What I learned from having breast cancer
When Dianne Taylor discovered in 2011 that she had breast cancer she felt confident that this was not going to be a death sentence and she would be OK. Following 3 months of chemotherapy Dianne underwent major surgery. Critically ill, she struggled to stay alive and to hold onto her faith.
In October 2011 I was working hard to build up my business, with 70-80 hour weeks, as well as an active social life and family commitments. I wasn’t looking after myself, but at least I made time for my annual breast screen, as both my mother and sister have had breast cancer. The initial results were fine, but I was under the care of my sister’s cancer surgeon and he always had his patients’ mammograms double checked by a particular radiographer that he trusted. She noticed a slight shadow - tiny but enough to recommend a biopsy. The shadow was so small and indistinct that when I went in to have the biopsy this same radiographer tried to talk me out of it, saying it may be unnecessary. She showed me a huge needle, and said the actual one they use is even bigger! My purpose in telling my story is to share some things I learned that might be useful for you. The first one is to pray about everything and listen to your intuition, to whether you feel peaceful or unsettled. Mine was telling me to go ahead, just for peace of mind.
The day after the biopsy I received the dreaded phone call from the cancer surgeon to tell me I had to see him as soon as possible to discuss my biopsy results. My diary was full, as usual, and I told him that I didn’t have time to see him, and asked him to tell me over the phone. He said “I’ll be here from 7am to 6pm tomorrow and you can come at any time between those hours and I will fit you in”. I knew at that moment what the news would be.
Another learning is that you can’t take your health for granted, as I had been doing. I knew what to do and so do you. If you have a little voice that’s telling you to improve your diet, exercise, deal with stress better, or get a check-up then listen to it. I have a friend who says when there’s a message we need to listen to, first we are hit with a feather, then a brick and finally if we still don’t listen we are hit with a bus. It took a bus to get my attention!
Everyone’s cancer journey is different. In my case, I was confident that it had been picked up early and I’d be OK. Although it’s unfortunate that we have cancer in our family, we’re lucky that it’s not aggressive. My mother survived for 30 years after her breast cancer and for my sister so far it’s been 13 years. I knew my life was about to change, but I never thought that the cancer was going to kill me. It’s a very different situation when you get the news that you have a life threatening condition. However my next message is that cancer is not always a death sentence. Lots of people think it is!
In fact I was too optimistic, as I often am. I had an operation to remove the lump, and they found not one but 3 cancers all about 10-15mm in diameter. My doctor said I would need treatment - an operation and chemotherapy. I was such un unwilling patient! I told him I would prefer to just change my lifestyle, eat the right foods, meditate, use natural remedies, etc. My doctor looked me in the eye and said “That would be a really stupid thing to do. With treatment you will survive this and go on to live a long and normal life, but if you don’t get treatment it may be very different”. That’s when the reality hit me. I went away and cried for 3 days. Eventually my son took me out for a walk on the beach and then some dinner, just to get me out of the house. He listened to me and cheered me up. At the time he was working at a rehab hospital and he started to share the stories of people in there, young people with permanent brain damage whose life was never going to be the same, and it gave me a different perspective.
Once again, everyone’s decisions are different. I decided to go ahead with the treatment, but some of my friends really tried to talk me out of it, advocating natural remedies. My sister, who is a nurse, said “Its easy for them to tell you what to do but they are not the ones with cancer and if they were in your shoes they might decide differently”. Each person needs to decide for themselves, and whether someone chooses conventional treatment like chemotherapy or alternative remedies I think it’s important to respect their decision and support them in it.
So I had 3 months of chemotherapy, which was not as bad as I thought. The drugs had really changed since my sister’s treatment 10 years previously and I wasn’t really sick although I did get very tired. I was able to work all the way through the treatment, and most of my clients didn’t know about the illness. I believe my faith helped tremendously with this. I had many friends praying for me – in fact I was on the prayer list of 5 different churches as friends and family asked for prayer, and I could feel the power of prayers giving me peace and energy. As the chemo needle was in my arm I visualised the drugs as a healing force, withmy body under God’s protection so that the chemicals were targeted where they needed to be and didn’t affect other areas. I felt comfortable and at peace, in God’s presence throughout the treatment and this seemed to help me bounce back quickly.
I lost my hair, and found being bald was kind of fun. I enjoyed walking in the rain and, I even went surfing – so much easier when I wasn’t always pushing wet hair out of my eyes!
Towards end of the chemo I developed a blood clot in my leg, a DVT, and had to inject myself twice a day with a blood thinning medication. I hate injections! The first time I tried to inject myself it took about 20 minutes to be able to do it. I could put the needle on my skin but just couldn’t push it in! However I was able to do it easily after a while.
Because there were 3 lumps my cancer was considered stage 2, and that meant I needed to have the whole breast removed. My mother had done this and then a couple of years later developed cancer in the other breast, and had to have that one removed as well. I decided that I didn’t want to go through all this ever again, so I opted to have both breasts removed. These days they do a reconstruction at the same time, taking tissue from the stomach. It’s a big operation involving microsurgery with about 8 doctors - cancer surgeons, plastic surgeons, anaesthetists - and it usually takes about 7 hours.
During the operation I developed blood clots on one side and it took 12 hours instead of 7. I woke up OK though and the next morning and I was sitting up in bed and starting to drink some juice. They were checking me every 30 minutes and around 11am something was wrong - the blood clots had come back. So one minute I was feeling good, and the next I was back in surgery, this time for another 5 hours.
I‘m not sure what happened in that second surgery but it didn’t go so well. I was given a blood transfusion during the operation, and I woke up with 2 collapsed lungs. It was too much for my body, and it was starting to close down. I had 10 different tubes coming out of me, was attached to 4 machines, and I couldn’t breathe, eat or move. I sensed that I was close to death, and a doctor friend later told me I probably was. The duty doctor was visiting me regularly, and they even sent the chaplain – not quite the last rites but close!
The night after this surgery was like a dark night of the soul for me. I can usually sense God’s presence but that night it wasn’t there. I knew there was something terribly wrong, and although I had thought as a Christian I wouldn’t be afraid of death, I was very fearful. I kept praying, and it seemed like God was far away from me. At one stage I felt like giving up on God and my faith, but I decided that if I did that I would be even worse off – I would really have no hope – and so even though I couldn’t feel God or sense any answers to my prayers I would continue to trust in Him.
I found out later that two women from my previous church had felt led to pray for me that night, even though they didn’t know what was happening. One had prayed all night.
The next morning my mother came to visit me, and I was so sick that I told her to go home as I didn’t have the energy to even talk to her. I felt disconnected from my body, like a piece of meat not a person. So many medical staff had been poking and prodding me like I was an object. Of course, my mother didn’t listen and instead started massaging my feet, which were the only part of me not covered in medical equipment, and the loving, human touch somehow brought me back. It was as if the life came back into me and I had the will to fight again.
My mother also started fighting for me. She called my sister, who is a nurse, and got her to leave work and come to the hospital. She insisted on seeing the doctors and ensured I had a MRI to eliminate the possibility of more dangerous clots. When the chaplain came back again she and my sister all held hands and prayed around my bed.
For the next week I remained like that, seriously ill. I remember looking out the window one morning and it was peak hour, raining and grey, and I thought there would be people out there who were upset because they were stuck in traffic but they didn’t know how lucky they were to be able to breathe, get up out of bed, dress themselves and drive to work, as I couldn’t do any of those things. Ever since then when I think life is tough I remember that moment and feel grateful.
Part of the problem was that the transplanted tissue from the second operation hadn’t taken properly. I could see this, and asked my prayer network to pray for healing, and that the transplanted tissue would be saved, as well as praying fervently myself. But this prayer wasn’t answered in the way I wanted, and the tissue was starting to die. It became apparent that I needed another operation to remove the transplant, but was too weak to survive it. Eventually they gave me a blood transfusion - 4 more units of blood. I remember sitting up in bed and I could feel myself getting stronger with each one. For all of you who give blood, it really is a life saver – thanks!
Interestingly, it seemed that I could feel the emotions of the person who had given each unit of blood. One person felt grumpy, while another seemed to have been sending healing energy with the blood. I spoke at a breast cancer fundraiser last year and mentioned this and two people came up to me afterwards and said they had the same experience when receiving blood but had not been brave enough to tell people as it seemed too weird.
The next morning I had another operation, and all went well. By this stage I had moved to a place of complete peace and trust in God. Even the operating theatre seemed filled with peace and the doctors were really caring and gentle with me.
The experience of being so helpless and of unanswered prayer had brought me to a point where I realised that without God I can do nothing. It was a turning point in my faith. Here is what I wrote at the time, tapping it out on my phone as I was too weak to sit up or use a pen:
“I felt God asking me to put my hands into His, and to surrender completely...to step into the life He has for me. This means being prepared to give up everything...control, status, my business, my current hopes and dreams, my house, financial security, my false self...all that I am, have and desire. God made it clear that He has a plan for my life but that it will be like the operation...there will be pain and things will not always go smoothly but the experience and outcome will be OK in the end...exceeding my expectations. Otherwise I can live as I have been, trying to work it out on my own, trying to avoid risk and pain, with God a vital part of my life but not truly at the centre. He will stay with me in this option, as He always has, but I will not be living the life He created me to live and will not experience the fullness He has for me.”
“It feels like God is not offering me much, and in some ways it is a difficult choice to give up everything. He has encouraged me to count the cost and take time to consider before accepting. But really there is no other choice I can make. I would not settle for second best, and I love and trust God too much not to choose His will and His wisdom above my own. There is no choice, just working through the process of complete surrender in every area if my life with love and joy (no reluctance). Its letting go, and letting God do what He does best. … Lord Jesus, Father God, Precious Holy Spirit...I accept Your sovereignty in my life. I surrender all to you in complete trust and obedience. I love You above all things, and desire Your will and Your future in my life. Have Your way O Lord. Amen”.
From then on I started to recover, and a couple of days later I was able to sit up, then get out of bed for 5 minutes (after which I was exhausted). I went home a week after that, and was back at work part time in just 6 weeks so once I started to get better I bounced back fairly quickly. Over the next year, I had a series of operations and many more doctors’ visits to complete the reconstruction where the transplant had failed.
I mentioned that when I had been really ill my family gathered around the bed, held hands and prayed. Almost six months later to the day my family was doing this again, but this time it was my mother who was seriously ill and the outcome was very different. She had suffered a massive stroke, and we had just a few hours to say our goodbyes and let her know how much we loved her before she slipped peacefully into unconsciousness and passed away. There was a sense that once she knew the extent of what had happened she chose to go, and we were able to pray with her as she moved into the loving arms of God. My mother was in her mid-70’s and very fit, so the shock and grief were overwhelming. It was around this time I was given a quilt by ABC – such a blessing as I felt wrapped up and protected every time I used it!
Its now over 2 years since my cancer diagnosis and one year since my mother passed. While there have been many challenges, my life has changed in remarkable ways. My decision to surrender to God has seen my work slow down, but I still have enough to live on, and I’ve started researching and writing a book on spirituality – ask me about it at church if you’d like to know more! I feel complete in God, living a meaningful and purposeful life, and with all the love and resources I need. As for the cancer, the good news is that the doctors are using the word ‘cure’ not remission, and they all agree that the chances of getting cancer back are remote. At first I needed to share this story a lot, to come to terms with such dramatic events, but now I hardly mention it. It’s something that happened to me but doesn’t define who I am. I have moved on.
So, what have I learned?
- Life is short and precious, and you never know what is around the corner so enjoy it.
- I had been working so hard but when I fell sick my clients survived, and life went on quite well without me. Its great to work hard but keep a balance because in the end its family and friends that count.
- Coming so close to death has given me a different perspective, things that used to worry me don’t any more.
- My sister said to me after her cancer that she was glad it had happened to her, as it changed her family’s values and brought them closer together. I don’t seek out difficult times, but sometimes we spend our life in fear, worrying about what might happen and I have learned that suffering and pain are part of life and just to accept and make the most of what comes.
- I am grateful for my health, and for the amazing support of family and friends.
- God’s love and presence are always there, and in the end that’s all that counts.