Breast cancer doesn't discriminate. This World Cancer Day we're sharing Bal and Sania's stories of how their breast cancer diagnosis affected their lives, careers and self-image.
Bal: I barely had time for my feet to touch the ground
I was diagnosed in August 2015. I had no symptoms, no lump – nothing to make me think I could have breast cancer. I had a routine medical check-up at work and because of my age, they gave me a mammogram.
When I was told I had breast cancer, my world turned upside down in a matter of moments.
I barely had time for my feet to touch the ground. I was diagnosed on 20th August and my treatment started on 12th September. After having a mastectomy, they found there was also cancer in my lymph nodes. A few weeks after surgery for lymph node removal, I started my chemotherapy treatment. It felt like I didn’t have a moment to breathe.
There wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel
Chemotherapy took all my energy. Every time I had a chemotherapy session, my body felt weaker. It felt harder for my body to fight the further I got into treatment. There wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel.
I had radiotherapy after my chemotherapy ended. Then I was on tamoxifen straight after for nine months. After a checkup with my surgeon, we found out that I had developed a tumor. Whenever I got over one hurdle, there was always another one in front. I couldn’t register what was going on, and a lot of it, I didn’t understand.
I wanted to feel normal
When I was about halfway through my treatment, I looked through the binder that my breast care nurse had given me when I was diagnosed. This was when I saw all the information about Breast Cancer Care. One of the leaflets mentioned the Someone Like Me service.
I rang up and was put in touch with a woman who spoke to me once a week. It was so uplifting to talk to someone without being judged and who really listened. Until you’ve had breast cancer, you don’t really understand what it’s like. Half the time we didn’t even talk about breast cancer. When your whole world has become hospital appointments, this scan and that blood test sometimes you don’t want to talk about it. You want to feel normal.
I felt really lost when it all ended. I didn’t know where to go. My Someone Like Me volunteer had mentioned the Moving Forward course, so I signed up. It was so helpful. When you’ve been given the worst news of your life, your brain isn’t thinking about help. You’re trying to cope. Sometimes you need someone to hold your hand and show you what you might need. The Moving Forward course did that for me.
Helping others gives me a purpose
I’m a person, a mother and a sister. But my breast cancer took over all of that. Certain things can get pushed aside during treatment, if you let them. I was determined to not let that happen.
I think I managed because when I needed help, I was able to find it. I wouldn’t want someone else not knowing that there’s support available to them. That’s why I’ve gone on to offer my time to help as many people I can.
With Breast Cancer Care, I’ve been a volunteer and model at The Show, I get involved with campaigns and speak for them at events. I do youth mentoring through the Prince’s Trust and I’m a governor for a special needs school.
For a while I wondered, am I hiding behind all the things that I do? But I’m not. It’s given me a purpose. If I can help one person, then it’s all worthwhile.
Sania: It was a whole new world
In December 2017, I noticed a small lump on the right side of my breast. I left it for two weeks, as I thought it might be hormonal. When I went to the GP, they referred me straight away to the breast clinic.
When I was told it was breast cancer, I didn’t really register what had happened. It took a while for it to kick in. I come from a health background, and I’d never been a patient before or taken time off. Suddenly I was on a treatment plan for IVF, a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
It was a whole new world. It felt surreal.
I didn’t process it properly
My oncologist spoke to me about IVF in my initial appointment. Even as a doctor, I wasn’t thinking about fertility treatment. All I was concerned about was losing my hair and nausea. But having the fertility treatment was a huge relief. Even at the beginning, I was planning for my life after treatment.
You settle into a routine with breast cancer treatment. Chemotherapy, appointments, blood tests. But you can't always be prepared for what happens. Although you try and control it as much as you can, the nature of going through treatment is that it’s out of your hands.
At the time you’re so focused on what you’re going through in that moment, you don’t really process it properly.
Nobody understands unless you’ve been there too
I come from a Pakistani background, and nobody really talks about cancer, let alone breast cancer. If someone is going through treatment, nobody mentions it. Self-examination isn’t something that’s discussed. It was a difficult conversation to have with my family, but they were amazing.
It wasn’t easy. Even though they wanted to do as much as they could, nobody understands unless they’ve been in your position. My parents are so calm, so they balanced me out.
I also attended the Younger Women Together and Moving Forward events by Breast Cancer Care. Being in a group of women in my position in a non-judging environment was incredible.
You must rebuild yourself back up
There’s always that expectation that once you finish treatment, you go straight back to normal. What people don’t appreciate is that finishing treatment feels like you’ve jumped off the edge of a cliff. You go from having a safety net of support to suddenly having to fend for yourself.
After going through treatment, you’re physically, mentally and emotionally different to how you were before. You’ve got to rebuild yourself back up. But I feel empowered too. Losing my hair and going through drastic physical changes had made me appreciate my body more and what it can withstand. I feel proud of myself for getting through it.
Breast cancer taught me a lot
I’d never experienced anything like this before in my profession, It’s taught me a lot about being a patient, and I feel a lot more empathetic towards the kind of obstacles that my younger female patients are facing.
It was a bit of a double edge sword. I didn’t want to know too much and resisted jumping back into my medical mind and reading loads of papers and research statistics!
Going through breast cancer has brought out a side of me I’m proud of. I feel a lot less afraid of things than I was before.
This World Cancer Day, donate to help us provide hope for the future as we unite to create one charity for everyone affected by breast cancer with Breast Cancer Now.