12 months ago, my life fell apart.
Up until that moment, I’d believed I was healthy, active and strong. I thought I was invincible. After all, I had survived burnout, head injury, racing accidents and severe postnatal depression. I had two beautiful teenage daughters and a loving husband. I ran a thriving independent coaching practice alongside an IT contract role for a charity that I had been passionate about for 17 years.
Yet on 7 June 2018, my life fell apart.
Those words “I’m sorry, Mrs Bevan, it’s cancer”.
I remember the buzzing in my head … that feeling that you’re about to faint; the consultant’s words all blurring into one.
And then the tears.
And here I am 12 months later feeling healthy, active and strong again.
I feel blessed, lucky, one of the chosen few. My breast cancer was detected early on a routine mammogram. It was tiny (11mm); it required surgery to treat but a lumpectomy not a mastectomy; followed by radiotherapy not chemotherapy.
When I first heard those C words, I felt very angry. “Why me? Why does cancer pick the good people? I’m fit and healthy. I don’t deserve cancer. I breastfed my daughters for way longer than average in this country. It’s just not fair”.
Cancer does not discriminate. Statistics mean nothing when you are the one that didn’t get away.
However … cancer taught me some powerful lessons about life (and work) and I’d love to share those with you today.
Cancer is not something to be ashamed of, in fact it’s more common than you think.
As soon as I was told, I knew straight away that I wanted to be honest and open about my experience. By this time, I’d had already had to go back to the hospital a couple of times – a second mammogram and biopsy. My children already knew of the possibility of cancer.
Yet … there is so much fear and ignorance around breast cancer. Since being diagnosed and treated, I’m amazed at the number of women who’ve said “Me too”.
A few numbers: Cancer Research UK tells us that there are 55,000+ new cases every year. In 2016, there were 11,563 deaths. And 78% survive breast cancer (females only) for 10 or more years.
Everything I’d read in the past suggested that having a positive mindset aids cancer recovery and survival. I have a positive outlook on life so this wasn’t too hard to put into practice. Plus with two teenage daughters to protect, I was determined to not collapse on the ground wailing and crying. How’s that going to help them (or me)?
As a strong empath, I knew that it would be important to maintain strong boundaries and protect my energy so that I didn’t take on the grief and fear of others. I instinctively recognised the importance of surrounding myself with people who would lift me and to withdraw from negative energy sources.
The day that I sat on the ward waiting for my trip to theatre, I sat with my MP3 player with happy feel good music playing, to zone everyone else out.
My first appointment at the radiotherapy unit in Guy’s was scary and almost overwhelmingly emotional.
That day, I made a promise to myself. Every day when I come for treatment, no matter how scared or sad or angry I feel, I will find something positive to share. That’s what I did for 15 days – one positive photo every day. I carried on loving life while the NHS helped me fight cancer.
When faced with cancer, there’s a harsh reality to face. You might die. You might not survive. Harsh but true.
That in itself is a huge driver to examine your life: who you spend time with, how you spend your time and what work you do.
Cancer taught me to focus on doing work that brings me joy. I spent time reflecting on my coaching practice and the work that I do. I love working with women and helping them to feel happy and confident at work so that they are happy and confident at home.
I’m also an NCT breastfeeding counsellor. During treatment and recovery, I had to stop doing antenatal classes. When I did my first one in January after an 8 month gap and in the same month my first speaking gig for a year, I had a lightbulb realisation that although I enjoy one-to-one coaching, what brings me most joy is working with groups of women.
Overnight I changed my business model to focus on work that brings me joy. So you can still work with me one-to-one but I now focus more on workshops, my online Career Club and public speaking.
Without time out for cancer, I might never have learned that powerful lesson of doing work that brings me joy.
Like many mums who work, I sometimes go into ‘martyr’ or ‘victim’ mode. I’m not proud of it but it is what it is. I’m getting better.
But sometimes when I get home from work and realise that nobody thought to empty the dishwasher or book tickets for the school play or water the garden, sigh.
Pre-cancer, I rushed around in the mornings, making sure everyone was up on time for school or work, that breakfast was sorted, showers showered, packed lunches packed … so much so that I would often forget to look after myself. My tea would go cold or I’d rush out the door, only realising when I got to the office that I’d forgotten to eat breakfast.
Surgery wipes you out. And just as I was starting to recover, I began radiotherapy which wipes you out even more. Radiotherapy was absolutely exhausting. It was a cumulative effect. And even after radiotherapy had finished, the deep bone tiredness, lack of energy and flat emotions continued for several months.
Cancer taught me to look after myself first. I realised that me being a martyr or victim was not positive or healthy for anybody. Especially not me.
I started to show myself more compassion and kindness. To spend more time reading. More time colouring. More time watching TV with my family in the evenings. More time doing nothing. It was a revelation.
One of the hardest things about the cancer diagnosis was telling people close to me. Especially my children; that was the hardest of all.
I’m grieving. I’m scared. I’m vulnerable. And now I have to give you bad news. Sometimes the person hearing the news is so upset that I am supporting them.
By the time I tell you this my news, I’ve already heard it, absorbed it and cried over it.
For you, it’s the first time. And maybe you weren’t expecting it.
Everybody responds differently.
Give yourself time to grieve. For me, the first weeks after diagnosis, was an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes angry, sometimes defiant, sometimes scared, sometimes sad.
But also sometimes joyful, happy or excited. Just because I’ve got cancer doesn’t mean that I only feel fear and anger. I’m still me.
I’d listened to Susan David’s TED talk earlier that year on the gift and power of emotional courage. From her I learned “Emotions are data, they are not directives. …We own our emotions, they don’t own us.”
In other words, just because you’re feeling angry right now, it doesn’t mean you are angry forever. You don’t need to ignore or suppress those so-called ‘negative’ emotions. I learned to accept that the emotion I am feeling right now, is the right emotion for me to feel. To allow the emotion to flow through and over me.
I allowed myself to feel and accept my emotions. To notice when I was feeling sad or scared or angry. To acknowledge the emotions; to allow my feelings (and the cancer) to refine me, not define me.
Honestly, and this might sound a bit gushy or icky, but THE single most powerful lesson for me, and one that I needed to hear
I am loved.
Just as I had finished radiotherapy treatment, feeling at an absolute low, my husband was rushed into A&E with appendicitis. He spent two very long weeks in hospital. For a while he was seriously (like seriously) ill.
At times I don’t know how I kept going. Twice daily visits to the hospital – working full-time, doing all the food shopping, cooking, cleaning and everything else that goes into family life with two teenagers.
Not that I had a choice.
However I will never forget the love and kindness shown to me at this time – by friends, by strangers, by work colleagues.
The kindness of the NHS staff, especially at Guy’s.
The kindness of friends sending text messages to check I was OK. Or turning up on my doorstep with freshly baked lemon drizzle cake. Or leaving a pot of homemade butternut squash soup by my front door.
At first I couldn’t understand why the Universe had put me through so much, so intensively. I knew there was a message.
It took a while but I realised that the message is “I am loved”. This goes way beyond “I deserve to be loved” which is what I learned in 2016.
I realised that if I wanted help or support, I simply had to ask.
People don’t love me because I work hard or I’m successful. They simply love me for being me.
I’m loathe to say that cancer has been the best thing that could have happened to me however I have learned powerful lessons.
It’s more common than you think. There’s power in having a positive mindset. Do work that brings you joy. Look after yourself first. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. And finally, the most important of all “I am loved”.
If you or a loved one has been through a similar experience, don’t feel that you have to feel or react the same way as me. We’re all unique. What’s right for me might not be right for you however I do encourage you to #lovelifefightcancer.
If this article talks to you, do leave a comment with your thoughts.
P.S. To hear more about the most powerful lessons that cancer taught me, book me to speak at your event (just as happy to talk about my pre-cancer topics of career confidence and work-life balance).