Personal stories

Life after cancer: healing my head and body

Posted by Harriet Mason on 18 May 2022

Close up of a bright yellow lemon sliced in half

Helen Gardner writes about her experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and her feelings on life six years after treatment finished.

2016: Helen aged 34 years and 10 months

Daughter, sister, mum, wife, niece, cousin, aunty, friend.  Two years into a four year Law degree, just recovering from a broken foot.  When I look back at that time, that moment when I just happen to have an itch in the exact place where a lump had developed, I feel lucky.  I feel like it was fate.  Had I ever checked my boobs (what little I have!) before?  No.  Did I really have much knowledge of breast cancer?  No.  Its something that happens to other people.  To older people.  Breast cancer means a lump, means losing my hair, means being really poorly.  And might mean the end of the road. 

Was my body giving me a sign?

I still feel like it was a sign, that my body was telling me, you need to feel this bit, just here, now.  In a second, my life switched tracks, I entered a different reality.  You go through the motions; you go to the doctor because that’s what you know you should do.  You somehow manage to go into practical mode as if you’re separate to the experience.

I’m no stranger to challenging situations.  I sometimes lovingly refer to myself as a ‘lemon’.  I can’t do anything by halves, if its going to happen, it will happen to me.  I mean, it’s pretty extreme to be told at 14 that your spine looks like an ‘s’ and then at 16 to undergo a 13-hour operation to straighten it and attach metal rods and screws.  Who even knew your spine could do that?

But what about the after effects of breast cancer?

What’s that got to do with breast cancer?  I know, stay with me.  My story is like so many you hear.  But what I really want to express is the bit that nobody sees.  The after effects, the emotional legacy.  Like I said, you go through the motions, you go through treatment in all its glamorous forms (some have to endure more than others), but then you get to that day.  The day when they say, ‘its gone, you’re cancer free’ and just like that you’re left standing alone yet surrounded by a throng of people and activity. 

People going about their normal days.  You get left behind.  People ask you how you are, they are elated when you tell them the good news, the treatment worked, you caught it early enough, now you can move on.  And you feel a sense of relief, like you’ve got a second chance.  You feel like you should be shouting from the rooftops, that you should be ‘back to normal’ but in truth you are forever altered.  What once was your normal is not anymore. 

The narrative playing in your head

You feel silly, you feel selfish, for standing still.  On the outside you look fine, you’ve moved on, you’re living life to the full, but at the same time you run a parallel internal narrative that plays constantly in your head.  The fear of it coming back.  The worry that something else will develop.  Every ache, pain, twinge, funny feeling.  What is it?  Your default response is no longer ‘it’s nothing’ but is more like ‘it’s something, and it’s serious’ because after all, you have had that conversation.  You have gone through the motions thinking ‘it’ll be fine, it’s nothing’ to be told ‘you have cancer’. 

Tired of being strong and brave

You’ve faced your own mortality, and it’s a very unsettling feeling.  Don’t get me wrong, not everyone will feel this way.  Some are better than others at moving on.  I’m often told how brave and strong I have been.  Not just facing breast cancer but facing a potentially life changing dangerous lengthy operation at 16.  The truth of the matter is, I’m tired of having to be strong and brave.  I’m tired of being tested, pushed to the limit.  Yes, my experience with Scoliosis when I was a teenager has made me fiercely determined and has helped me face challenges with strength, but it doesn’t mean I’m never scared, never petrified that I will be taken from my children too early, never sad, upset, frustrated or angry.  I feel all of that, on a daily basis, and it’s tiring. 

Six years of every emotion going & trying to heal my head

It’s nearly six years since that fateful moment.  Six years of every emotion going, EVERY DAY.  You get the good news, you’re ‘fixed’, but in truth the emotional scars, the ones you can’t see, are the ones that take the time to heal.  I’ve got a myriad of scars on my body, that I am not afraid to share.  They are a testament to what the human body can go through. But I’m still trying to heal my head, it’s a work in progress, and there’s no shame in that.  Oh, and my law degree?  I stuck with it, and passed with a First 😊

May 2022

The information and content provided on this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. Please contact your medical team for advice on anything covered in this article.

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Claire diagnosed in 2016
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