The next book I hope to publish is called Breastless… because I have no boobs. It is a memoir made up of stories, reflections and quotes. In the book, I share my breast cancer story as honestly (and brutally) as I can in the hope that my readers will nod along and say ‘me too’, ‘I understand’, ‘that’s how I felt.’ While I describe the physical aspects of my treatment, my primary emphasis is about what was happening inside my head. What were my thoughts and emotions as I travelled that dark road?
Whether you have been given a cancer diagnosis, are supporting someone who has or have found your way here for some other reason, I welcome you.
When I found out I had breast cancer, my whole world changed. Outwardly, I appeared to be much the same person as before, but inwardly, the shock of my diagnosis and subsequent treatment completely derailed me. I was no longer the sane professional who went to work each day, loved her job and tried hard to please the people around her. As my identity crumbled, I had to look for new answers to all the old questions—Who am I? What do I want from my life? —and then begin to rebuild anew.
I decided to write this memoir after presenting at a Breast Cancer conference in October 2017. My presentation was titled ‘We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too’, and the response to my words was remarkable. All around, people were nodding and smiling and sometimes laughing. They were connecting with me. They were sharing in my experiences. Every person who listened to my talk that day had their own unique story that was most likely very different from my own, yet we had this common understanding that was very powerful. It was comforting to know we weren’t alone in our struggles. That someone else understood.
As the title of my conference talk suggests, I lost myself in the experience of cancer and found myself there too. I learned how to live well in spite of my difficult circumstances and I learned how to have a lovely, sustaining relationship with the most important person in my life. Me.
I often hear people complain they're tired of hearing about breast cancer. In a way, I understand where they're coming from. Women, in crisis, tend to hang together. This is what we see in the media. A sea of pink. Women supporting women. Occasionally, we hear about one of those women in pink - she is most likely famous, young and/or beautiful - but her story is so heavily edited, we're given no real insight into what she is actually going through. Only that she's this amazing, strong and brave person. (Gag - how much amazingness, strength and courage can we stand?) I can tell you that I'm not any of those things and I'm sure if you asked the people in the stories, they'd probably say the same thing. It isn't as if we were just going about our normal, happy, functional lives one day and the next, wham bam, we have cancer - which somehow transforms us into something amazing. No. Whether we like it or not, most of us have baggage. Except perhaps in the case of the very young, I think baggage almost always precedes cancer. I recently asked a friend if she had any ideas about what had led to her getting cancer and she said, 'I was completely and utterly overwhelmed by grief.' Her grief came first. Then her cancer. After my cancer diagnosis, I figured out that in order to give myself the best chance of surviving, I had no choice but to take a long, hard, uncomfortable look at my baggage and this is what I do in Breastless.
This is not a how to book. It is not my wish to instruct anyone on what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation. Their experience will be different from mine and they’ll need to find their own way. I have, however, described some of the things that I found helpful and I’ve also included a book list at the end that includes titles and authors of the books I mention.
Here is a summary of all the baggage (mentioned in the book) that preceded my diagnosis.
At two, I thought I was going down in water
At five, I pushed a boy off a slippery slide
At six, I was forced to eat fish paste sandwiches
At seven, I refused to apologise
At eight, I got hair bobbles
At ten, I guessed the number of jelly beans in the jar
At eleven, my father showed me the meaning of friendship
At twelve, I rode a wild brumby
At thirteen, I learned how to inhale smoke without coughing
At fourteen, I hung out with the cool group
At fifteen, I called a nun a fucking bitch
At eighteen, I got worried about having a flat chest and big feet
At twenty-five, a young man embarrassed me in a shoe shop
At twenty-seven, I was given a patchwork quilt
At twenty-eight, I got cracked nipples
At thirty, I took a self-defense class
At thirty-eight, a teenage girl told me she’d been raped by her father
At forty-five, I noticed that my sister’s voice was changing
At forty-six, I took my sister to a faith healer
At forty-seven, I chose to have a big life
At forty-nine, I cried for my sister
At fifty-four, I walked the Larapinta Trail
Went to Cuspers for the first time
And found a thickening in my left breast…
This is my story.