10 Things Breast Can­cer Taught Me Annabel Chown shares her story

Feel your feel­ings, don’t be de­ceived by ap­pear­ances and ac­cept what life gives you. Af­ter sur­viv­ing breast can­cer and opt­ing for a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy, Annabel Chown has a new per­spec­tive on life

Good Housekeeping (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

1 LIFE WILL SUR­PRISE YOU (BUT NOT AL­WAYS IN GOOD WAYS!)

Breast can­cer wasn’t even on my radar in May 2002 when, aged 31, I headed to New York to visit my friend Paul and hang out at gal­leries, cock­tail bars and Ji­va­mukti yoga classes. But 24 hours af­ter my re­turn, I woke up from a mi­nor op­er­a­tion, which was meant to re­move an ap­par­ently be­nign lump, to be told I had can­cer. I was plunged into five months of chemo­ther­apy, fol­lowed by six weeks of ra­dio­ther­apy. Five years later, my on­col­o­gist gave me the all clear. Fi­nally, I could re­lax. But a cou­ple of years on, two of my first cousins were di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. A co­in­ci­dence, I tried to per­suade my­self. In­stead, we dis­cov­ered my father’s side of the fam­ily car­ries the BRCA1 gene mu­ta­tion and my risk of a new breast can­cer de­vel­op­ing was now as high as 80%. My sur­geon rec­om­mended think­ing about a risk-re­duc­ing dou­ble mas­tec­tomy. At that point, I couldn’t face it, so opted in­stead for high-level an­nual MRI screen­ings.

2 Ap­pear­ances can be De­cep­tive

Los­ing my hair from my chemo was pos­si­bly my low­est mo­ment. It was shoul­der-length, thick and wavy. Its nat­u­ral colour was dark brown, but I’d re­cently dyed it auburn. It came out in clumps one morn­ing in the shower. My mum took me to buy a wig. The clos­est match I could find was bobbed, light brown and straight. I pre­tended I’d cut my hair, changed colour and started hav­ing it blow­dried. No-one had a clue. In­stead, they told me how amaz­ing my hair looked. ‘I much pre­fer it like this. Can I get your hair­dresser’s num­ber?’ some­one even said. It re­minded me that of­ten we have no idea what’s re­ally go­ing on be­hind the seem­ingly flaw­less ex­te­ri­ors peo­ple present.

3 FEEL YOUR FEEL­INGS

‘You have to think pos­i­tively,’ I was told again and again by my mum and my friends. But a can­cer di­ag­no­sis is a huge shock and brings up a ton of raw emo­tions: fear, sad­ness, anger, to name but a few. Ex­pe­ri­ence has taught me it’s a hell of a lot more heal­ing to let your­self feel things. That said, I made sure not to fall into an eter­nal pit of fear, and to keep faith that I could re­cover. Gath­er­ing pos­i­tive sto­ries re­ally helped, like the one a nurse shared when I was feel­ing ter­ri­fied on the morn­ing af­ter my ini­tial surgery, about her grand­mother who’d had breast can­cer aged 30 and lived un­til 90.

4 BE BRAVE, BE BOLD

The morn­ing af­ter my first surgery, as I was be­ing rushed off for bone and liver scans to check my can­cer hadn’t spread, the anaes­thetist came into my room. He told me the story of a fa­mous pi­anist pa­tient, who’d had breast can­cer. ‘She’s now play­ing bet­ter than ever, and to even big­ger au­di­ences,’ he said. ‘How can life be bet­ter af­ter can­cer?’ I thought. But it can. Can­cer in­stilled a deep-rooted de­sire to lean towards hap­pi­ness. Can­cer gave me the courage to re­design my life: I never re­turned to my job, went free­lance as an ar­chi­tect, spent two months alone in By­ron Bay, Aus­tralia, learn­ing Ash­tanga yoga and chill­ing out on the beach. I even­tu­ally re­trained as a yoga teacher too. Had I not had can­cer, I’d prob­a­bly still be in the same of­fice, over­worked and slightly dis­con­tent.

5 LIFE GIVES YOU WHAT YOU ASK FOR, NOT AL­WAYS WHAT YOU WANT

‘I wish I had more time. Time to look af­ter my­self, to do things like med­i­ta­tion,’ I’d writ­ten in my di­ary a month be­fore I was di­ag­nosed. I was work­ing 60-hour weeks as an ar­chi­tect. Sud­denly, I had the whole sum­mer off. It was bit­ter­sweet, but in be­tween chemo ses­sions and throw­ing up, I got to lie un­der my favourite tree in the park for hours, take day­time yoga classes and meet my best friend, Paola, a free­lance jour­nal­ist, for week­day break­fasts. Dur­ing chemo, on a rare night out at a party, I met this gor­geous guy, An­dreas. We had a few dates, but he dis­ap­peared when I told him about the can­cer. In 2010, I found Mark, now my hus­band, when I tried on­line dat­ing. Two months into our re­la­tion­ship, one of my reg­u­lar MRI scans picked up a ‘pos­si­bly sus­pi­cious’ lump. As we waited for the re­sults of the nee­dle biopsy (which, thank­fully, was clear), he told me, ‘I’m fall­ing in love with you. What­ever hap­pens, I’m stick­ing around.’

7 Don’t Have Too Many Precon­cep­tions

Af­ter I found out I car­ried the BRCA1 mu­ta­tion, I put off hav­ing a mas­tec­tomy and re­con­struc­tion for seven years, in­stead go­ing for claus­tro­pho­bia-in­duc­ing MRI scans, with their high rate of false pos­i­tives, and the fear of be­ing di­ag­nosed again. I had no idea you could look and feel great af­ter a mas­tec­tomy un­til I read a me­moir by a glam­orous New Yorker called Jes­sica Queller, a BRCA1 car­rier who opted for risk-re­duc­ing surgery. She was thrilled with the re­sults. That was my turn­ing point. My sur­geon told me I was too slim to have re­con­struc­tion us­ing my own body fat un­less I was will­ing to go a size smaller. I wasn’t, so chose sil­i­cone im­plants. I had the op­er­a­tion in De­cem­ber 2016, and was in and out in 24 hours. ‘Wow, your breasts look like a 16-year-old’s,’ my friend Ayala said.

8 Heal­ing Takes Time

I ex­pected to feel ex­hil­a­rated once my treat­ment was over. To my sur­prise, I could barely drag my­self out of bed. Now, I mourned the loss of my old life, en­vi­ous of friends who’d spent the past nine months plan­ning wed­dings or fur­ther­ing them­selves at work. It was my then-ther­a­pist, an ex-Catholic monk called Jose, who ex­plained that of­ten you’re more de­pressed af­ter a se­ri­ous ill­ness than dur­ing it. Caught in the shock of di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment, it’s only af­ter that you can com­pre­hend what you’ve been through. Give your­self time, he wisely ad­vised me. It took about six months but, grad­u­ally, sad­ness and ex­haus­tion did dis­solve.

9 RE­SPECT YOUR BODY

We can get so hung up on per­fec­tion. I have a 10cm scar across my left breast from my orig­i­nal surgery, and scars along the un­der­side of each one from my mas­tec­tomy. But I like my body more. I’m proud of how strong it is, how beau­ti­fully it has healed. Our bod­ies are wise and amaz­ing, and de­serve to be lis­tened to. Be­fore I had can­cer, I rushed around all the time, push­ing my­self through late-night gym work­outs. Now, I check in with what I re­ally need. A strong yoga class or a rest? A fen­nel, cu­cum­ber and gin­ger juice or an al­mond crois­sant?

10 Be Grate­ful

Both my cousins died within two years of their di­ag­noses. I am so lucky to be well, 15 years af­ter mine. Traf­fic de­lays or next door’s noisy build­ing works might ir­ri­tate me, but I carry a deep un­der­cur­rent of grat­i­tude. It rises up as I feel my breath move in and out dur­ing med­i­ta­tion, or get to sit savour­ing Earl Grey tea and poached eggs on sour­dough. I’m grate­ful, too, that since my mas­tec­tomy I feel even more fem­i­nine. I didn’t dis­like my orig­i­nal breasts, but I am prouder of this pair. Not be­cause of what they look like, but for the story be­hind them.

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