked in at the deep end and I was petrified. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t function. I spent most of May watching mind numbing daytime TV, seeing my counsellor and just trying to get from one doctors appointment to the next without breaking down, everything else went out of the window.
When I was given the final all clear, no further tests required, I was ecstatic. I’ve never experienced such pure relief and joy. Over the past month it felt like weight after weight was being piled on top of me and I was shaking and struggling to hold that weight, certain that the next weight added would be what made me crumble. Now I could finally put those weights down and it left me feeling strong. During this time I really got to know my own strength and just how much I can cope with so it suddenly became easier for me to pick up similar fears that carried the same weight and deal with them. I’ve since started to conquer some of my biggest fears like they’re a piece of cake.
When I was entertaining the very real possibility that I might have cancer the thought that kept running circles in my head over and over was but I haven’t even really started to live yet. I’ve spent so many years trying to protect myself from any harm coming my way by not leaving the house, carrying out OCD rituals and avoiding what my brain deems to be scary and unsafe places but in building a protective bubble around myself it didn’t keep something bad from reaching me but it did keep a whole lot of good things from touching my life.
Having this scare made me realise that the bubble I built around myself for protection hadn’t worked. I wasn’t immortal, I wasn’t immune from illness, and the safety precautions I have painstakingly taken for years hadn’t worked in keeping me safe. Danger had still found me, it had still worked its way into the bubble and in that moment the bubble popped. It was like being told that this miracle safety drug that I’d been taking was actually a placebo and with that knowledge the anxiety and depression came rushing back in waves.
After speaking to my counsellor I realise that at that moment when the bubble popped I had what they like to call “the breakthrough.” The reason why I was suddenly feeling my anxiety and depression so strongly again was because the usual unhealthy way I used to cope with it before like avoiding leaving the house and checking a switch was off a certain number of times wasn’t working anymore and so suddenly the anxiety and depression that I could usually contain and control this way was now flying around all over the place creating havoc in my brain.
My counsellor told me in our last session that now comes the hard part, now I have to learn to manage my mental illnesses in a healthy way and find new ways to cope now that the illusion that the bubble brought me has been broken, which is scary but also exciting. I had the realisation that I couldn’t protect myself from danger, that it’s actually out of my hands, that it doesn’t matter what I do to feel safe it actually doesn’t keep me safe and in knowing that there is fear but also a greater sense of freedom. Because if something as scary as cancer can find me in my own bubble then heck why not do what I want to do if I’m going to be in danger anyway? Why not go for a walk in the park? Or go shopping? Or try something new? If keeping myself safe is an impossibility then why not make my new priority doing what I want to do with my life so that next time I’m faced with my own mortality the first and overwhelming thought in my mind isn’t but I haven’t even really started to live yet because if this experience has taught me anything it’s that life is too damn short and I’ve already wasted so much time on what ifs? I’m one of the lucky ones and it is my duty to myself to make the most of the time that I have on this earth. To love deeply, to talk loudly, to live fully and to never let fear of the unknown hold me back again.
I wanted to end this post by highlighting a brilliant campaign called #FeelitontheFirst started by young breast cancer survivor Nalie Agustin that encourages people to check their breasts for any changes on the first day of every month. This allows you to become really familiar with what your breasts look and feel like so that you will notice any unusual changes if they should occur. Breast cancer can happen to anyone of any age, any gender and any lifestyle and is highly treatable if caught early. There is a lot of false information about breast cancer on the internet so if you find a change stay off Google and talk to your GP, you will never be wasting anyone’s time.
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