Thursday 27 October 2016

Coping with breast cancer - advice from author and cancer survivor Emma Hannigan

Whether you've just been diagnosed or are living with the disease, Emma Hannigan, who has fought breast cancer herself 10 times, has advice for you and your loved ones. And to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we speak to three inspirational Irish women about their experience with the disease

Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30

Author Emma Hannigan
Author Emma Hannigan
Breast cancer

Have you been diagnosed with breast cancer recently? Or are you going through treatment right now? If so, welcome to the club!

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Why does that sound so ominous? Probably because none of us want to be part of the cancer club. No amount of PR would ever entice any right-minded person to join voluntarily, yet one in nine women in Ireland will become members. In fact, there'll be 2,800 new breast cancer club members this year alone.

The rules are changing all the time however. Years ago most breast cancer club members were doomed. Awful as that may sound, that was the prognosis. But medical advances and rapidly evolving treatments mean that many members, like myself, are here for the long haul.

I don't have all the cures up my sleeve. nor am I a doctor, but I've been living with breast cancer for a decade now. I had a million and one questions at first, so I'm going to try and remember some of them and answer them as best I can.

1 Is it normal to feel as if the bottom has just fallen out of your world?

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is something that happens to other people, until it falls in your lap. Feeling every emotion from fear, to shock, to anger, to sadness is actually good. Let yourself feel all of the above.

2 You are not intellectually dull if you cannot fathom most of what is being said by medics.

In the beginning I used to sit and try to listen to my medical team and wonder why I couldn't understand half of what was happening. Take someone with you to appointments and take things one step at a time. Believe me, you'll become a genius before long.

3 I don't feel strong/brave/ inspirational. Does this mean I'm not going to beat this cancer?

The truth is that nobody feels brave immediately after being diagnosed with cancer. Instead it raises to the surface every doubt fear and shred of vulnerability we carry. That's because it's damn scary. But once you get going on treatment and the horror subsides, an inner strength rises up like a volcano.

4 I feel guilty that I'm putting my loved ones through so much.

For me this is the most hateful part of having cancer. I can put up with any amount of pain or sickness but knowing I'm upsetting my nearest and dearest is the most bitter pill to swallow. All I can say is that it's not your fault. You didn't ask to be sick, and the best defence is to fight this disease and get back to being you again soon.

5 I'm so sick from the treatment, does this mean it's not working?

Sadly side effects from treatment can be harrowing. But I have always kept myself afloat by reasoning that if my body is so low, imagine how the cancer is feeling?

6 Will I ever feel normal again?

In a word - yes. It never ceases to amaze me how much our bodies can take and bounce back again. Look at what women go through during pregnancy and birth. Cancer treatment is similar. Our bodies are put through the ringer, but as soon as treatment finishes, you'll start to recover. I promise.

7 My weight has plummeted or I've ballooned. Will I get back to the way I used to be?

I know this can seem like a first world problem seeing as we're discussing cancer. But my recent chemotherapy made me expand like a space hopper. I hate the puffiness around my face and chin. I detest my belly and as for my thighs… On a previous chemotherapy I became skeletal. That wasn't attractive either - yes it is possible to be too thin. Each time I returned to my former size using healthy eating and exercise.

8 Foods I used to love taste awful and I can't enjoy my usual tipple. Is this normal?

For many patients there are taste changes during treatment. I can't drink coffee never mind a glass of wine right now. Chocolate tastes like greasy mud and I suddenly like jelly babies. I've been here before and it all passed once the treatment ended. Avoiding alcohol isn't a bad thing and I know deep down that coffee and chocolate aren't exactly healthy either, but I'll be weaning myself back onto both asap. A girl's got to have some pleasure in life right?

9 How long will it take for me to feel normal once treatment finishes?

This really depends on each individual but in my experience (all 10 times) it took me a couple of months. I don't mean that I was ready to race an Ironman and attempt to take over the universe. But after a couple of months I was able to accept invitations out and have entire days when I didn't need to go to bed - result!

10 Is it possible to move on after cancer or will I always fear re-occurrence?

I'm asked this question more than any other. In my case, the cancer kept coming back, so I never got the stage where I could move on and forget about it. But from chatting to other women they assure me that the fear subsides with each passing month and year that they stay well.

I know how terrifying a cancer diagnosis can be. But it is possible to get through it. So if you're starting your battle or if you're facing a second or subsequent diagnosis, please know you're not alone. Also, take heart and hope from the fact that I am still here 10 years and 10 diagnoses later. Not because I'm brave or an inspiration (God I hate that word) but because medical science is keeping me alive.

If you've just joined the club, I hope you'll be okay. I'm here rooting for you. If I can do it, so can you.

Breast changes to be aware of

• A change in size or shape - it may be that one breast has become larger

• Changes in the nipple - in direction or shape, pulled in or flattened nipple changes on or around the nipple

• Rash, flaky or crusted skin changes in the skin - dimpling, puckering or redness 'orange peel' appearance of the skin caused by unusually enlarged pores swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone

• A lump, any size, or thickening in your breast

• Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit

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