Published on: 4 January 2021. Written by: Alice-May Purkiss
Writer Alice-May Purkiss had a plan for her twenties – and then breast cancer came and turned everything she knew on its head.
I had a really clear vision of what living in London in my twenties would look like. I saw myself working hard, nailing my career, gaining skills and experience as I went. I envisaged enjoying life outside of my provincial home town of Northallerton in North Yorkshire as I headed for the capital – the theatre, the nightlife, the food.
I expected that time to be filled with nights out, fun days stomping around the city and making memories with my partner Chris. And that’s how it was for a while. Until I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Here are the things that no one tells you.
1. Cancer can happen to anyone
I’d found a lump in my right breast sometime in early 2015. By May, I figured it was time to get it checked out. I saw a GP who, while not concerned about the lump, referred me to the breast clinic ‘just in case’. Then I saw a surgeon who, while not concerned about the lump, sent me for an ultrasound – ‘just in case’.
On 7 July 2015, just before noon, with my partner’s hand on the small of my back, I was told by a kindly doctor in a big bow tie that the lump they had biopsied was cancerous. I had cancer. I was 26.
That diagnosis meant the latter part of my twenties didn’t turn out quite how I’d expected. Overnight, I went from being a young professional striving for promotions and recognition, to being a young adult cancer patient struggling to stay alive. I went from meetings about social media management to meetings about a mastectomy. From cocktails, to chemotherapy. Life changed in that moment.
2. It’s not like the movies
Cancer had always seemed like something that happened to other people. There was no history of any cancer, let alone breast cancer, in my family. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t really drink much, I was the healthiest I’d ever been. It didn’t make sense.
I wish I could say that I screamed and cried when I heard the news, that I had some kind of reaction to being told there was a tumour in my breast that was trying to take over my body – but I was completely numb. Even as I told my parents, my sister, my closest friends, and watched them cry, I didn’t. It took about a week for the tears to come, but when they did, they were monsoon level.
3. Treatment is tough (but recovery is tougher)
There was little time for tears. Very quickly, I was launched on a pathway intended to rid me of the mutation in my breast as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because of my age, they went all guns blazing, determined to ‘cure’ my cancer. Three weeks after I was diagnosed, I had a mastectomy. I had six sessions of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy. I lost my breast, my hair, my eyebrows, my sense of self. Clawing my way back from that was the biggest challenge of my life.
4. You’ll worry about your loved ones more than yourself
My partner Chris took most of the strain of my diagnosis, and I hated watching how that affected him. Moving away from both our families meant we were on our own. Our friends were great and we were really well supported, but when it came to carrying me to the bathroom when I was too weak to walk, or making sure I took the drugs I needed at the right time, the burden fell on him.
For others, the shock of my diagnosis was so strong I could almost touch it. I lost count of the amount of times I heard someone say ‘but you’re so young’, and I constantly found myself fibbing about how I was really feeling to protect the people around me from the truth. When I was broken and battered, I kept it to myself because I didn’t want to give them the burden of my illness to carry.
5. People don’t always know what to say
Since my diagnosis, I’ve read and written a lot about the right and wrong things to say to a cancer patient. I was told I was ‘lucky to get a free boob job on the NHS’. I was told I must be ‘fine now’ because I’d finished treatment when in fact I was on the brink of a mental breakdown. I was told turmeric would cure my cancer. I was told I must have manifested the cancer with a negative mental attitude. I’ve even been told I was lucky to get the ‘good’ cancer. Trust me – there is no ‘good’ cancer.
Although these things can be hurtful, they rarely come from a place of malice (apart from maybe the idea that I brought cancer on myself – that one felt pretty malicious). Before I had cancer myself, I would likely have leaned on clichés to help me speak to those who’d been diagnosed. When people don’t know what to say, they reach for platitudes. But that’s why ‘survivors’ must keep talking about our experiences, so that cancer becomes less of a taboo.
6. You’ll focus on the present
Writer Sophie Sabbage, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour, says that getting a cancer diagnosis puts us on notice, that it’s a reminder we won’t live forever. Facing my mortality forced me to stop living in the future and concentrate on where I am now. It hasn’t stopped me ‘sweating the small stuff’.
I still get stressed about my hair when it won’t do what I want it to, although I always remember it’s nice to have hair. But I focus much less on what’s next. I don’t have a five-year plan anymore because I know that the universe throws curveballs whenever it wants. I’ve confronted the fact that, one day, I will die. And that’s OK.
7. Cancer changes everything
There is no part of my life that cancer left untouched. I may be coming up to five years since I finished my treatment but cancer still affects me regularly. It has impacted my work, my relationships, my body, my energy levels, my outlook, my philosophies and the way I live my life.
Cancer changed the latter part of my twenties so that they became almost unrecognisable from the life I intended to have. But for that I am not sorry. Would I give back everything I have learned and experienced since my diagnosis if I could live a life without a cancer diagnosis in my twenties? Maybe. But I have learned so much.
8. Knowing my body saved my life
One thing I know for sure is that checking my breasts regularly and being able to recognise when something was different, saved my life. By the time my tumour was removed, it was growing quickly and had already started trying to make its way out of my breast and into other parts of my body. Had I not gone to the doctor when I did, had I not been referred when I was, I might not be well enough to be writing this piece today.
So if you make one promise to yourself in 2021, make it getting to know your body. If something doesn’t feel right, speak to your GP.
Knowing my body saved my life. Knowing your body could save yours.
Vitality GP Dr Dawn Richards said, ‘no one knows you and your body better than you, so if you notice changes which you are concerned may be related to cancer, please get them checked out. A cancer caught at an early stage is much more likely to have a better outcome.’
If you’re unsure about how to go about checking your breasts or need a reminder, here’s our guide to how to check for breast cancer.
We know that everyone worries about cancer, which is why we partner with Check4Cancer to ensure members have access to early cancer detection checks and genetic services testing. These services have continued to stay open during the pandemic and VitalityHealth* members who think they may have a symptom of cancer are urged to refer themselves, speak to a Vitality GP or their NHS GP now. Log in to Member Zone for more details or find out more about Vitality health insurance and cancer cover.
*Qualifying members can access discounted checks and risk assessments for bowel, breast and cervical cancer. Check4Cancer’s team of specialists have extensive clinical expertise and evidence-based services that are supported by audit data.
Do not delay getting yourself checked by a GP. Detecting cancer early can increase the chance of survival and potentially prevent the spread of cancer, which means treatment is more likely to be successful.