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
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.