Updated: Jan 30, 2022
Not everyone would agree, but it doesn’t matter. They’re entitled to their opinion. What matters is that we believe it. I certainly didn’t back when I was starting out on my breast cancer survival journey. I didn’t think positively about myself at all and I was terrified of clichés.
When I found out I had breast cancer, my whole world changed. Outwardly I appeared to be much the same person but inwardly, the shock of my diagnosis and subsequent treatment completely undid me. I was no longer the sane, busy professional who tried hard to please the people around her. Nor did I want to be. As my identity crumbled, I went looking for new answers to old questions—Who am I? What do I want from my life? I took a long hard look at my baggage.
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 has their own unique story which is 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.
In Breastless, I share my breast cancer story as honestly (and brutally) as I can in the hope that you’ll be able to 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 on what was happening inside my head. What were my thoughts and emotions as I travelled that dark road?
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. Myself.
This is not a how to book. It is not my wish to instruct you on what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation. Your experience will be different from mine and you’ll need to find your own way. I have, however, described some of the things that were helpful for me and maybe you will find them helpful too. I’ve also included a booklist at the end that includes titles and authors of the books I mention.
I named the book Breastless because … I have no boobs. It consists of a collection of stories, reflections from my past, and quotes—lots and lots of quotes. The book is more sectionalised and less free flowing than most books—it is the kind of book you can pick up and put down according to the state of your mind. I have used this kind of structure because this is how I read when I was in the middle of my active treatment. In small doses. I would read a bit, then allow my mind to drift away and ponder on what I had read. I hope you find the quotes pertinent, poignant, uplifting, and insightful. Perhaps some will even help guide you on your own journey.
Each of the ten chapters is named for a piece of music. Whenever I want to reflect on my journey or remember some of the things I have learned, the music takes me there.
Many great people who mean a lot to me are not mentioned in the story. This is not because I do not love them dearly but because their connection to me did not fit with the theme of each chapter. Where I deemed necessary to avoid hurting someone, I have used a pseudonym instead of the person’s real name. Dr Brendan Baragry, Dr Eric Donaldson, Dr Paul Vasey, Dr Winnie Wong and Dr Peter Schindler are the names of real doctors. Each has generously consented to my using their name in the book. I am not a medical expert and I do not claim to give a medically accurate account of everything that was said or done to me. I can only record what I remember, from my perspective. With other health care professionals such as the breast care nurses, I have used only first names. My friend Prue’s husband, Tim, also kindly consented to my using her real name and sharing my connection to her. Sadly, she is not alive to give her own consent.
Whether you have been given a cancer diagnosis, are supporting someone who has or have picked up this book for some other reason, you are welcome here. I hope you enjoy reading my story.
Life after cancer - this photo was taken on Crescent Beach, Tasmania, in 2017.