Ten things I wish I knew before being diagnosed with breast cancer

Jenni Eyles from Styling Curvy shares ten things she wishes she knew before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is something that most of us are never prepared for. Sitting across from your doctor and hearing phrases like 'invasive cancer', 'malignancy' and 'you have cancer' is quite a bit different to your usual run of the mill doctor’s visit.

When I first heard those words, my mind immediately started to fill with thoughts of my own mortality, but surprisingly I didn't cry. In fact I was quite calm. 

Once you have a cancer diagnosis you have it, there's no giving it back and no taking time out. 

Immediately I was thrown into the whirlwind vortex of tests and treatment and I felt there was no time for my mind to catch up with all that was happening to me.

I'm fortunate to have come 'out the other side' of cancer, alive but not unscathed, and there are a few things I wish I had known 'before' I was diagnosed with cancer. Here are ten of them: 

1. I wasn't necessarily dying

Instead I was fighting to 'save' my life. It wasn't until I was a few months into my treatment with three surgeries under my belt that I had time to collect my thoughts and really focus on where I was headed.

Up until that point I thought I was dying. Every single day I thought about death, funerals and living the last of the 'lasts'. With each family birthday or celebration I truly thought it might be my last and living like this made every fibre of my being profoundly sad.

One day I had the realisation that I was actually living, and all the treatments I was receiving might help me get more time. 

Changing my thoughts really helped change how I live life. 

2. Losing my hair had an upside

When undergoing some treatments for cancer you can end up losing your hair, including your brows and lashes, so rather than feel sad about it, I chose to find the ‘silver lining’.

Losing my hair meant saving big dollars on waxing and hair salon visits. It also meant having an excuse to book appointments with makeup professionals and learn loads of tips about how to apply makeup. 
 
Oh, and when hair grows back (and it does) you can have a whole lot of fun experimenting with colour and styles. I liked my short hair so much that I kept it.
 
There are many more positive things I learnt about cancer, you can check them out in this article: 11 positive things cancer gave me.

3. Some people will be absent

This was a tough one for me and something that twisted my heart into knots for a while. 

The truth is some people just can't cope with illness, they don’t feel comfortable, it brings back painful memories for them and some people just don’t know what to say or how to help. 

You can let their absence enrage you and leave you bitter, or you can focus on your friends and family who are there by your side. 

4. Say 'yes' to help

Accepting help can be difficult. Pride can get in the way and so can not wanting to 'give in' to treatment. I didn't book a house cleaner for seven months after starting treatment and I regret that. Having a cleaner early on would have saved lots of unnecessary nagging and arguments with my teens. Of course, not everyone's budget stretches to a cleaner, so if friends offer, say 'yes please'.

5. Time is what matters most

All the days that I spent worrying about dying I wasn't concerned about my fancy dinner set or what size television sat in our lounge room. I didn't care about my cellulite or ever increasing waistline. What I came back to every single day was wanting more time. These days I make every day count. 
Family dinner time

6. Kids are resilient

My children saw more than they should have, or at least more than my mother-guilt wanted them to see. 
 
For the longest time, I carried guilt that 'my' cancer would change them. Well, it did. For a while they struggled, but then they came through it, and these days they are better equipped to handle more of what life throws at them. Their hearts have been hurt but they are kinder and more empathetic, and they realise that life is short so they need to follow their dreams sooner rather than later. Now that makes me happy! 

For more on how breast cancer can impact the family, read this article.

7. Your cancer is not yours

Sounds crazy but while my cancer was 'in' me it was also happening to my whole family, it wasn’t just ‘mine’. The consequences of every treatment and surgery (and beyond) affected my whole family and also my friends. It took me a while to get over myself and realise the effect it was having on those I loved most. 

8. You don't always throw up with chemo

When I found out I was having chemo my mind went straight to the scenes in movies of sunken faced actors throwing up and pulling out clumps of hair. Look, it can be shades of this, but the medications available these days to help with side effects are pretty darn good. While the list of possible side effects can be long, you won’t necessarily have them all. Life isn't always like the movies. 

9. You can laugh at cancer

It took exactly two weeks for my family and I to be able to laugh about cancer, but when we cracked that first joke it lightened the mood and the load. Cancer felt less heavy, and having a laugh felt good. Cancer and cancer treatment can be pretty horrid but not every minute of every day is horrid and it's OK to laugh. Give yourself permission to smile.

10. Your life will never be the same

People ask me if I miss my old life, and personally I don’t see the point in wasting good energy on wanting something I can never have. Cancer will change you physically and emotionally, and for a while you might not be in a good head-space. You may also look quite different, and how you choose to live your life will probably be different as well.

Cancer lingers, it might not linger in the body but it can certainly linger in the mind. With medical check-ups and the swirling 'what ifs', it can be difficult to live your days without thinking about cancer. One thing I know for sure is we all have a choice, to either be bitter or to be better. You can sit in the darkness of cancer or choose to take your life back and live in the light. When you feel strong enough seek help to live in that light, it's the best place to be. 

At Bupa, we’ve teamed up with the McGrath Foundation to support breast cancer awareness and the work of McGrath Breast Care Nurses.

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