THIS week Sarah Harding shared that she is having treatment for advanced breast cancer.
She’s 38 years old, the same age as me – it’s an age you never expect to be facing an incurable disease.
The Girls Aloud star’s battle is a grim reminder that cancer doesn’t care for your age, it doesn’t care how young and healthy you are, it’s prepared to strike anyone.
Reading the Instagram post where she opens up about her diagnosis and treatment, the fact her disease has advanced, took me back to when I was diagnosed.
All the feelings came flooding back, and so I thought I’d write this week’s column to Sarah, and all the other people knocked sideways by their cancer diagnosis.
My letter to Sarah
Dear Sarah, and the 1,000 other people who will be told “it’s cancer” today,
Welcome to the club you never wanted to be a part of – the cancer club.
Right now, in the wake of coronavirus, it feels like the forgotten ‘Big C’, dwarfed by the pandemic that’s thrown our lives upside down.
Yet, it’s the ‘Big C’ that has sent your life spinning, out of control, like a whirlwind that you can’t escape.
You are probably trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other, and just get through the day.
You will find the strength, and if some days that feels hard that’s OK, it is bloody hard
Even the smallest of tasks feel impossible.
You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, your stomach is a tight ball of nerves, slowly twisting tighter and tighter.
You can’t stop crying, trying desperately to hide your fear from your loved ones but wishing you could hide away under the covers and wake up when it’s all over.
But, you can do this. You will find the strength, and if some days that feels hard that’s OK, it is bloody hard.
There is a community out there
Just know this, there are lots of us here, walking alongside you, knee deep in this crap together.
Draw strength from the people around you, they might be strangers but there is a community of cancer patients there waiting to help.
We know what it feels like to live gripped by fear, we know what it’s like to not know what our future holds.
Only we can really understand that 3am fear, when you wake up in the night terrified and your mind runs wild.
Reach out, ask for help. There are lots of us here and we’ve been through it too.
Just know this, there are lots of us here, walking alongside you, knee deep in this crap together
I will never forget the day I was told I had cancer, three and a half years ago.
It was like the floor swallowed me up and the world felt like it was slipping away.
I was initially diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer, but just a few weeks later doctors told me it had spread, and was stage 4.
That was a totally different ballgame. I felt like I was living with a ticking timebomb inside me, someone had pressed the start button and I had no idea when it was going to go off.
It felt so unfair. I looked at others my age (I was 35) and thought, ‘why me?’.
I was a fit and healthy vegetarian, running fanatic who had two young kids.
None of us are invincible to cancer
The thing that I didn’t really realise until my diagnosis is that none of us are too fit, healthy or invincible when it comes to cancer.
While we can reduce our risk, lots of cancers are not lifestyle related.
It’s so easy to try and unpick the ‘why?’, to blame yourself and feel guilty. I know I did.
I thought it was my fault.
When I heard the word cancer, I did what lots of people do, and I feared the worst
The best thing I did was say that out loud to my doctor, who told me I did nothing wrong.
When I heard the word cancer, I did what lots of people do, and I feared the worst.
I started planning my funeral, I had conversations with my husband, parents and siblings and I assumed my life was ending.
It wasn’t a ridiculous assumption, given I have a rare mutation that makes my cancer pretty hard to survive.
But in the last three and a bit years, I have started to realise there is some home, and you can even find some laughter in the darkest of places.
I'm proof you can live with cancer
You can live with cancer – I'm proof
I am proof you can live with cancer, even a really nasty one, even when the statistics say you might not.
All cancers are different and every patient will have their own way of dealing with their disease.
There is no right or wrong, but you do need to hold on to some hope.
Find hope in the fact we have come so far in the last 40 years, meaning that thanks to research more people will live after their diagnosis than will die from cancer.
There’s no doubt we have more to do, but it’s the science that keeps me alive.
There’s no doubt we have more to do, but it’s the science that keeps me alive
The drugs I am on now, the ones that are keeping me here, didn’t exist when I was diagnosed.
I still find that incredible, and it’s that hope that keeps me going.
My best advice is to take one day at a time – don’t think too far ahead.
I could spend every day feeling sad about the future I might not have, but then again I would never have thought I’d still be here now.
Cancer is unpredictable
Cancer is unpredictable, I’ve lost friends along the way, who on paper should be here instead of me.
You will have down days, you will feel terrified and wonder how to cope with the rollercoaster.
There will be days where you want to crawl into a hole and not come out.
You will scream and cry and break down.
I’m just reaching out to say you’re never alone
You will have to face some of your darkest fears, and you will want to run away.
But somehow you will do it, you will pull yourself through – not because you are brave (you are) but because you will do anything in your power to stay alive.
I’m just reaching out to say you’re never alone.
I won’t tell you it will be OK because I don’t have a magic ball, but I will say have faith in your doctors and the medical team around you.
Trust that despite all of this, you will find a reason to laugh and you will have good days too.
And if you want, there are lots of us cancer patients walking alongside you, shouting “F*** you cancer” at the top of our voices, holding your hand through it all.
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