This weekend, I’ve just spent a really helpful, encouraging and uplifting weekend with 43 other women, all under 45, all undergoing treatment (or maximum 3 years on from treatment) for breast cancer. The weekend was provided by Breast Cancer Care “the only UK wide charity providing care, information and support to people affected by breast cancer”. When first diagnosed, the resource pack provided by the charity was really helpful in helping me (kind of) get my head around what was going on – and they deal only with evidence-based research.

They deal with all age groups, but know that for younger women, you’re often 20 years younger than anyone else in your treatment centre, and have very different issues such as work, fertility, etc. to deal with – so they bring ‘Younger Women Together‘ – and seeing others who have been through, are going through, or are about to go through the same as you really helps … so many tips on how to deal with e.g. my upcoming chemo. If you’re under 45, undergoing treatment, I highly recommend it! 

Friday, 24th November

We arrived at Holiday Inn, Manchester on a chilly morning. After registration, welcome, ice-breakers and an early coffee-break it was the time of the first of three sessions (I really liked the fact that there was lots of space for socialising – or a rest if you need it – fatigue being a known side-effect of cancer treatment!).

One of the other guests had a wig (and scarves) to pass on, see that to the right … actually looks quite like my hair beforehand! To give a sense of the content, I’m sharing some of my notes…

Medical Update – Management of Breast Cancer in Younger Women

Break Out Groups: Menopausal Symptoms (rather than breast surgery/reconstruction, or relationships and communication)

Wellbeing Session: Mindfulness (rather than laughter therapy)

Lovely meals were provided throughout, and we met in the bar before the evening meal in time to take advantage of 2-for-1 cocktails if we wanted to. Lots of conversation, some of it about cancer, treatment options, life decisions since, some of it more general random conversations that you’d expect!

Saturday, 25th November

It felt like an early start for 9am, despite going to bed pretty early the evening before, but more useful information

Services from Breast Cancer Care

Break Out Groups: Lymphoedema (rather than intimacy or fertility)

“Lymphoedema is a long-term (chronic) condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissues. It can affect any part of the body, but usually develops in the arms or legs.” NHS. The intention is to try and prevent lymphedema in the first place, but it can be managed if it happens.

Healthy Eating and Diet Myths

Exercise with Leanne Livsey

Breast Cancer as a younger woman – a personal perspective

This was a really powerful session with Kelly Short (You can watch Kelly’s story on How to Look Good Naked), demonstrating that there is life after cancer (including a recurrence). Life doesn’t just go back to normal post-treatment – there are physical and emotional scars (and the emotional take longer to heal)… the regular treatments stop, the cards stop coming, friends & family sigh with relief that it’s all over, people try and rub your head as the hair comes back, and people ask when you’re going back to work ‘as normal’. This is when the reality often hits…

Kelly talked about being given the ‘gift of time’ throughout treatment, and every time she felt well enough, was determined to do something nice, although she felt her ‘chains to the hospital’. She wasn’t sure how to move forward, but can’t go back… felt body was mutilated, found journal writing cathartic, and taking part in the show with Gok Wan (with support from Breast Cancer Care) showed her that no-one else can magically improve things – have to ‘pedal yourself’ – and the programme really challenged how she thought about herself, not believing compliments (people tend not to say anything if they don’t like it).

Kelly has found a joy in swimming, tends to buy normal (but high end) swimwear, and add prosthesis pocket. Was a regular traveller, and someone who thought it was frivolous to own e.g. a random pair of shoes, but learnt that actually these things have a benefit in how you feel. She got out of bed every day throughout treatment, even if just to change pyjamas. Encourages people to try any/all kinds of post-surgery bras, and even some normal bras can be worn by going up a cup-size.

Doctor told her that most things heal themselves within 10 days, so helped with the feeling of ‘my back hurts, it must be cancer’, etc. If worried, go and see GP. When the recurrence came, assumed it meant a death sentence, but found that she had the emotional tools from last time, and that the physical experience this time was very different (so an appreciation that cancer is very different for everyone), made the most of it, and travelled still (used InsureWith, as instead of £1500 for week’s cover, was £75, and still uses as the staff understand rather than blame everything on cancer, etc.).

Gok told her that one day she’d be grateful for the scar – and finally yes – because it means she’s still alive. Chooses to focus on what cancer gave her (took things away, but about your focus). See this BCC campaign. Write letter to body, expressing any feelings that it’s let you down. Less planning, more living in the now. Cancer not a definition, but a part of life – we’re who we become because of our life experiences (see Lisa Cherry – Soul Journey).

Gratitude: Express it
Guilt: Let go of it (for other’s affected by own cancer)

As a final note, I had excellent conversations with many people, there were tears, laughter, experience-sharing, including the notion that there’s not necessarily an ‘epiphany’ from cancer – but it does tend to make things that were already ‘wrong’ no longer seem a good fit, and more appreciation for the good (including jobs).

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