PUBLISHED ON: 18 August 2017

After Ann finished treatment for breast cancer, she was struck by a wave of anxiety and grief as the impact of her diagnosis hit. She tells us about how time became distorted, affecting her ability to look ahead, and how mindfulness helped her overcome these feelings.

Ann looking out to sea

Ann on the beach in Kent

Two years ago I had finished my treatment for grade 2, stage 3 triple negative breast cancer and was looking forward to a relaxing family holiday on the Kent coast with my husband and daughter. 

Though I had been warned about the common experience of feeling low after the grinding intensity of the treatment period had ended, I was still unprepared for the all-consuming feelings of grief and anxiety that flooded in once I was in a position to finally relax. 

My brain went into survival mode 

In these moments the past, present and future have a different weight and balance. They take on new roles, and play different parts in life. When the past is painful and traumatic and the future is frightening and uncertain, the brain goes into survival mode and often wants to keep us in the present. 

Planning ahead becomes a new challenge. At other times my grief over the past and anxiety about the future have been so intense that I have felt swallowed up, completely removed from the present moment. 

I suddenly felt the enormity of the threat I was facing

Ann and her daughter on the beach

Ann and her daughter

On a blustery summer's day my husband, daughter and I went for a walk on a beautiful open stretch of the Kent coast. While my husband and daughter played in the sand, I walked along the shoreline alone. 

Staring out at a cold, grey ocean, I suddenly felt the enormity of the threat I was facing. I was sucked into a tidal wave of emotion while my feet were still on the sand. Looking back down the beach I saw my husband and daughter, heard their distant giggles, and felt utterly alone. 

It was as if I had been removed from my own life and was watching them carry on without me. 

I was stuck, unable to live in the moment

I wanted to go back to them and be present in the moment, carefree, not caught up in thoughts of a frightening future. But my feet felt stuck in the sand and the tsunami of emotions was sucking me under. 

Then I made a decision. Whilst I had a life to live, I would live it. I would be present to it. I would use all my strengths and my skills and my love, time and energy. I turned and ran back up the beach to be with my loved ones.

Still coming to terms

I'd like to say I never looked back, but coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis is an ongoing process. It is nearly three years since my diagnosis now, and luckily I remain well. 

At times I have to remind myself of that powerful feeling of wanting to be present as wife and mother, to use my talents and to live every day to the full. But the anxiety and grief are also fading. 

Mindfulness allows me to set goals again

Practising mindfulness techniques is a great way to turn down the volume on the internal voices of fear and anxiety and to focus on the present. I explored some mindfulness methods in a support group at St Thomas's Hospital. I learnt to accept the fear as normal and to channel my energy into doing what I find fulfilling.

Last spring I ran every step of a 10k race and raised over £1,000 for Cancer Research UK. A month later, I experienced a high point in my job as Curator of Displays at Tate Modern when we opened the new museum building, having re-hung the entire collection. My daughter continues to grow and bring joy, and my husband and I are celebrating nine years of marriage. 

Moving forward 

Last month I went back to that same beach, this time as a volunteer helping with my daughter's school trip to the seaside. With a large group of six-year-olds there was no time to reflect on that emotional day two years ago. It was a calm, bright, sunny day and I was just another school mum exploring the beach with the children, caught up in the moment.

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