In the words of John Lennon in his song Beautiful Boy: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. In the words of the consultant at St Luke’s Hospital in Bradford: “So we have your results. I’m afraid it’s not going to be the news you were hoping for…”
And by deliberately phrasing it like that, in those few seconds she thoughtfully and empathically allowed a penny to drop… because the results of my routine mammogram, further breast screening and then biopsy confirmed: they had found breast cancer.
Safe to say, I didn’t have breast cancer on my 2023 Bingo Card. But as a result, I’ve gone through two lots of surgery this summer – as well as the unsurprising mental and emotional repercussions of it all (which have included, but not been limited to, countless ‘WTF?!’ moments). When describing it to friends and family, I’ve likened it to being on a rollercoaster, and not just because of the ups and downs (nor indeed the mental whiplash of the aforementioned ‘WTF?!’ moments); but because it’s a ride you’re strapped in on without being able to get off. It’s also not a rollercoaster you’ve ridden before*, so you don’t know quite when the loop-the-loops (or indeed lulls) are going to come, nor how long they’ll last for. And yet, as the Irish mystic Ronan Keating once sang: you’ve just gotta ride it.
*Full disclosure: You would never in a million years find me going on an actual rollercoaster, because I don’t like heights. Or speeds. This might make me sound like I’m not a lot of fun, but I promise I’m actually a great person to go to a fairground with, mainly because I can hold everyone’s coats when they’re on the rollercoasters.
Despite the rubbishness, though, the feeling I’ve mostly been experiencing is gratitude. I’m one of the lucky ones who got the best version of the worst news. My cancer was found relatively early; it hasn’t spread; it has been treatable – and I’ve been treated swiftly, brilliantly and empathically by the incredible team of NHS doctors and nurses at St James’s Hospital, aka Jimmy’s, in Leeds. I’ve been thanking my lucky stars that I have a wonderful husband, friends, family and home; that I live in a lovely town in beautiful countryside; that I got this news in the summer, not the dark winter… The list goes on and on, because there’s so much to be grateful for.
I’m also incredibly lucky because my cancer was found in the first place. I had no symptoms at all, no lumps and bumps, there’s no history of breast cancer in my family, it was my first-ever mammogram, I felt completely fine physically… so I had absolutely no idea I had it (and will never know how long I had it for). I’d received a letter calling me in for a routine NHS breast screening, most likley because the mobile screening unit was in my hometown of Ilkley (stationed in the Booths car park – as if one needed another reason to love Booths aside from its own-brand ice cream and extensive alcohol-free drinks range). I went to my appointment, and they found it.
So the reason I’m writing this isn’t just to share my personal news – or to say thank GOD for the NHS (but: thank GOD for the NHS) – but also to say: if you or anyone you know has had a letter through inviting you/them in for a breast screening, please please please take it up. If you are over 53 and have never been called in for one, consider contacting your GP (tell ‘em I sent you!) -> https://www.nhs.uk/…/how-to-book-or-change-an-appointment/. Because a mammogram isn’t painful at all (trust me, I’m a bit of a wuss) – and like me, you might feel fine and have no symptoms and yet still have a little critter in there. And the sooner they can find it, the sooner they can, in the words of the lovely breast cancer nurse at St Luke’s: “Tek it out and chuck it in the bin.”
At the time of writing, they’ve chucked mine in the bin, and I’m awaiting radiotherapy treatment in the autumn. In other words, I’m still strapped into the rollercoaster and hanging on in there. But I will come out at the end of the rollercoaster. My legs may be wobbling like jelly and collapse under me like Bambi’s… but I will come out. And I will – in the words of Leeds’ band Chumbawamba (I often walk past the neon sign above on the way to Jimmy’s) – get up again.
As will you, dear reader, if you’re similarly going through a weird, tough time too. Hang on in there, because we’ve got this – thanks to all the loved ones, experts and total strangers who each, in their own way, help us, support us, hold our hands on the rollercoaster, make sure the ride is safe, and bearable… or aer simply waiting for us at the end of the ride, holding our coats.
Because Ronan Keating was right all along. And so was John Lennon. And so were Chumbawamba. And so is whoever painted this beautiful street mural I also regularly walk past on the way to Jimmy’s – because creativity does indeed take courage. As does life.