Three years on, Clare looks back at her breast cancer diagnosis and shares how it has changed her.
I tried to be as normal as possible
I was diagnosed with breast cancer during October half term, more than three years ago. I tried as hard as I could to make the holiday fun for the kids and as normal as possible, but inside I was screaming.
It was also Breast Cancer Awareness Week, so I was surrounded by pink ribbons and balloons, unable to forget my terror for even a minute.
I feel like an expert on breast cancer
My diagnosis was, as they go, a good one. At 23mm, my lump wasn’t huge (although not tiny either). It was a grade 2 tumour and I was strongly ER and PR positive, so very receptive to tamoxifen. My lymph nodes were clear. I had a lumpectomy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy, but narrowly escaped a course of chemotherapy.
Before my diagnosis, that last paragraph would have sounded like gobbledygook. Now I feel like rather an expert on the huge variations of the disease that is described with one term – breast cancer.
I thought I would be scarred by what I have been through
I remember when I was mid-way through treatment, someone telling me that a few years into the future this would all seem like a bad dream. I didn’t believe them. I thought that if I were lucky enough to still be alive, I would be haunted by the dread of recurrence, and scarred by the experience I’d been through.
Yesterday I had a meeting with my oncologist to discuss my latest blood tests.
I have, he told me, 'a perfect set of bloods.' I don't have a perfect set of boobs any longer, obviously, but you can't have everything.
This means that I am, as far as we can tell, still cancer free.
My life is better than before my breast cancer in many ways
I swore that I would never, ever become one of those irritating people who say that cancer was the best thing that happened to them.
I still stand by that. Cancer was the very worst thing that has ever happened to me and my family, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
However, in many ways my life is so much better now than it was before my diagnosis. Here’s why:
1. I am grateful
Many studies have shown that feeling grateful is good for our mental health. It's so easy to feel constantly dissatisfied with our lives, and to forget the important things, like health and family.
I can never forget. The night before the last check-up, I lay in bed mulling over the usual issues of the day, like whether my son will ever get to grips with French grammar and where my daughter's hockey mouth guard had disappeared to, and it struck me that in twenty-four hours I might be worrying about how long I had to live instead. From one day to the next, your life can change irrevocably.
2. I don't sweat the small stuff
I used to stress out about the smallest things. Everything had to be perfect.
A cancer diagnosis puts things into perspective. Once you've had to stare death in the face and think about your children growing up without a mother, a parking ticket or a less than perfect school report seem utterly insignificant.
I'm still not an entirely laid-back mother, but I'm much more so.
3. I'm more empathetic
We are always so quick to judge each other, and to get angry when we think that someone has treated us badly in some way.
Dealing with cancer makes you realise that everyone has their own stuff going on – a sick parent, a troubled child, a mean boss. Sometimes, just getting to the end of the day is a triumph. No-one can be expected to be perfect.
4. I have a ‘sod it button’
My life has totally transformed over the last three years. There were always many things I wanted to do with my life, but I thought there was plenty of time. I'd get around to it one day, when the time was right.
I was also paralysed by the fear of failure. Since I was a child I wanted to write, but I worried that I didn't have time, that I would never be good enough, that I'd be rejected or, worse, laughed at.
Since the cancer thing, however, I've developed a 'sod it button'.
Now, whenever I hear that little voice of doubt saying you can't, I think, what's the worst that can happen? I'm not going to die (yet), and if I don't do it now, I might run out of time, because who knows what's around the next corner.
So I published the story of that year of my life – the year I quit drinking, and then got cancer, The Sober Diaries. Next year, my debut novel is being published in twenty-nine different languages.
Take it one step at a time
I told this story to my oncologist and he said that many of his breast cancer survivors have gone on to do extraordinary things. They’ve travelled around the world, raised huge sums for charity, started new business and, like me, rediscovered old passions.
If you’re in that place of terror right now, where you can’t think beyond the next couple of days, just take it one step at a time and know that you are not alone.
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