...grab a cuppa and a star bar, and join me in my story. I'm finally ready to share it...
How does shifting 40kg of play sand into a sandpit lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer? In May 2015, this happened to me...
Jump back to September 2014. After a looong career break and then being a full time mum, I returned to employment as a teaching assistant in my childrens' school. Getting to know my new colleagues, I remember saying to them 'I'm generally a happy person, but heads up, I'm really grumpy in January because I'm not a fan of winter'. Ceri's reply came quickly 'Don't worry, I'm going to be grumpy all year, it's an odd year, I don't do odd years...nothing good ever happens to me in an odd year'.
A pallet load of sand had arrived in school. I've never minded a bit of hard labour, and anyway, it was part of my new role. I knew I would ache, as those bags were beasts, but discovering a lump in my armpit that evening was a little unexpected. I'd had no pain, no symptoms, no clue as to the horror that was lurking and growing beneath my skin. Within the week, I had a positive diagnosis. Breast Cancer. Two lumps in one breast and it had started to spread into my lymph nodes. (That was the bit in my armpit that I had suddenly noticed, and it was rock hard).
Diagnosis Day is still so very clear in my mind, and although I'm two years the other side of it, the feelings are all still very fresh. As Hadleigh and I sat in the consultation room following two hours of testing, the news came to us before anyone even said anything. In walked four professionals. That's never gonna be good news, is it?
And then came the gentle rub on my arm accompanied by the words, 'I'm so sorry...'
Numb. I think we both felt very numb.
I floated through the next few days feeling like it was all happening to someone else, a bit like an out-of-body experience. I regularly awaited that moment I'd wake up in the morning to find it had all been a bad dream. No. It was real. Each day, I had the same feeling. 'Shit, this is me. It's happening to me. I have cancer. Me? I have cancer? No, it can't be real'. I longed for each day to end quickly so that I could at least escape into my own dreams, where I didn't have cancer. When I was asleep it was the only time I felt safe. Oh, and then I woke up...
Cancer is an evil disease. At the time of initial diagnosis, I had two young children. A 5 year old Lyla and a 7 year old Alfie. They should have been enjoying their school days and their friends: who was going to come for tea that night, what they would eat, which story would we read at bedtime. Not worrying about what was being pumped into their Mummy's tube that was sticking out of her chest. Not seeing their Mummy drop three stone in weight and lose her hair. Not having to use the words 'cancer' and 'chemotherapy' in their everyday conversations.
Throughout the whole time, my thoughts have always been about the children. It was filled with that big question...What if...? And I just needed to get better to continue being a mum, and enjoy watching them grow. However, their main worry was about my hair loss. Lyla especially, worried about this thought. As my hair began falling out just two weeks after my first infusion of the toxic drug, I initially thought I would donate my hair to the Princess trust. However, my children needed somehow to come to terms with the drastic physical changes that were about to be forced upon our family. I took the plunge and we had a fun time letting them both loose with scissors! Hadleigh then tidied up what was left. It was good therapy for us all and felt like a subtle two fingers to Cancer.
The journey has, obviously, had some difficult times. Before the diagnosis, I felt well. I was happy, excited, hopeful. I suddenly became anxious, scared and withdrawn, and until I knew what I was fighting against, I was a mess. The minute I knew the plan, I changed and pushed through it with my head down. I felt positive and this was not going to beat me, these were my cards, I just had to play them. I found an inner strength and have learnt that if I can get through that, I can get through anything. Thankfully, support has been all around me. Family, friends, friends of friends, colleagues, nurses, doctors, fellow cancer fighters....everyone has played their part in helping either me or my little Barrett brood, and it certainly shows you at a time like this who your true 'friends' really are.
I have a very supportive husband whom, throughout the whole time, never made me feel anything other than 'cared for'. He became the worker, the house husband, the cleaner, the children's entertainer, the nurse...he certainly kept to his word 'in sickness and in health' and I am so lucky to have had him by my side. I couldn't have done any of this without his love, confidence and positivity. Especially when, at the same time, he was dealing with a surprise redundancy, and our lives were flipped upsidedown in every way possible.
The word 'support' doesn't mean that people actually have to DO anything to be supportive. Just being around was all I needed, especially during the days where I felt at my most vulnerable and scared. The odd message here and there...the 'chemo day' flowers that were always waiting at my back gate for my return...company from people just sitting with me as I slept through the really rough days...offers from friends and family to take the children out for the day...rushing me off for an emergency check up...a chance to rant and test out new swears...random postcards of encouragement...a hamper full of useful stuff (dry hair shampoo, seriously?!!!)...I could go on. Thank you to everyone for every single minute of your time that you spent doing something to help us through the crappiest bits! There are many people whom I would like to thank...you know who you are, and if you have had ANYTHING to do with our family over the past two years, then this includes you...thank you x
It's been important to me, to laugh. Laughter is a good tonic. During the bad times where the chemo knocked me out, I enjoyed hearing Hads and the kids giggling together. I have always retained my sense of humour, and always choose to laugh about myself. The lovely ladies and gents at work have been great at joining in with my outlook. Ceri's new words to 'Alice the camel has one hump' became 'El Barrito has one boob', and even now, my colleagues are not afraid to comment on my 'nice jug' when I'm walking down the corridor (carrying a jug of water).
I found that continuing to work throughout my treatment was therapy for me. Normality got me through the tough weeks, and I looked forward to seeing the children in class and my 'purple family' work colleagues. We joked about sticking me in a tuff spot, as some of the children found my bald, fluffy head intriguing. I didn't mind their blunt questions - they were honest and direct, and as Lyla was in the same class as I was working in, it was important for her to see me as positive and as normal as I could be. We had a lot of laughs, and I was known as the fluffy chick. Even my first 'haircut' took place in the staff room, where a small amount of fluff was tidied up, thank you Emma J!
The treatment process consisting of scans and biopsies, an IV line, a grueling 6 sessions of chemo over 4 months, about 10 sessions of radiotherapy, countless blood tests, weekly line cleans, a full body bone scan, radioactive x-rays and two lots of surgery I am now cancer free.
I have not 'beaten' cancer. In the back of my mind, the horror of a return is always there. I do try to be positive, but it has left me not trusting my body any more. I flinch at every ache. I worry about every pain. I fear lumps, bruises, tingling and numbness. It has left me scarred in more ways than one, and this journey will never leave me. It may have made me stronger in mind, but it has left my body weak. I am now on daily tablets to reduce the production of oestrogen. I had my ovaries and tubes removed to assist this process. This has made me gain weight, extra to my pre-cancer weight. My overall thoughts about this? At least I am alive.
It's left me feeling anxious and I'm sure there are worries in the rest of my family's minds too. The impact that this has had on us all over the last two years is massive. We managed to get through it, but the scars are only just healing, and if I'm honest and dig deep, I'm only just starting to come to terms with it all.
So this is not the end of my journey, I always described the diagnosis as a 'diversion'. A small kink in my path. Okay, it was a steep hill, but I am currently at the top. I am coming towards the end of my first year back in actual teaching, albeit part time, alongside still being a TA, and in September I am increasing my teaching days further. The school have supported me 100% in everything that has happened: they have been my rock and safe place, my sanity and my light, my focus and my escape.
I am now ready to give a little something back to a charity that has, in many ways, helped me to get this far. There is no imminent promise of a prevention or cure, but I do believe that, should we need to fight cancer, some friendlier medicines may be out there. Ones that do not destroy a person's dignity and self confidence, or forces you into being poorly in order to get better. I thank the oncology team for prescribing me the right medicines to shrink the tumours, and I thank the surgical team for removing what was left - and a bit more!...now it is our job to raise as much money for future treatments for our future sufferers...Alfie and Lyla are joining me in this 5k Race for Life to support me and the charity. They say, "We want to raise money for the charity so that people don't have bald heads and don't feel poorly when they have cancer. To help people be happy."
We thank you from the bottom of my one healthy one...
Louby One Booby, Alfie and Lyla x