For the past few months, I’ve been visiting Wessex Cancer Trust’s cancer support centre in Bournemouth. I’ve come along today to share my story and tell you why being part of the Wessex Cancer Trust community has been so important to me.
I just wanted to start by saying what a hard time this is for anyone living with cancer. Lots of people are having treatment delayed or are worried that they’re at a higher risk of catching the virus. My monthly visit to the doctor for my injection brings fear mixed with excitement that I can get out and speak to another human face-to-face.
At a time when we could really do with a hug or a cup of coffee with our friends and family, many of us are stuck at home on our own because the things that have become a valuable part of our recovery from cancer have suddenly become unsafe for us to do. It’s for our own safety, of course, but it can be scary and lonely. So, while the doors to the centres are closed, this is a lovely way to come together and still feel part of a community.
At the moment I’m shielding at home because I’m asthmatic and I finished radiotherapy for breast cancer a month ago. At the start of shielding, I felt so anxious and scared, but I’ve slowly settled into a routine and am adjusting to the new normal. My mornings usually start with me trying to track down a delivery slot so that I can choose for myself the food that I enjoy. I have really enjoyed cooking and baking now that I have the time. I feel safe at home and I’m very grateful to my friends and family who are working on the frontline. It’s been hard for me because it’s in my nature to want to be at work helping others. I’ve found this side of things very hard to deal with. This is why I try and make the most of every day and try every activity I can. Mentally and physically I do all I can to prepare myself for the return to work.
During this time in shielding, I love my beloved Nan. Nan never knew I had cancer but I know she would have been proud of how far I’ve come. Last week we had her funeral and sadly I couldn’t go. Jenny from the centre who does Qi gong/meditation did a private session for me on Zoom and her kindness during this difficult time had helped me so much.
In October last year, I was finishing a hair out of my bra when I found a lump in my breast. I went to see my GP the next day and was initially told that at 33 I was too young to have breast cancer. I just knew something wasn’t right though and eventually I was referred for a biopsy. But once again I was reassured that it was unlikely to be cancer due to my age and how it was presenting. Unfortunately, I read my results online that I had breast cancer before the doctor had the chance to tell me. It was just before Christmas and I was devastated. Suddenly my life turned upside down.
I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. I was told after a scan there was an 80% chance that the cancer hadn’t spread and I was told that I would need a lumpectomy, medication to shut down my ovaries and that I would start radiotherapy once I had recovered from my operation. Luckily after my operation, and what felt like a lifetime, I was told it hadn’t spread. My sample was sent to America to determine if I would need chemotherapy. During this anxious wait, I was so pleased to be visiting the Bournemouth support centre where I could share my worries. The test proved that I wouldn’t benefit from having chemotherapy. I will stay on medication for the next 5-10 years which has put me into an early menopause. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, my genetic testing is on hold, which is worrying.
At the hospital, I was given so many leaflets to read and one of them was about Wessex Cancer Trust. As soon as they reopened in the New Year I went along to see them. I had my appointment and the OK to drive on the Friday and I was straight there the following Wednesday.
Initially, I felt so lost and didn’t really know what to expect as everything had happened so suddenly. One minute I was caring for patients and providing support for others, and the next I’m struggling and have no idea how I can help myself. Initially, I hoped the centre would be able to give me the opportunity to talk to others in the same situation. I never dreamed it would become such a special place to me.
I felt really nervous when I went along to the centre for the first time because I didn’t know what to expect. But Paulette, one of the befrienders, met me and said, ‘don’t worry, we’ll look after you.’ I nearly didn’t go because I was so nervous, but my partner Andy bundled me out of the door and reassured me that everyone at book club had been in my shoes. I’m so pleased that he did, as not once have I felt nervous since. There was lots of delicious cake and a friendly, comforting chat. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to be ok.’
I quickly found that going to the centre gave me a purpose and a routine when other parts of my life were up in the air and uncertain. But, most importantly, it gave me care and support that I honestly feel I wouldn’t have received anywhere else. It kept me going. You never feel like you’re just another name. All of the staff and volunteers really do go the extra mile to show they genuinely care. I’ll never forget that Jackie came to find me at my first radiotherapy appointment to check I had someone with me.
I think the centres are special because they can be whatever you want them to be, depending on what you think will be most valuable to your own circumstances and recovery. I think I’ve tried pretty much every activity! You can just sit and chat with a befriender, go along to a coffee morning, join the support groups have therapy, meditate. Simply being with others who know what you’re going through is comforting. Everyone there gets it.
When someone you love has cancer it can be hard to know what to say, and of course, you have your own feelings and worries, so it’s great that the centres provide support for our loved ones because they need it too. Me having cancer has been really hard for my mum and she’s been to a coffee morning at the centre with me. She came along to the centre and cried and everyone there was so lovely to her. It was the first time I’d see her cry because I was quite strict about people crying near me. When mum was upset at the centre I realised that my family and friends were struggling as well. MENTalk at AFC Bournemouth would have been perfect for my dad and boyfriend and I’ve been encouraging them to go.
It’s hard at the moment because I really miss going to the centre and seeing people. I’m definitely a people person! I usually work at Poole Hospital in the Pharmacy as the Lead Technician in Education and Training and obviously I can’t go out to work and I can’t work from home at the moment. Most of my friends are at work. Life has changed so quickly, but Steffi, the manager at the Bournemouth centre, has worked so hard to put other things in place to support us. Wessex Cancer Trust is still the constant for me and I’m grateful for that.
We’ve been having regular coffee and chat mornings online, I’ve been doing distance Reiki, quizzes and meditation. It’s giving me something to get up for and focus my mind on. Knowing Wessex Cancer Trust is still here for me when everything else has stopped is comforting and is giving me strength. I can’t wait until the centre opens again, but in the meantime, it’s the next best thing!
For me, I think giving you the opportunity to be with others is the most important thing Wessex Cancer Trust provides. It can be really hard talking to even your closest friends and family about what you’re going through, but when you’re in the centre you can just be yourself and be really honest about your feelings. When I was going through treatment my dad would come and sit with me and I didn’t know what to say to him and didn’t want him to see me upset, so I kept a lot of my feelings inside. It wasn’t until I met others through Wessex Cancer Trust that I felt I could be much more open. I felt that I needed to be strong for everyone and the only person who I allowed to see me cry was my partner Andy, and even then it was very rare.
Going to the centre has given me the opportunity to meet new friends, and that’s been amazing. I’ve met a lovely friend, Lindsay, and we now message and FaceTime all the time. I think if you’re young like me you might be a bit put off going to a support centre. You might have a preconceived idea about what it’s going to be like. But I’ve found it extremely comforting to go along and meet up with people of all ages, from all walks of life and with different types of cancer. There’s no set ‘type’ of person so you don’t need to worry that you won’t fit in. They’ve helped me find a new perspective on life, too. I used to worry about anything and everything. Not anymore!
I feel so lucky to have found Wessex Cancer Trust and would urge anyone to get in touch with them if you or anyone you know feel that a bit of support would be helpful. There’s no right or wrong way to feel and they’ll be there for you whatever you need. When the time’s right I would love to be able to volunteer at the centre and use some of my own experience to help others, as others have done for me.