Inspiring Stories - Della Walker
“But will you still love me when I’m all bald and mutilated” I sobbed to the other-half on learning that I had breast cancer and would need a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I should’ve known better. “Of course I will” he replied, pausing for a split second before adding “you’re ugly already”.
This might sound like grounds for divorce but, for me, it cut through the shock and misery of diagnosis and actually, for the first time in days, made me laugh.
I expect many people reading this will know only too well the initial devastation on being told you’ve got advanced breast cancer. I certainly wouldn’t care to relive those dark days of early 2012, when I learned firstly that I had cancer and then, two weeks later, that it had also been detected in my lungs and so I had advanced breast cancer. Advanced cancer is also known as metastatic or secondary breast cancer but no matter what you call it the cancer is incurable and will, eventually, see me off (falling anvils or rampaging elephants excepted of course).
The anxiety following diagnosis was incapacitating. I sat around the house all day in an increasingly grubby dressing gown watching re-runs of ‘Homes under the Hammer’ and ‘Bargain Hunt’ (yes, things really were that bad). My hands were so sweaty with fear that I spent weeks unable to stroke my much loved (but delinquent) three-legged cat, Cyril, without sticking to him and ending up with palms so furry that I looked like a particularly miserable were-woman. The fear induced sweatiness afflicted my feet too and more than one pair of slippers ended up in the bin sealed in a double-skinned hazardous waste bag (apologies to anyone suffering post-chemo nausea).
My experience of advanced breast cancer has been one of ups and downs but, so far, the worst part has been that initial soul-sucking terror. If anyone out there is going through this at the moment I’d say take heart it does get better. Back in early 2012 I turned to an online forum and I don’t think I could have gone anywhere better. Support, good advice and humour from people who are going through the whole cancer palaver themselves cannot be underestimated. They assured me that I’d feel better once I had a treatment plan and urged me to seek further help to deal with the anxiety. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ I thought ungraciously. But they were, of course, completely right.
Over the course of eight weeks or so I got my treatment plan and started chemotherapy. I talked to a sympathetic GP and started taking an antidepressant which I believe has been massively helpful. Gradually, and with the huge bonus of supportive friends and family, the fog of fear started lifting.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve got it all sorted and that I leap out of bed each morning with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. But I do have days now when I can enjoy those everyday things inventing new terms of abuse for my husband and sneering at the ‘Homes under the hammer’ presenter’s 1980s hair style.
Now, three and half years on from diagnosis, I’ve been through quite a few treatments. Most chemotherapies and/or hormonal treatments will stop working for individuals at some point – but that could be weeks, months or even years down the line and then there are other chemos and treatments to try. Of course, eventually I’ll run out of options and the cancer will come out on top. When that happens is anyone’s guess. I haven’t asked for a prognosis as I don’t think being stamped with an expiry date would be helpful.
So while I never forget the bottom line of an advanced breast cancer diagnosis, the old clichés about living in the here and now (rather than dwelling incessantly on the imagined future) and making the most of what you’ve got have turned out, for me, to be true. To be honest this is a little bit annoying as, in general, I’ve taken pride in not being one of those irritating Pollyanna-my-glass-is-half-full type of people. However, realising that even a grotty diagnosis doesn’t mean sitting around sweating in a stained and revolting dressing gown for the rest of my life has been a huge relief.
I haven’t come across a single person with advanced breast cancer who hasn’t said that the initial days after diagnosis are some of the worst they’ve experienced but that their frame of mind improves after there has been time to absorb the shock. So do hang on in there if you’ve just been given the earth shattering news – life does get better.