Life after breast cancer: Survivors’ stories

Few women who have battled breast cancer are opportune to carry on with their lives as before. One of such is Rebecca Loncraine, who has moved on to live a better life in spite of her illness.

Narrating her journey with cancer, she says, “I obtained my doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University and had just completed a biography of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz. I had certain expectations, a narrative I thought I’d follow — school, university, career, marriage. Looking back, I’d say I worked too hard, such that I had a narrow view of life and success.

“In July 2009 at age 35, a diagnosis of breast cancer blew all that apart. I had two lumps — one under my arm and one under my breast. I remember the sorrowful look on the consultant’s face when she told me it was cancer. My mom, who was with me, burst into tears and said, ‘Why isn’t it me?’ It was a crisis, shock and horror, like being whisked up in my own tornado.”

Loncraine gave up her rented home in Oxford and moved back to her parents’ farm for a gruelling year of treatment that included chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and Cat scans to see if the cancer had spread. Thankfully, it hadn’t. By the time she was through with her treatments, there was no question of returning to her old life. She simply wasn’t the same.

She continues, “I remember a friend saying, ‘You’ll soon be back to your old self;’ and knowing it just wasn’t possible, I said, ‘That whole narrative, the old assumption that my life would follow a simple path that I could control, had been taken away.”

She wasn’t sure she could write again, as her illness had rendered her almost speechless. “For the past year, I’d been unable to talk about what was happening;, I couldn’t even cry sometimes. I had no idea what to do next.”

One day, in April 2011, while taking a walk with two friends, Loncraine passed the Black Mountains Gliding Club. She found herself booking a lesson for the next day. “I needed something new, something big and intense,” she says. “I wanted to live boldly, as it might not be for very long.

“That first flight was unforgettable. I wondered what on earth I was doing, but, as we lifted into the air, this big breath came out. Up in the sky, there was enough space to grieve and experience emotion. I could cry and feel intense joy, then leave it all up there. I came down with a massive smile on my face, and booked another [lesson].

“Spring and summer were spent air-bound. You have to let nature lift you, trust invisible forces. Sometimes, you’re thrown around, but all this now felt right to me. Cancer showed me that I was a tiny thing in a big world. Each flight was an experience of real joy and bliss.”

She began writing about flying, and is now working on a book, which she says, “gave me inspiration, another language.” She later relocated to a rented chapel on the edge of the airfield. She has learnt to take off, soar and land, and has given talks about flying to organisations supporting people with cancer. But her only ambition is to keep enjoying each and every day.

It’s the kind of transformation that Debra Horsman, Programme Manager at The Haven, a breast cancer support centre in Leeds, United Kingdom, has seen many times. “Breast cancer is a massive wake-up call,” she recalls. “For a start, it makes you think what may have caused it, looking at diet, lifestyle and stress.

“That may lead you to change your career or end your marriage. It’s often assumed that it’s the man walking out because he can’t cope, but a number of times, women have said to me, ‘I’ve put up with him for so long. Not anymore!”

Survivors also want to enjoy every moment. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 24 or 85; we all have things we want to do,” says Horsman. “One of our ladies is in her late sixties and has recently started to drive so she could make the 100-mile round trip to see her grandchildren. I recall a successful head teacher writing her resignation letter from her hospital bed and buying a Ferrari on her way home!”

Valerie Yates also decided to leave a stressful job as director of marketing and board member of a college, after her breast-cancer diagnosis in 1997. She was 49, the mother of two children aged 11 and nine. “It’s the usual story,” she says. “Holding down a job, doing up a home, raising a family, chairing the board of governors at the local comprehensive. Many women do it, but it took its toll on me. It was only in hospital that I realised how exhausted I was. After the massive shock of the diagnosis, I felt delighted to be able to lie down for a week.”

Yates stayed off work for as long as possible. “Being away from the office helped me see how stressful it was, how unhealthy and how much I hated my boss,” she says. “Life was too short to spend it somewhere like that.” Yates later left her job and took on freelance contracts. But this was just the beginning.

In 2000, she married the father of her children, David. “He’d asked before, but I was fiercely independent and didn’t agree with patriarchy and taking someone’s name,” she says. “Cancer made me re-evaluate. I realised there was a personal relationship to think about. I’d found a good man and an excellent father. What was I waiting for?”

More changes followed as Yates explored alternative therapies, meditation and personal development. “I suppose when you stop seeing yourself as immortal, you ask, “What am I going to do for the rest of my life that will have meaning?”

One day, on being asked when she was truly happy, Yates replied, “When I’m at home, with people gathered round my table, enjoying themselves.” From this came the germ of an idea: she decided to turn her house into a wellness Bed & Breakfast.

In 2007, 10 years after her diagnosis, Yates and her husband opened their family home, a large Victorian terrace in Cheswick, West London, to guests. “I had a very clear vision,” she says. “Allergy-free, uncluttered, non-toxic paints, air and water filters in every bedroom, no TVs in the bedrooms, and conversation and community. We make our own muesli, but this is much more than just healthy breakfasts. It’s part of our lifestyle.

“I’m passionate about it and so much happier. If I hadn’t had cancer, I’d be retired by now and absolutely worn out. Instead, I’ve got a sustainable business and so much energy! I love every day.”

Also, the founder, Courage to Dare Foundation, Juliet Agunwa, a non-governmental organisation working to educate women on breast cancer, says women can live longer after cancer by touching the lives of others.

She is a cancer survivor who advocates love and support from family and friends to enable cancer survivors to lead meaningful lives after their treatments.

Delivering a lecture to secondary school pupils on breast cancer at Nkpor in Anambra State, Agunwa noted that breast cancer killed many women in Nigeria due to ignorance and stigmatisation.

She said: “A lot of people need the information; people have actually expressed interest to learn about how to prolong their life and how to cut down the death rate caused by breast cancer.

“Educating people about cancer is something I always look forward to because when I was diagnosed with the disease, I thought that my world had turned for the worst.”

However, very few women after breast cancer can return to normal lives, but experts have said survivors can experience better life by re-arranging their priorities in life.

An oncologist of over 30 years and author of “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal,” Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, has seen how the disease forces victims to stop in their track.

She says, “Often, we espouse values that are unexamined; we do things out of habit and not out of conviction. When cancer comes, we’re no longer able to fulfill those roles and we’re stripped of what we do. Cancer can shuffle our values like a deck of cards. Sometimes, the card we carried at the bottom of our deck turns out to be the top card, the thing that really matters.”

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Posted on April 10, 2013, in Life & Health and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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