Cancer is an issue we hear about more and more these days but I have to admit that initially I was nervous about being so public with this news, however I can, with all my heart, say that it is so important to talk about it and share when possible.
From first-hand experience, and I am not ashamed to admit it, I hit a solid brick wall post chemo cycle #2.
Just by chance, I stumbled across Victoria Derbyshire’s videos about her own breast cancer journey, and up to this point, I was ready to throw in the towel.
Four videos in, I had turned the corner and I reminded myself that ‘I can do this.’ I can’t be sure if I won’t hit another wall again (I probably will) but I know that there is inspiration out there that I can lean on, if and when the time comes.
I also realised people want to help, but are not always sure how, or know what to offer. If you reach out, people reach back; it’s the beautiful thing about human nature and nurture. Because, trite as it sounds, sometimes a tiny bit of help really does go a long way. And I have sincerely appreciated all the help that has come my way over these last few weeks.
I hope that one of the things cancer has given me is the ability to be a better friend, mother, employer, and general all round good egg!
The way we live now, so many of us settled far from our extended family, with perhaps both partners working as we try to juggle an array of meetings and day-to-day family commitments, hoping against hope that our loved ones don’t get ill on the day of our big deadline, meeting, or presentation, leaves so much space for help and support.
One of the stark realities for me is the importance of acknowledging your own well-being and mental health. Mental health is one of the biggest public health issues of today, impacting all aspects of society, and it goes without saying that mental illness is an illness, just like any physical illness.
Numerous organisations, across the country and the globe, including more closer to home such as The Royal Foundation, the Forces in Mind Trust, MIND, and smaller organisations that are part of our armed forces network, are doing sterling work in making talking about mental illness acceptable. Anything that helps to reduce the number of people who feel they must hide, and helping them to understand their illness and seek treatment has got to be a good thing for society overall.
And this is why I believe business leaders must take the lead. Many people refuse either to accept treatment or to discuss their illness for fear of hurting their career.
If business leaders make clear that they expect colleagues with these sorts of problems to come forward and help them to understand that it will in no way harm their prospects, and that their illness is like any other, it will help enormously.
The fact that we only talk about workplace stress when there is a high-profile case of mental ill-health is a problem. Such cases seem to be occurring more frequently, or at least more publicly.
This brought me to asking myself if there had been anything in the past few years that might have triggered my illness.
To be absolutely open with you, the last two and half years has been one of the most stressful times of my career in business.
As an entrepreneur, I was used to taking big risks to make my ambitions a reality. The opportunities that have come my way simply wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone and pushed myself to explore my potential.
But, the reality is, I have had one of my most challenging times over these last two years. I have experienced isolation; the more successful the organisation and team became, the more I’ve had either conscious or unconscious negative feelings that I’ve absorbed and not been open about because of keeping a stiff upper lip.
For me, the phrase ‘It’s okay not to be okay,’ and asking for help, came later than it should have.
In his book, ‘The Secret of Health: Breast Wisdom,’ Dr Ben Johnson writes: ‘We’ve got a thousand different diagnoses and diseases out there. They’re just the weak link. They’re all the result of one thing; stress. If you put enough stress on the chain, and you put enough stress on the system, then one of the links breaks.’
He’s absolutely right. When you’re in the grip of these feelings and experiences it creates a toxic environment and affects all aspects of your life, your work and your relationships because you can’t think about anything else.
I firmly believe stress and anxiety can trigger many illnesses and diseases and of course it is how you cope with or manage stress, which matters. If a good environment can heal, then that means you can prevent it as well. If you end up internalising negative feelings, then it inevitably causes harm.
For me, I know the stress I suffered led to not eating the right foods, perhaps drinking the extra glass of wine at night and not doing enough exercise. Having a balance is so important.
I didn’t share this with you in my first blog, partly because everything was so overwhelming, and secondly it only occurred to me when looking through notes about previous medical examinations, but I had a breast check with my GP in January 2019, and nothing was detected so the cancer cells might have been non-existent or microscopic.
Had I changed my behaviour, lessened my workload or been kinder to myself, would I have had the same diagnosis this year? I just simply don’t know.
So how is my treatment progressing? I am still dealing with the changes that are happening in my life. The cosmetic changes such as not having hair, which may sound banal in light of the backdrop of the seriousness of chemotherapy and cancer, but it is up there as one of the most distressing side effects for women (and men) going through treatment.
I know the treatment is making me better and I am up for the challenge again. As my chemo nurse said, ‘take heart that you are now one third through your chemo treatment!’
I have two types of days now and one of them is a ‘good day’ and the other one is ‘not such a good day’ so when my family, friends and my team ask me how I am, these are my two gears.
It helps me and it helps them so we catch up on the good days and I rest on the not so good days and I am eternally grateful that I have more good days than any other!
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has been so kind and thoughtful – even people I have never even met, who have inspired me and shared their experiences, which would no doubt be painful to do, but is so important in helping others.