What breast cancer has taught me about life

PUBLISHED ON: 24 November 2017

After being diagnosed with incurable, secondary breast cancer, Kate learnt to put herself first so she could care for others.

Kate

I was diagnosed with secondary (metastatic) breast cancer in my sternum and spine at the same time as my primary diagnosis in 2015.

When other people found out their main reactions were shock, upset and sympathy. My husband died in 2012, and I have a 15-year-old son who I raise as a single parent. They think, ‘You’re widowed, only 45, haven’t you been through enough?’.

It’s hard for people to understand and hear about my diagnosis. But I’ve learnt a lot about myself and about living life from it.

Life is put into perspective

You do tend to look at things differently when you’ve got an incurable disease. Sometimes it takes a diagnosis, or a similarly big shock, to stop and look at your own stuff - your own health, rather than that of others.

It puts things into perspective, and you realise other things can wait. Family and immediate friends become more important and a bigger part of your life, if they want to.

When you know you’re not going to be around to see them forever or do certain things, you decide what your priorities are. You actually sit with a friend and chat, rather than plan to make a plan. It teaches you to slow down and enjoy the everyday stuff.

It’s hard learning to accept you can’t do something

I’ve certainly learnt to pick my battles! Not everything is a big deal. If something is frustrating, I think, ‘Is this worth my energy?’. If not, you have to delegate or ask for help. Not that I like asking for help... it’s much easier said than done.

In fact, I’m still learning to accept that I can’t do everything myself. When you’re independent, asking for help or accepting it is really hard. Your automatic reaction is ‘no’. You want to prove a point to yourself that you can do it. 

But learning to live with a secondary diagnosis means having to understand my limits. It’s even more important out of active treatment, making sure I can maximise my time and energy to do the things I want to.

Side effects are more than physical, they force you to change your daily life

I had peripheral neuropathy so have no feeling in the ends of my fingers because of permanent nerve damage. I do dressmaking, and picking up pins is difficult. Or if something falls on the floor like a coin, I have to slide it to get an edge to grasp it.

One of the drugs I’m on makes my joints really painful. If I have to get something out of the food cupboard I have to think about how to get up again before I even start. I have to calculate, 'will someone need to help me?'.

'Life is thrown into perspective'

Your body is thrown into your attention

It’s a bit like driving a car. Most of the time it’s second nature. But when you start thinking about the process of engineering, or if a part breaks, you’re suddenly aware of how complicated it actually is getting a car from A to B.

It’s the same with your body. Your physical being is thrown to the forefront of your thinking - something that you previously took for granted.

If you’re not careful you get into a blame culture, saying things like ‘Because of my diagnosis I can’t…,’ or ‘This is more difficult because…’. 

But you can’t think that way. I’ve managed to accept that at that moment in time, I can’t do that. It’s not necessarily forever, you can go back to it, or try again. You have to be present.

You have to look after yourself to help others

Cancer is a brilliant thing for teaching you to put yourself first! It’s been really hard to commit to but unless I look after myself, I won’t be in a position to look after anyone else, like my son, Ollie, or my friends and family.

Putting time aside to be mindful, have a massage, go to yoga - whatever works for you - is essential, not selfish. Caring for myself kept me semi-sane during treatment. Now it comes more naturally. But even now, I still forget. Self-care is so vital.

It’s taken me about two years to get to the stage where I can live day to day. To not be constantly wondering, ‘Will I be here tomorrow?’. The prospect of Ollie having children, my grandchildren, and me not being there is devastating. But for the moment I can enjoy the time when I am with him, and that’s what matters most.

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