Zoë’s boyfriend of 7 years had just proposed to her in Rome and they were busy planning their wedding. Having met each other later in life, she was turning forty a month after the wedding, they had planned to start their family immediately after.
Then, Zoë was diagnosed with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer. Four years on, she describes her experience;
I found a lump in 2012 that I immediately had checked out. Fortunately, this was only a cyst. But it felt like that lump never went away, so in 2014 when it started to hurt, I went to get it checked. I was completely numb and shocked when I received my diagnosis. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to have children. I was also worried about dying.
I had five and a half months of three different types of chemotherapy and a lumpectomy. The surgery didn’t remove all the tumour, so I then had a mastectomy. This was then followed by five weeks of radiotherapy on the breast and the hip.
Physically I supported the treatment well. With the first type of chemo, I had it once a month for four sessions and I would feel a little ill for about two days afterwards. Otherwise, I was working out most days. I had the motivation of feeling good in my wedding dress after all!
During my treatment I kept thinking ‘I don’t want to be fat and bald!’. I was getting married. I was also worried that I was going to be sick all the time as that was all I knew about chemotherapy side-effects.
I was off work for sixteen months and wanted to be as active as possible. I have always wanted a dog, so I took the opportunity to spend time walking dogs at the local shelter.
More recently, spread has occurred to my liver and vertebrae. after the initial shock, I got on with my day to day life. I am now on Faslodex, an oestrogen receptor down-regulator in conjunction with the targeted biological therapy Ibrance which I started a couple of months ago after the progression of the illness.
I was unable to have my eggs frozen prior to treatment due to the aggressiveness of the breast cancer and as it was hormone positive, they didn’t recommend that I carried a baby. Despite this, mentally I have been genuinely handling everything well. I have the odd slump every time I get bad news, particularly as almost every time I have had a scan, progression has been found which has led to more radiotherapy treatment.
There is a local English-speaking support group in Geneva that my oncologist told me about. I did use it for a while for counselling, some mindfulness programmes and a Look Good Feel Better afternoon.
I wish there had been more of a support network about how to eat and how to exercise.
My husband is my absolute rock and a great support. My brother’s wife was amazing, and my brother visited me every day when I was hospitalised and of course my family and friends, both locally and overseas were great. My dad lives in Africa but FaceTimes me most days.
Aside from the obvious worries about the progression of my illness, and being so fatigued, I feel amazing. I was unexpectedly made redundant in February and this was the wake up I needed. It was a job that I really didn’t enjoy, in an industry that was not at all in line with my personal values. In fact, it made me feel stressed and short tempered.
The happy couple
I now have more time to focus on my business, Simply Zoë, where I supply elegant and comfortable yet functional items, to help women through their treatment and recovery after a breast cancer diagnosis. Having the time to work on Simply Zoë is leading to things that I never dreamed of such as public speaking about my situation. It’s a pretty exciting time! It energises me but also the only pressure is what I may put on myself, so I have as much time as I need to rest. It’s a win win.
My perception of breast cancer has changed hugely. Before my diagnosis there was no history of breast cancer in the family and the only picture I had of the disease was bald women, who looked sick and bloated and that it was life ending (how awfully ignorant!) But now, even living with metastatic cancer, I know that I can still live a full and fulfilling life. I spend time with friends and I look after myself and my health.
Yes, it’s horrendous and scary and living with uncertainty is really unpleasant, but medicines are advancing all of the time and I am hopeful and determined that this will be a chronic illness that I have to live with, but that I will be able to live with comfortably.
I have cancer, but it doesn’t define me.