We are all familiar with the stories of victory from the brave people who have recovered from breast cancer - images of pink ribbons and beaming smiles at charity running events. Thanks to a huge investment in research over the past few decades the survival rate for breast cancer has continued to improve so that today, over 90% of women (and men) diagnosed with primary breast cancer will declared cancer free. But what about those who aren’t cured? It is believed that 25%-30% of the 'survivors' will eventually see their cancer return or spread. For us, our lives will never return to normal. We are kept alive for as long as possible by drugs that alter our mood and change our bodies whilst we battle every day to carve out a new life in the ever preset shadow of incurable cancer.
Four years ago I was leading a fairly normal and fulfilled life. At that time I was 41, happily married and the mother of 5-year-old twins. I was a partner in a successful IT business which afforded me and my family the lifestyle we wanted whilst enjoying a healthy work/life balance.
It was a huge shock to be diagnosed with primary breast cancer in March 2014. Although the tumour characteristics were highly aggressive, the cancer was caught early so statistics were in my favour. The 1.7cm tumour was removed using breast conserving surgery followed by five months of chemotherapy and 19 sessions of radiotherapy and a year of Herceptin. All in all the treatment lasted about 18 months. In October 2015 I received my last Herceptin treatment and graduated to the coveted and celebrated ‘survivor’ status. I got on with my life and put the whole ordeal behind me while I tried to ward off anxieties about the cancer returning.
Six months later, and one day before our family were due to start a new life in Spain, I was diagnosed as ‘Stage IV’ and the world stopped. In one moment I was catapulted from a proud, healthy and confident cancer ‘survivor’ to a desperate, hopeless and lonely place. I consider myself to be a problem-solver and optimist but this was overwhelming - my brain just couldn’t comprehend that there was no way to solve this problem. In those early days, my husband and I spent endless days and nights crying and desperately trawling Google looking for the miracle cure and the way out of the situation we now found ourselves in. Whilst we discovered some amazing stories of hope and courage from people in similar positions, we slowly had to accept that there is no escape hatch. Stage IV cancer is incurable.
Over a year has passed since my Stage IV diagnosis and I have reached a place of understanding that whilst my cancer can’t be cured, it can be managed. My medical team do a fantastic job of monitoring and treating me using all the resources available to them and I do everything I can to keep myself in good physical shape to withstand the treatments and give me that extra edge. I’ve also learned and adopted many rituals to help keep me mentally strong. These practices have enabled me to rebuild my identity and confidence and have given me the physical and psychological strength to survive.
Living a life in the shadow of cancer can be physically and mentally exhausting and learning to feel the beauty and wonder of life again is a personal journey that requires time, understanding, discipline and a strategy.
I started this website in the hope that I can support other people who are also facing this challenge by sharing my experiences and building a community of experts in the areas that I have found vital for my emotional and physical healing.
I would love to get your feedback on what is helpful and what is not.
To your health and happiness.
Catherine Steele x