I’m Grateful to Breast Cancer.
There, I said it. But I don’t want to be saccharine about it. The experience was all kinds of sour, salty, bitter, and terrifying. Sometimes the words ‘you have breast cancer’ still ring in my ears and darken my mood today, but mostly, the experience sparked a ripple effect within me that I could never undo; nor would I ever want to.
In May 2020, just as the world had gone into hiding due to Covid restrictions, I received the devastating news that I had an aggressive type of breast cancer. I was 40 and a new mum to six-month-old twin boys. My mind was swamped with questions. Why was this happening to me, and why now? We had just navigated an assault course of obstacles whilst struggling to conceive for over 5 years, and now this.
When our IVF consultant at Guys St Thomas Hospital had told us that the conditions in my womb were ‘textbook’, and promptly transferred our 5th and 6th embryos into my uterus, we were over the moon. As the two little white dots glowed on the ultrasound, I had cried with a ’knowing’ that I was finally going to be a mummy, and when Charlie and Leo were born in October of 2019, it felt like life was finally going our way. Until the cancer diagnosis. It felt cruel and unfair. My babies and my husband needed me now more than ever.
After a lumpectomy in my right breast and complementary bilateral lift (bye bye saggy boobs!) I underwent several months of chemotherapy, all the while juggling the demands that being a new mum brings. During my first round of treatment, I felt inwardly emotional. I was surrounded by other, much older patients wearing surgical masks, their heads buried in crosswords. My heart ached for them, and I felt sad and sorry for myself too. But as the machine that administered the chemotherapy drug beeped, my spiritual number (an entirely random 104) shone like a beacon of hope from the back of the machine, reassuring me that everything was going to be okay. It lifted me and I hoped that someone would look up from their word puzzle so I could greet them with a reassuring smile, but nobody did.
I swelled with a ‘f*** this’ kind of resolve, and knew that, come hell or high water, I was going to be a success story because I was determined to be one. So, I delved into my own ‘Happy Thoughts’ notebook that was a gift from a dear friend, and wrote a stream of consciousness. It became an exercise in creating and experiencing my intention of a happy and positive future. It helped keep me calm, brought me joy, and forward-focussed me so that I wouldn’t dwell.
The aftereffects of the rounds of chemo were predictably similar. Immediately I would feel a bit spaced out and hot, then cold, then hot, and then the following day I would feel hungover and nauseous. Day 3 I would add sore bones into the nausea mix, but by day 4 a big black cloud would loiter over my head and I just couldn’t get control of those evil, anxious thoughts. So, I stopped trying, and I just let them be. I wailed, and wallowed, and my heart hung heavy. It’s so hard to be positive when you feel that the power is not in your hands. I tried not to dismiss those feelings that arrived and floated away like the tide. But by day 5 I felt more like me again; able to tackle the day with a spirit of faith. Faith that this was another of life’s hurdles and I was going leap the sh** out of it!
Being a keen runner, I wrote about the future marathon that I sorely wanted to run. I’d completed two London Marathon’s two decades prior, but I’d always gotten so overwhelmed on race day at 18 or 19 miles that I couldn’t keep running to the finish without walking too. My words flowed as if I was there in that moment, smashing through the 20-mile mark and still pacing to the finish line with elation, sweat and happy tears dripping. In reality, I had cold chemotherapy drugs invading my veins, but my mind was fixated on race day and what it felt, smelt, looked and sounded like to put one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles. No sooner had the ink dried on the page, I had signed up to Edinburgh Marathon for the following year from my rainbow chair. I used this method of purging and plotting across all areas of my life. I asked myself: ‘how do I want my future to look?’, then I created it with words, like a sculptor chipping away at a soulless block of grey concrete to create something colourful and evocatively magical.
One of those things, very importantly to me, was a writing career. After walking away from my own successful events business, I’d tried for 14 years to get a TV/Film writing career off the ground. Despite being shortlisted for BBC Writers Room for a feature script I’d written about a young man with autism, nothing had been greenlit, and I was feeling stuck. It had been suggested to me many times that I should write a book, but I had held a big secret that I was embarrassed to share, and it was that secret which kept me from escaping the bog.
When I was at school, I really struggled to focus. I was often caught staring out of the window during class and was branded a dreamer by my teachers. My friends would devour book after book after book and I felt inferior to them, as I struggled to get past the first page. I’d read a sentence, and then the next, and then I’d start thinking about which Shetland pony I would be riding at the weekend – my childhood obsession – and I’d lose my place, having to then read and reread again and again. It was exhausting. I remember reading one book about a dog called Barney, when I was eight, and my mum being beyond excited – thinking that I or she had cracked it and perhaps I was a ‘reader’ after all. Alas, I just had an ability to hyperfocus when it suited me, and I never read another book again.
To my surprise, as I sat in the chair during my third round of chemo, my pen wrote the words ‘the children’s book phenomenon’ and words piled onto the page, more automatically than consciously this time, like a dripping tap. Not with a specific idea for a book, but I saw the success of a book. My book. A book series that would capture readers’ hearts and make an important impact. I was excited and unnerved, but still held onto those limiting beliefs of ‘who am I to write a children’s book when I didn’t read as a child?’; ‘people will see straight through me’; ‘I’ll be laughed at’.
The thing about a life-threatening diagnosis is that it gets right to the core of you, quickly. On a cellular level you are being called by something much bigger than you to have many conversations with yourself and with others. I’d been a people pleaser my entire life, and would always put other people’s needs before my own. I wouldn’t dare share my real thoughts, beliefs or feelings if someone had upset me, or tell any of my friends that I would rather do something else, in case they didn’t want to be my friend anymore. In the moment, I felt that it would be easier to not upset anyone and to keep the status quo. Evidently, I had stored this slew of emotion inside my body. A harsh reality of being forced to face the depths of these feelings came out explosively at times, but once aired, I began to observe a growth within myself that I felt really proud of and lighter for. I started to challenge my natural tendencies to put myself second, third or last, and spent more time prioritising my feelings, and my need to leap outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to live my life bursting at the seams of fullness; I wanted to make it count. But most importantly, I wanted to leave a legacy; to ensure that everything I did I gave back to the universe, to say thank you for my life.
During my first marathon training run, enveloped by trees, I felt utter joy and gratitude for nature around me. I ran and shouted ‘thank you’ out loud over and over and hugged trees and stroked leaves and cried big beautiful giddy buckets of tears. I decided there and then that I was going to do the one thing that scared me the most… write that children’s book! A children’s book that would inspire children to innovate; that made it cool to care about nature and the planet. I had a ‘knowing’ that if I could not only read a story to children, but also share my own difficulties that I had as a child, I could help so many believe in themselves and their power and importance to affect positive change too.
Then, something quite remarkable happened. My debut novel, ‘Rory Green Secret Agent to the Queen’, written in a dyslexia friendly font, was released by an indie publisher in November 2022, with 5p from every book sold being donated to Rewilding Britain, an incredible UK-based wildlife conservation charity. I am currently on a school tour, using the messages in my book to encourage children to not only celebrate themselves and their individuality, but also to show kindness to themselves and each other, nature and the planet, to make it safe for all our futures.
Thanks to surgery, chemotherapy and daily medications that put me in temporary menopause – or hot flush central as I like to call it – I am a breast cancer survivor! I have a life and a voice that I am proud of. Out of breast cancer came purpose, and every day I am grateful to it for the kick it gave me to get over myself and be vulnerable; to help others and our beautiful planet!
With this purpose has come incredible opportunities, and I am thrilled to have been invited to read a chapter and sign copies of ‘Rory Green, Secret Agent to the Queen’ at Happy Place Festivals at Chiswick House on the 16th July and Tatton Park on the 2nd and 3rd September, and look forward to meeting you all there!