5 Women Share Their Experiences With Cancer
Donia Youssef, Author & Producer Of The Monster Series
When she was 39, Donia was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. At the time, her children were two and five, and she struggled to find ways to communicate her journey to them, prompting her to write The Monster in Mummy, now a bestselling series. In January 2018, she was given the all clear.
I’d been feeling low and tired for weeks. I booked some routine blood tests with my GP, but they came back clear. I put it down to being overworked and overtired – I spent my days running a business (Tiny Angels, a children’s modelling and acting agency), running after a toddler and looking after my youngest, who I was still breastfeeding. On my 39th birthday, I went for a night out with friends, and when I got home I was very sick. The following morning, I woke up with a huge golf ball-sized lump underneath my armpit and immediately called my father, who is a doctor. He asked me to check my breasts, which I hadn’t done until now. One did feel harder than the other, but I put it down to the fact I was still breastfeeding. I was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 2 breast cancer which had spread to my lymph nodes. I had two tumours in my breast and one in my armpit.
I was told I had a 60% chance of survival. My treatment started with chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy, and I was then found to be BRCA2 positive, so had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed along with the lymph nodes in my breast cancer side. This put me into an early menopause, but I was thankful to have my two daughters.
Chemotherapy was a challenge to say the least. I was constantly dealing with blood clots and sepsis, and was in and out of A&E. I tried my best to distract myself throughout chemo – I managed to run Tiny Angels throughout treatment and would often talk to clients rigged up to the chemo machine. I needed the distraction to feel like the cancer wasn’t defeating me.
Cancer puts you on high alert. I wish I could say my health is perfect now, but I still must undergo treatment, and am actually back in hospital next week for further tests. With cancer, you learn to live with the effects and are always on high alert for any new changes. It does ease with time, but I still get very tired.
Don’t think of cancer as a death sentence. Just go with the flow and seek support where you can. There are so many treatments now, so don’t give up and always have hope. Do whatever you can to keep calm and distracted.
Visit TheMonster-Series.com & follow @DoniaYoussef474
Georgie Crawford, Creator Of The Good Glow
At 32, seven months after the birth of her first baby, Georgie discovered a lump in her breast. Within eight weeks of her diagnosis, Georgie had two surgeries, a full round of IVF and began 23 weeks of chemotherapy. Almost a year to the day after finding her lump, she returned to work as a breakfast news anchor at one of Dublin’s biggest radio stations and has since launched a podcast, The Good Glow, where she invites women to share their survival stories.
I always had a gut feeling I wasn’t healthy enough. Prior to my diagnosis, I worked in a busy radio station. I was always on the go – I felt stressed and burnt-out. I wouldn’t have labelled myself as unhealthy, but everything came to a head in 2017 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I discovered the lump in the middle of the night. At the time, my little girl Pia was seven months old, and she crawled into bed one night for a cuddle and as my hand accidentally fell against my breast, I felt a hard lump. How had I never felt it before? How long had it been there for? I felt like I had fallen down the stairs, I was so confused.
Being diagnosed was like an outer body experience. My doctor told me it was stage 2 cancer and I had further tests to see if it had spread. That night, I watched a Tony Robbins documentary and he said, ‘Life doesn’t happen to you, life happens for you.’ And just like that, a tiny crack of light appeared at the end of a very dark tunnel.
It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. I went straight into a round of IVF after two lumpectomies. We retrieved 27 eggs. Three days later, I started 23 weeks of chemo, followed by four weeks of radiotherapy. I am now on a drug called Tamoxifen, which is why my husband and I have decided to pursue surrogacy. For a long time, I grieved for my old life – I thought I would never feel happiness again. I am now four years cancer free, and am fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been. I became a health coach in my recovery and every day make conscious decisions to take care of my body.
You will deal with dark days, but there is also light. Everyone has a different prognosis and a different journey, but you need to ride the wave. Ultimately, you’ll see life through a different lens.
Visit TheGoodGlow.ie & follow @Georgie.Crawford
Karin Greenberg, Communications Director
London-based mum of two Karin Greenberg was 38 when she was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer and lymph node-positive cancer. After 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 18 antibody treatments, radiotherapy, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she is now free from cancer.
It was after a period that I noticed my right breast was inflated and dense. I’m aware it’s common for your breasts to be more tender around your period, but it was unusual for me that only one breast remained enlarged, so I called my GP to get her advice. Routine mammograms aren’t offered on the NHS until you’re 50, but thankfully I didn’t ignore a feeling of something not being quite right. My GP immediately organised an ultrasound and mammogram, which led to a diagnosis of breast cancer. The cancer had also spread to my armpit.
My diagnosis ripped the rug from under my feet. Prior to my diagnosis, I was very healthy – I ate well, did Pilates twice a week, was hardly ever sick and took care of myself. My treatment plan started very quickly. I underwent chemotherapy, antibody treatments and radiotherapy. I felt incredibly fragile throughout the initial four rounds of chemo. My motto in the early days was ‘tomorrow is a new day’. I had to let go of everything and hand control over to my husband and my mum who had come over to the UK to be with me for the first two months – not an easy task to arrange in the height of the first lockdown.
Do what you can to make yourself feel better. On the days you can manage it, try new things, write a daily journal, and plan your future – stick things on your walls to remind yourself of future plans when you’re feeling low. Find reasons to laugh as loudly as you can. There were many nights when the only thing that would help me get to sleep was by listening to comedy shows.
Don’t turn to Google for answers. Keep asking your doctor questions and explore the options that are right for you and your prognosis. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and ensure you look after your mental health as you can’t underestimate the impact that both a diagnosis and treatment will have on your mind as well as your body.
You’ll find support in many places. I listened to countless health and wellbeing podcasts and used the Insight Timer app for relaxation. I also had incredible support from Chai Cancer Care, especially from their wonderful physiotherapist, and loved weekly catering services from Dvash. When it comes to books, I highly recommend Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.
Mwai Yeboah, Founder Of Exalt Africa
Mwai was 24 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She eventually made the decision to have a mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery and chest-wall radiotherapy. Today, she’s the founder of events, weddings and travel firm Exalt Africa, and is on a mission to transform people’s perception of Africa.
I kept my cancer secret from family and friends. At the time of my initial diagnosis some 15 years ago, I was studying in a foreign country as an international student. My father could either afford my medical treatment or the travel fees to come and be with me, but not both. The choice was simple: I went forward with treatment without a soul by my side.
My GP initially thought my cancer was benign. Doctors thought I had fibroadenomas, which are very common, non-cancerous breast tumours. After further tests, these growths turned out to be more complex. After the biopsy came back to confirm the tumour was cancerous, I had surgery and chemotherapy. The cancer then spread to my lymph nodes and I became more resistant to treatment as time went on, which is why I eventually made the decision to have a mastectomy and chest-wall radiotherapy.
As a three-time cancer survivor, I understand the havoc this one word can wreak on a person’s life. Every time I look in the mirror, I feel broken. My back is covered in scars due to the reactions I had from radiotherapy, and I stare at the scars on my breasts trying to find beauty. I see where hair should be along my hairline but, after all these years, isn’t. I try to be positive but it’s impossible not to see the lasting impact cancer has had on me.
Cancer terrifies Africans, plain and simple. To tell a friend or relative in Africa you have cancer is like telling them you have a death sentence – it brings about far more fear than any mention of HIV or Aids. Cancer deaths in sub-Saharan Africa have increased 45% since 2000, with the disease now claiming half a million lives each year. It hits African women particularly hard – breast cancer deaths have increased 70% since 2000, and cervical cancer is also on the rise. I am from Zambia, where still today in 2021, there is just one cancer treatment centre for 17m people. Looking back at my cancer journey, I wish I had shared everything with friends and family, so I could ask for help and not have to be a pillar of strength. I had the fear of the unknown because of the way Africa sees cancer.
Today is a good day. Each day is different – there are some wins, there are some trials, there are joyous days and there are incredibly trying ones. I have a non-hereditary cancer gene that came from faulty genes. My faulty gene is BRCA1 – because of this, the risk of developing benign tumours and different types of cancers remains high.
Macmillan is an incredible source of support. They’re with you every step of the way and provide you with your own dedicated nurse to support you and your family. From doctor’s appointments to filling out the many daunting forms, the support they offer is comprehensive and touches every aspect of the entire cancer journey.
Zoe Robertson, Beauty Director
Zoe, 47, is a director at one of London’s leading beauty communications agencies. In January 2018, she was diagnosed with stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer and spent 18 months undergoing aggressive treatment. In the summer of 2020, she was finally given the all-clear.
In November 2017, I noticed a lump in my right breast. It started to grow and when we were on a family holiday in Thailand in December, the lump was visible even with my clothes on. When we got back from holiday, I went to my GP who referred me to a consultant, but he said he wasn’t worried and thought it was just fatty tissue. They booked me in for a mammogram to double check and it was then that their faces changed. I had a 4cm tumour that had also travelled to my lymph nodes. The full prognosis was stage 2, grade 3 HER2-positive breast cancer.
Treatment started immediately. I had something called a PICC line fitted into my arm and it remained there for six months. I had six rounds of FEC chemotherapy every three weeks followed by surgery to remove the lump and full node removal in my armpit. I also had 21 rounds of radiotherapy and a year of Herceptin, which was given by injection every three weeks into my legs. I felt terrible during chemo and was hospitalised three times with neutropenic sepsis, an overwhelming infection that can affect people who have a low white blood cell count.
My hair started to fall out around Mother’s Day. That was hard – you start to feel like you don’t recognise yourself anymore. In your head you feel you look like the old you but the bald, grey, ill person staring back at you startles you every time you look in the mirror. My mental health plummeted around this time, and I tried everything to feel better. Acupuncture helped enormously. I started to look for a positive in every day, and even on the hardest days when I couldn’t get out of bed, I’d take pleasure in seeing the sunshine outside or from a lovely piece of music.
You don’t need to soldier through cancer. Let friends and family help you. If you have children, have an honest and open conversation with them and involve them in your treatment plan. If they feel shut out, they’ll only become more scared. My children were with me when I had my head shaved and thought it was hilarious.
I was one of the lucky ones who got to ring the bell at the end of treatment. I had a complete pathological response to treatment which meant all signs of cancer were obliterated. I had another scare last year, this time in my womb, but thankfully it wasn’t anything too serious and was caught early.
Knowledge is power. The Chemotherapy Survival Guide by Julia McKay was recommended to me and it’s an incredible resource to read before you start treatment. Also follow @Limitless_Em, @TheTittyGritty and @CarlyMoosah on Instagram – they give great advice on a range of subjects, from what underwear to buy after a mastectomy to cold capping, medical menopause and more.
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