If you could write a letter to your past self, on the day you were diagnosed with breast cancer, what would you say?
It wouldn’t matter what I wrote to myself: I wouldn’t have been able to read it. Hearing the word ‘cancer’ obliterated everything I heard or read because gut fear took over. Brad Pitt could’ve turned up with a bunch of roses and I wouldn’t have noticed! I was unreachable mentally and emotionally that day. The only thing that I felt any connection to was my faith…
What was the hardest thing to deal with during treatment and how did you get through it?
Without a doubt – chemo. I have tiny deep veins and having the nurses trying to get the huge needle in for chemo was horrific. They were fantastic, but one time, they accidentally missed the vein and started the drip. The chemo drugs went into the surrounding tissue and it was like being set on fire. I am scarred with burned out veins even now, nearly ten years later. How did I get through? My fabulous oncologist used to sedate the hell out of me beforehand. I was totally off my face! To deal with the cold cap (used to preserve what hair I had), I used heavy migraine medication and pretended I was skiing! I actually negotiated slopes in my head like Olympic skiers do! Of course, I would go for a run before my chemo treatment, so I could take the rest of the day off… and go for a run, or stagger the next day!
Did you change the way you dressed or your beauty regime, as a result of going through breast cancer?
I was doing my TV chat show all the way through my treatment, so I was being dressed by my fantastic stylist @katherinedoylestylist. I had a massive grapefruit-sized infection under my left arm, so I did most of my shows with that arm on my hip! But the clothes were pretty much the same as always. I couldn’t do necklines that revealed the scarring… I still can’t. And I became incredibly allergic to a lot of make-up, so my amazing make-up artist @marcoantoniolondon stopped using any vaguely perfumed products. I also found I could only use @jomalone perfumes… It’s still that way…
Oh, and because my fingernails fell off, I finally stopped biting them!
Did your breast cancer treatment change the way you ate?
Absolutely! My throat, mouth and stomach were totally ulcerated and I became very sensitive to a lot of tastes, smells and textures. I became obsessed with eating samphire – a blessing as the seaweed is very iron-rich and was much needed during treatment. I favoured smooth and fairly bland textures out of necessity and as I used weight training and exercise instead of many of the drugs to combat nausea, I lost a fair bit of weight but stayed relatively strong.
What’s the worst thing you can do or say to someone being treated for breast cancer?
Hug them without asking (excruciatingly painful! Strangers would come up and do that to me all the time!)
Don’t call us brave! Getting a diagnosis isn’t brave! Besides, when you insist someone is brave, it makes it harder to cry, ask for help and be anything but brave… It limits the coping mechanisms vital to your mental health.
And please, please don’t tell them how sorry for them you are and that breast cancer is a horrible disease because it’s what killed your mother or aunt or sister or best friend or grandmother! I’m not a violent person but that kind of thoughtlessness nearly drove me to make an exception many times!
Any simple tips or advice for women faced with a diagnosis?
Stay active: walk, jog, crawl… whatever. Research has shown that it speeds recovery, helps you through the treatment and is vital for your mood and mental health.
Don’t become a victim to the diagnoses – bad for mental health because it keeps you stuck in helpless victim mode, instead of being able to look back and realise that perhaps without even realising it at the time – you’ve discovered new strengths and resilience!