CANCER MADE ME MORE ADVENTUROUS
Louise used to be scared of everything, but now her life is all about ‘seizing the day’ and not sweating the small stuff.
I always assumed it was women over 50 who were affected by breast cancer, and that it was genetic. But mine happened when I was 39. I just didn’t see it coming. I thought my sore left shoulder was from slouching at my desk. When I followed the pain round I felt this big mass on my boob that was sore to touch, but I just thought it was like that pain you get when you’re due on. While the doctor thought it was nothing untoward she wanted me to get it checked.
At my appointment, after drawing all over my boob and giving me a mammogram the consultants said they needed to give me an ultrasound. I thought they meant in a couple of weeks and they said “No – now”. It still hadn’t dawned on me that they’d found something worrying. Then I heard the radiographer say, very matter-of-factly, ‘That lump there is definitely cancer, the others I’m not sure about…” and I heard my husband’s sharp intake of breath and it hit me.
It wasn’t the news I was expecting. I had to be carried out because my legs just went from underneath me. Within three weeks I had an operation to remove 6 X 6 cm from my breast and 4 lymph nodes. And then followed chemo and radiotherapy, which was hardcore.
“We knew I was going to lose my hair and it felt good to laugh about it”
There were some funny moments during my treatment after the op. I managed to keep my hair for 17 days, but that ended the day me and my youngest son, 13, were walking round Tesco. I had a beanie hat on and I scratched the back of my head and when I pulled my hand out I had a handful of hair. I showed him and said ‘What am I gonna do with that?’ and he said ‘Stick it in your handbag’. And I did. We were in stitches. We knew I was going to lose my hair and it felt good to laugh about it. I embraced the bald look and only wore my wig a couple of times. At a Duran Duran concert with my sister-in-law we were dancing our socks off and I was so hot in that wig, I whipped it off and got a round of applause from the people around me. That felt good!
My whole philosophy all the way along was ‘I can’t change the diagnosis but I can have some kind of control with what happens next’. All l needed to do was get through each stage. I was determined I wasn’t going to die. It wasn’t going to control me or define me. I thought “Yes, it’s shit, but it’s going to be fine’. And while there were tough moments, it really was. I never stopped living my normal life. I’d only started my own travel business www.travelcounsellors.co.uk/louise.gardiner a few months before and I just got on with it. My two sons were at an impressionable age and I’d wanted to keep things normal and show I was fine, going food shopping, cooking their dinner, lifts to football: life as normal. Nothing changed and that’s how I wanted it.
We women often don’t allow ourselves to feel things at the time they’re happening to protect those around us. We just keep moving forwards. So now I’m giving myself the space to feel what I need to feel. I’m having counselling because inevitably there is some emotional fallout from what I’ve been through. It only really dawns on you afterwards, where you just go ‘Shit, man’.
In 2020, I’m planning to do the Camino de Santiago, known as The Way of St James. An 804km trek, it’s a real physical challenge, and the kind of thing I’ve never have done before. But I really feel the need to do it, to have some time on my own so I can process what’s happened. I also want to do this trek to show I can walk that far. When you’re going through cancer treatment, everything is in stages. Another appointment, another session of chemo, and it’s all about getting to the next stage. And from a mental health point of view, looking behind me and going ’20 km behind me, 80 to go’ will give me the chance to process what I’ve been through without the normal distractions of life.
I’ll need reconstructive surgery to even out my breasts, but that’s OK – I’m still here. More importantly, since having cancer I’m all about ‘seizing the day’. I’ve signed up for a yoga retreat in Kalkan. I’ve joined a networking group in London – me, who never used to venture out of Brighton and was scared of the tube! I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. If I get caught in traffic I don’t get het up. And if I want to do something I just do it. I’m much more adventurous now, doing things I’d never have done that before, even talking to strangers without fear. It has changed me for the better.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. If I get caught in traffic I don’t get het up”
Cancer doesn’t define me, but it did make me think a bit more about death and to decide to cram as much as I can into my life. When you’re having bone scans and your mortality is called into question, it does pull you up short. But if anything I believe in myself a lot more now than I did before. My body told me I had cancer, and I’m glad it did. Looking back, I just think ‘Well done you’.
Words: Marina Gask