Rebecca was diagnosed with incurable, secondary breast cancer just before New Year’s Eve in 2017. She talks about the eight things that have helped her come to terms with ‘incurable’.
Last year my main objective was ‘cure’
In August 2016 I had nothing to do with Breast Cancer Care, no knowledge about breast cancer drugs, and only a cursory understanding of ‘metastatic’. Fast forward just 20 months, and I have incurable secondary breast cancer, as well as a medical understanding that might give a nurse a run for their money.
You see, when I was given my initial breast cancer diagnosis in September 2016, the treatment objective was ‘cure’. It was just an unfortunate blot on my otherwise clear medical history. Following my mastectomy, lymph-node removal, 15 rounds of chemo and radiotherapy, I was free of detectable cancer and given a long-term (safety net) treatment plan.
I went numb when I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer
Unfortunately, it took only five months before I presented with unexplained rib pain. I hoped for good news but suspected the worst. Just before New Year’s Eve 2017, my oncologist told me that the cancer had spread to my spine and pelvis. It was now incurable.
I felt numb. I couldn’t really think of what to say.
My perspective on life has completely changed
There was suddenly a real sense of irony about my aggressive treatment plan, designed precisely so that I’d never have to face cancer again… I didn’t even make it to one year. It was shocking, and it’s fundamentally changed my perspective on life, much more so than the initial diagnosis.
I haven’t said this out loud much, but there is a prospect of not surviving this. It’s therefore of paramount importance to me that I focus on people who make me smile, who I love, and who help me discover new ideas that keep my mind engaged in a positive manner.
Optimism can be tough
Such optimism can be hard at times, though. A few weeks into my new treatment, I presented with yet more symptoms. Following an emergency trip to hospital, I was told that the cancer had made the jump to some vital organs.
On paper, it’s all a bit grim. It can be hard to stay upbeat, particularly when you have physical symptoms like pain, but I think this is an essential part of the healing process. My cancer may be incurable, but I’m determined to do as much as I can to live life to the fullest.
Eight things that have helped me come to terms with ‘incurable’
1. Find people to talk to. Breast Cancer Care have a free Helpline and Living With Secondary Breast Cancer meet up groups, as well as a Forum with a private board for people with a secondary diagnosis.
2. Be discerning about where you seek advice, and don’t be overwhelmed. Your neighbour’s sister’s best friend may have ‘had cancer once’, but that doesn’t mean her herbal remedy is going to work for you.
3. Be clear about what to expect from others. I’ve told my friends and family I don’t want to hear random cancer stories, because it either causes stress or makes me feel inadequate (‘why hasn’t this magical therapy cured me like it cured her?’).
4. Ask others for help, and tell them how they can. They won’t know otherwise. In my experience, when you ask someone to come over just to give you a hug, they’re usually delighted to do so.
5. Make sure you have a good GP, or change to a good one, because you’ll probably end up seeing a lot of yours. A friendly face can make the world of difference, alleviating the stress of endless repeat prescriptions.
6. Be kind to yourself. My oncologist told me to do so, and that’s great advice. If I’m doing all I can to make myself feel better, I’ll be best placed to help my medical team help me. I’ll be better prepared, both mentally and physically, for the treatment. To this end, I’ve embraced complementary therapies such as acupuncture and reflexology, and truly believe these are helping to heal me. I also enjoy the calming effects of meditation, even though it took me a while to find my inner peace.
7. Try new things. They can be such a rich source of positive energy. It’s not about signing up for a marathon – more like ordering a different dish from the menu, or walking a new route home. Admittedly, I went to Battersea for the first time, and came out with a cat, but he’s been tremendously entertaining company on those days when I don’t feel so chipper.
8. Get support from professionals. I can’t recommend highly enough the wonderful talks and workshops that charities such as Breast Cancer Care offer. As well as helping you de-stress, and giving you ideas about anything from nutrition to make-up, these events can really give you a buzz. You may be apprehensive about going, but really, if you’ve already had a diagnosis of (incurable) cancer, what’s the worst that can happen?
I see things more clearly now
Incurable cancer is undoubtedly a pants diagnosis to receive. But I can honestly say that it’s given me a clear perspective on life like no other. I feel joy from the people around me and the opportunities I’m given: who else gets to have their eyes opened to life in this way? Clearly I’d prefer not to have cancer but, things as they are, this black cloud has one heck of a silver lining.
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