A survivor's guide to breast cancer

YVONNE HUGHES
Last updated 10:12 10/10/2012
breast cancer
SURVIVAL GUIDE: Checking your breasts regularly is the best thing you can do to protect yourself.

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There's no mucking about with breast cancer. I went from being a blonde with big boobs who complained about specialist underwear to being a blonde with one boob complaining about specialist underwear. In two weeks. But for this, I get to keep going with my life.

I can tell my story succinctly. I did a breast check and found a couple of lumps close together. I had tests which confirmed cancer, I was booked in for a mastectomy, and the breast is history. As they say. So, it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Instead of reading about survivors running marathons, here's a little advice from the "been there, done that" breast cancer club, for those of you who haven't been touched by the C-word.

1. CHECK YOUR BREASTS
Early breast cancer is treatable and while the treatment itself is extensive and unpleasant, it means you get to live. But that's all after you get diagnosed, and many women still don't check their breasts regularly.

When I told people I had breast cancer, I was amazed by how many women responded by telling me that they didn't do breast checks. This included nurses or other health workers, and women with family members who'd had breast cancer. I know we're all busy and tired, but why aren't we taking more responsibility for our own health?

If it's fear that's stopping you, then turn the fear into something positive. Make the fear make you vigilant. We're only talking about a five-minute examination once a month. Just a quick opportunity to save your own life.

2. NO PLATITUDES, PLEASE
If you do find yourself face-to-face with a person with breast cancer, please, please, please avoid platitudes. Sure, breast cancer and all its associated treatments give new meaning to "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but for the most part, trite statements are not helpful. Whatever you do, don't assail them with "everything happens for a reason". It doesn't always. And no one's really going to feel better for that.

3. YOU DON'T NEED CANCER TO FIND MEANING IN YOUR LIFE
It's true, some people see cancer as a "gift". They find meaning in their illness and use it to make positive changes in their lives. And good on them. I really take my hat off to them, and from a bald woman that's a real accolade. But why aren't we already paying attention to our children? Why are we taking our loved ones for granted? If you're healthy and reading this, then perhaps that's food for thought.

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4. NOT EVERYONE HAS A CANCER EPIPHANY
I remember feeling disappointed in the early days of diagnosis that I hadn't had an epiphany of some sort. I was faced with death and I didn't have any visions of God, Buddha, or the wisdom from spirits of the dearly departed. I even tried initiating these conversations, but sadly ... no response. However, I am enjoying reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. But I would have, anyway.

I guess my only epiphany was that I just wanted to get back to my old life before the Big C. The one involving my little family of husband and baby and our daily routine of trips to the park was good enough for me. The plans we had for the future still sounded good. I didn't need to reassess my values or ambitions. And I certainly didn't need to run a marathon to prove I was doing well.

5. DON'T STARE, BUT DO ASK HOW WE ARE
Before diagnosis, my little boy and I were regulars at our local playground, and I used to love watching him explore. However, during the chemotherapy months, I hated going to the park. Aside from all the horrible thoughts going through my head ("What if this is the last year I get to see this? What if I don't get to see him grow up to use the big boys' play equipment?"), the other mothers did little to hide their stares, and I knew I was their worst nightmare.

I'd like to invite them to put themselves in our shoes, instead. It's pretty bad being bald in a kids' playground. So swap the stares for a kind smile. Talk to me, if you like. Ask me how I'm "travelling". That's code for understanding what I'm going through.

6. CHECK YOUR BREASTS. PLEASE.
I feel lucky every day. I've had the year from hell, but I found my cancer in time, I've had every treatment available, and I'm walking away relatively unscathed. I get to have my health back. And I get to do ordinary, everyday things once again. The simple message is to take responsibility for your own health and do those very easy breast checks. You know how. If you don't, ask.

- Daily Life

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