Breast Cancer, Cycling And “You’re Looking Well…”

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Apparently it’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Since last summer, after my diagnosis of breast cancer, I’ve seen cancer blogs and articles at every turn. But then cancer now affects 1:3 of us at some stage in our lives, and breast cancer 1:8 women, so it’s hardly surprising it’s ‘everywhere’. And that wider awareness is helping raise awareness and get earlier detection, which leads to far better prognosis and survival rates.

I can’t compete with Stephen Fry’s eloquence in outing his cancer journey. However common cancer has now become, it’s still hard to find the words to talk about my own cancer, whether to close family members or to casual acquaintances – all who seem to start every conversation or email with “are you well?”. That question – “are you well?” has floored me since my diagnosis. “Great” feels like the wrong response when you’re struggling with the side effects of cancer meds and unsure if you’re about to go through chemotherapy. But “not really, I’ve got cancer” hardly feels the most appropriate response to someone you’ve just met who is casually saying ‘hello’. After a few weeks of hesitated responses I got comfortable with “fine”.

That got harder when the greeting shifted to “gosh – you look really well. You’ve lost weight…?”. After my diagnosis, learning how extra weight really affected breast cancer treatment outcomes and recurrent rates, and finding that exercise was the best way to reduce the side effects of medication, I developed a serious exercise habit, as well as rebalancing my diet. I’m now a daily Zwift addict (I hesitate to explain or I risk addicting others – my husband curses me regularly for passing it onto him). The consequence was weight loss and better physical fitness than any time in my life. My enforced teetotalism as a (apparently unusual) side effect of my meds hasn’t exactly done me any harm either.

And actually, I am really am fine. Professionally I do work that I love, and cancer hasn’t stopped me being able to do it. I found my lump relatively early. Two weeks later (my fault, the NHS offered me a date in a week but I couldn’t do it…) I went through the most empathetic diagnostic process I could have imaged at the one-stop Breast Clinic at Barts. After a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy I was told the same morning by an experienced consultant breast surgeon that yes, I had cancer (subject to pathology results) but given numbers to call, leaflets to read and a date to come back a week later. Since then have had superb medical care, with a battery of tests to make sure I only got the treatment I needed, replacing the brute force “throw it all at ‘em” regime prevalent a few decades ago. My breast cancer was hormone receptor positive, which is the easiest type to treat. Advances in genotyping (genetic testing of my biopsy to work out what the characteristics of my own cancer were) meant that I avoided chemotherapy, as the results suggested that chemo would do me more harm than good. I was put on hormone therapy for six months before surgery to shrink the tumour by half, so that the surgery was less drastic. My surgery last week went as planned, and thankfully my pathology results show that the cancer hasn’t spread. Just radiotherapy to go, then 5-10 years on hormone therapy which isn’t exactly fun – but manageable. Particularly if I maintain my Zwift habit.

Then of course there’s the psychological angle of cancer. My professional career has taught me to deal with challenges calmly and in their stride, which may be one reason why I’ve never asked ‘why me?’ or raged against the diagnosis. Similarly, a career which has taken me across sectors and leading transformational change means I have a mindset which finds the unknown intriguing rather than terrifying, making my response to cancer to sign up for online courses to understand cancer genomics rather than to ponder my mortality. But it’s not all been plain sailing. I’ve learned that the treatment path for breast cancer is a journey, not an event – and with one test dictating the next action, and so on. That makes scheduling work meetings months in the future with any degree of certainty rather hard. So I’ve had to let go of some of my desire to be in control. Having made the shift to portfolio-working a few years ago has definitely helped, as I’ve just scheduled the “cancer-stuff” in alongside the rest of my working life. In fact, a combination of more exercise, working hours which are normal rather than ridiculous, and more focus on looking after myself means that my long-suffering husband has described me as the least stressed he’s ever seen me. And it’s all relative, anyway. I have a wonderful husband and family. Friends who’ve been brilliantly supportive. I’m lucky to be sufficiently financially solvent to have been able to slow down a bit without worrying how to pay the mortgage. There are those who have it far, far worse than me.

So, having seen cancer blogs everywhere I’ve looked for the last few months, I wanted to add my own voice. First, I want to apologise to everyone whose diaries I’ve mucked around over the past months by uncharacteristically rescheduling meetings with vague excuses. Second, for those going through a similar journey, I want to offer support. There are lots of us living with or being treated for cancer, and hopefully the more of us who talk about it, the less scary the journey is. And finally, I’d like to raise awareness of the fantastic charities who support women with breast cancer, and on which the health service depends. And to highlight one in particular. Every leaflet I was given was produced by Breast Cancer Care, whose blogs and advice helped me hugely. They depend on donations.

Relying on my Zwift habit to keep me fit over the coming weeks before I can go back outside and train, I’ve signed up to ride the 100 mile ‘Ride London’ at the end of July for Breast Cancer Care. I’m not aiming at a fast time, but instead my goal is to raise money for this fantastic charity which helps women who go through Breast Cancer. I’d be hugely grateful to anyone prepared to sponsor me (click this for link to my Just Giving page).

All the best, Natalie

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Breast Cancer, Cycling An…

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