The Christmas that changed my life

Jackie Scully | 14 December 2015

Christmas presents

Christmas is the season for giving. But Jackie Scully – who found a lump in her breast on Christmas Eve 2013 – says it's only this year she's discovered exactly what giving is about.

Roll the clock back two years and I was busy putting the finishing touches to more than 200 handmade presents for friends, family and colleagues.

I was so busy that I missed out on parties, seeing friends with new babies, catching up with my parents and even basic self-care. I thought I was giving myself to others through handmade bath creamers, tree decorations and chutney. Now, I realise, I was too busy to give in a meaningful way.

And then on Christmas Eve, at the age of 32, I discovered a lump in the shower.

Everything changed

I'll never know what urged me to check my breasts for the first time ever that day. I do know that the moment in the shower triggered a chain of events that changed my life.

When I reflect on my treatment, however, I don't think about the chemo drugs or the surgery pain (my mind is pretty good at editing). I think about the people I met, who gave me a reason to face each day and smile back at the bald-headed person in the mirror.

I remember the lady I emailed through Breast Cancer Care's Someone Like Me service, who prepared me for surgery and made me feel like I wasn't the only young woman with breast cancer.

I remember the tea lady who sneaked me extra biscuits on the hospital ward.

I remember the nurse in recovery who got me to imagine I was drinking a lovely glass of wine, rather than wetting my lips with water after surgery.

I remember the HeadStrong volunteers who showed me I had a head for hats after my hair started to fall out.

I remember the hilarious and reassuring advice from the women on the Younger Breast Cancer Network Facebook group – and the amazing volunteers who run it. 

I remember the relationship coach at the Younger Women Together event who reassured me that my illness didn't need to build bridges or reunite families, and that it was OK not to be OK.

I remember the client who became a friend because of her compassion, caring nature and the safety pin she sent me in the post to help me hold it all together.

I remember Kate, Sarah and the Breast Cancer Care Events team who inspired me to think that, even on chemo, I could run my first ever 10k.

And, I remember what one of the nurses who cared for me after my mastectomy said to me. That nurse, who had turned to the profession after facing loss and tragedy in her own life, got the measure of me quite quickly and said: 'Jackie, what do you want your gravestone to say? Because if you're not doing something every day that you'd be proud to put on your gravestone, then you're not doing it right.'

Shining a bit of light

These people (not to mention hundreds of other strangers, friends and family members) – and the gratitude I feel towards them – are what I remember about 2014; not the illness.

Only when you've been on the receiving of such kindness can you really see just how powerful the right kind of giving really is.

Meeting these people, I remember thinking that I didn't want to be the patient any more. I wanted to be the person giving others a reason to smile through treatment.

And, in my own small way, that's exactly what I've spent the last year and a half doing. And what a year and a half it's been!

I’ve discovered that success is not what society tells us it should be. Wealth, a wedding, a nice house and hard work mean nothing when you're lying in a hospital bed hooked up to morphine with only your memories for company.

Success is being there for someone newly diagnosed because you understand. Success is encouraging a young person to check themselves and have the confidence to go to the doctor if something isn't right.

Success is crossing the finish line of your longest ever run – or overnight Pink Ribbonwalk – knowing that the money you've raised will help more people find the information they need to face treatment decisions.

Success is encouraging your MP to find out why the data about secondary breast cancer patients is not being collected appropriately.

Success is giving up time for others and shining a little bit of light in the world.

The gift that keeps on giving

By giving my time through volunteering, I have met so many amazing and inspiring individuals who I would never have met otherwise. I live a life in technicolour because of those people – whether it’s the young woman who continued to volunteer when she knew she only had weeks to live, or the lady who carries chocolate coins in her bag in the hope that she might brighten a stranger's day.

These people are out there enriching the lives of others every day. It’s a real privilege to volunteer among them. And if I can do just a few things to make a difference, I know I won't be so scared to think about my gravestone when the time comes (hopefully at the grand old age of 92)!

So this Christmas Eve, as I celebrate my second 'lumpiversary', I’ll be raising a glass to kindness and to giving – all year round – and thinking of all those who touched my life last year and changed it for the better.

I should probably add, I still like making chutney. But I’ve come to realise that time spent picking up the phone and saying yes where I would have once said no – to social and charitable commitments – is the best gift I’ll ever be able to give.