‘I felt a rising bubble of visceral, existential terror’: One cancer survivor on the terrifying moment of diagnosis

‘I felt a rising bubble of visceral, existential terror’: One cancer survivor on the terrifying moment of diagnosis

In late August 2021, I walked into my local hospital for a mammogram that I was sure would show that I was suffering from nothing more worrying than a pesky cyst. I was so sure I’d be fine that I didn’t even tell my husband I had an appointment. Instead, it was the day my world collapsed.

When I first described my symptoms – one breast had crept mysteriously a little higher than the other, it was firmer and felt tender when my seatbelt pressed on it – the doctor nodded and smiled reassuringly. But when I raised my arm to show him how the bottom of the breast flattened, his face became suddenly solemn, and I knew I was in terrible trouble.

At the mammogram, the lovely technician’s initial jolly banter petered out into silence, and I felt a rising bubble of visceral, existential terror.  I didn’t get my diagnosis that day, but I already knew. I texted my husband, Chris, saying, “I’m at the breast clinic and I’m in a lot of trouble.” He rushed to my side and held my hand during agonisingly painful biopsies before I walked out of hospital, leaning on his arm, shaky and white faced with shock. I had another appointment in a week’s time when the doctors would tell me the results.

Having someone to support you during this frightening, uncertain time is vital – ideally someone who is able to be calm and optimistic even if you can’t be. For me, it was my husband. Fortunately, the King is surrounded by resilient characters, including his wife and his sister.

The realisation that something is wrong

But unlike me, the King had to walk out of the hospital to face the glare of the world’s media, a smile on his worryingly thin face despite already being told at the very least that his doctors had found an “area of concern” and possibly that he had, or was very likely to have, cancer. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. While we don’t know the King’s exact diagnosis, I would bet my life that at that point he too was – and possibly still is – afraid of dying and would likely have been consumed with dread about sharing the news with his family.

For me, the week after my first appointment was like falling into a nightmare. At the hospital, my biopsies were being tested to see if they were cancerous tumours, and if so what kind and how far they had spread.

How long do I have?

On Sept 2, with Chris holding my hand,  I was told I had a highly aggressive, fast-growing form of breast cancer, with multiple tumours which had already spread to the lymph nodes under my right arm. It was impossible to prepare for this appointment as without a diagnosis, it was hard to guess what my outcome or treatment would be. It is vital to have someone with you when you hear this news. And not just for emotional support. The immediate shock can make it hard to take in and remember what’s being said.

My first words, delivered through torrents of tears, were, “I can’t die. I have children.” Followed by, “How long do I have?” My wonderful surgeon patted me on the shoulder and said, “Oh no! We intend to cure you.” It was exactly the right thing to say, but even so, at home, I fell apart. I often say that that period between the first suspicion of cancer and starting the treatment was the worst time of all.

Everything felt uncertain and my mind went to very dark places. I firmly believed I was going to die. At my lowest moments, often in the small hours, I wondered if it would be best if I did away with myself rather than put myself and my family through a lingering and painful death.

But I maintained a brave face for my two teenage children still at home – a daughter of 16 and a son of 19. We went out for pizza the evening of my diagnosis, a brightly lipsticked smile on my face.

Though I often wept in the car where they couldn’t see or hear me. I was unable to work as my mind was consumed with horrific thoughts of dying. Three things helped me a great deal. I kept as busy as I could during the day, going to the gym and walking my dog. I was assigned a Macmillan nurse, Jo, who I could call at any time during the day, and she often talked me down when my fears were spiralling. Also, my empathetic GP gave me a temporary prescription for sleeping tablets. I was able to spend my evenings watching mindlessly absorbing television, comforted by the knowledge that at 10pm I’d be able to take a pill and slip into blissful, worry-free oblivion for eight hours. Some people benefit from taking anti-anxiety medications at this point.

As time went on, my coping strategies included focussing on gratitude for all the good things in my life. I would walk downstairs every morning and remind myself to be grateful for my safe, warm home. I gave myself small daily treats, such as a coffee in a café on a sunny afternoon, and planned things to look forward to, such as a trip to the seaside, lunch with a friend or a visit to the ballet with my daughter.

Telling your family and friends

Telling the people that you love that you have – or may have – cancer is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I told a close circle of friends on my WhatsApp group immediately, from my first clinic appointment, even before my husband arrived.

But I resolved only to tell my children when I had a full  diagnosis. There was a risk that my cancer had spread, making it stage four, or incurable, which terrified me. I was scheduled for a series of scans to look for any sign of cancer in my bones, brain, or internal organs before I could start treatment.

On Sept 15, I returned to the hospital to be told that they were clear. It felt like the best day of my life. I was also given a detailed treatment plan involving chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. I celebrated my scan news by going to yoga, and later that day told my children separately that I had cancer but that “it had been caught early and the doctors say they can cure it”. I said they could ask me any questions they wanted. I made sure I was able to tell them the news without any drama, as I made tea in the kitchen, to keep life as normal as possible. They knew that their dad had been told, but I was on my own as we chatted which helped keep the situation low-key. The last thing I wanted was to scare them with a sombre announcement.  They responded more calmly than I imagined possible, with all the optimism of youth.

My mother, however, was devastated. I told her in person when I visited one afternoon and sat with her until 2am until she stopped crying. Friends also sometimes wept when I told them, which I found difficult. I remember saying “Look at me. Am I crying? If I’m not crying, you can’t cry.” If someone tells you they have cancer, try not to give way to your own emotions. While I could appreciate that people were shocked and that their tears indicated their affection for me, I simply did not have the emotional reserves to reassure and comfort anyone else at this point. It can help us if you behave as normally as possible.

One of the best reactions came from my hairdresser, who simply replied: “Well, that’s s–t, isn’t it?” I loved it when people talked about anything other than cancer, especially if they made jokes and shared gossip with me. It was important to be in control of who I told, when I told them and how much I told them.

Managing your professional life

I had to inform my editors that I was taking some time off for cancer treatment, which I did mostly via email. This is a good way of allowing people to process the news before they have to reply. I wrote a brief explanation of my diagnosis and treatment which I could cut and paste into messages to save myself going through the whole grim story over and over again.

Everyone handles telling the news in their own way. Some people feel that cancer is an intensely private thing and want as few people as possible to know. I didn’t feel like that. When I had had a few weeks to come to terms with my diagnosis, I even put the news on my social media accounts, such as Facebook. Other people nominate a good friend to be the disseminator of news and updates.

However, I shudder to think of having to tell the whole world within a week of the first indication that I had cancer, as King Charles has had to do. I wasn’t always Pollyannish. I would often ignore the torrents of texts asking how I was as I was too tired to face them, and wanted to do anything but rake over the days’ horrors. You may be anxious to know how someone is, and be motivated entirely by kindness and concern, but even cancer patients deserve some time away from their phone, to eat their supper, chat to their families or just have some cancer-free headspace.

Charles is lucky to be surrounded by resilient characters, says Hardy
King Charles is lucky to be surrounded by resilient characters, says Hardy – Joe Giddens

I appreciated people who would text “thinking of you” rather than “how was chemo today?”. The worst question was “what’s your prognosis?”, which felt incredibly intrusive. Sometimes people would ask, their head tilted sympathetically, “And how is Chris doing?” to which I would respond tartly, “My husband? He’s FINE. Because he doesn’t have CANCER.” Unfair I know, but I resented what I saw as an implication I was a bad wife for getting cancer or that I should be supporting him when I was living in a state of barely controlled panic. Camilla’s daily visits to Charles in hospital were, I think, a sign that she will support her husband as devotedly as Chris supported me, but I hope people aren’t demanding that Charles be grateful for that yet.

As time went on, I came to feel intensely moved by the affection and support I received from my friends and family. Many of us never really know how loved we are when we are alive. Cancer gives us that gift. I am more open with my own feelings as a result. If Harry and his father can heal their rift before it is too late, that’s a gift of cancer too.

Starting the treatment plan

From the moment of my diagnosis, I was obsessed by the repulsive and terrifying idea that my cancer was growing and spreading inside me. So my first chemo session, which happened just 20 days after my diagnosis,  felt like a glorious opportunity to fight back.

My year of NHS treatment was planned with astonishing precision. I was to have chemo, then injections of targeted therapies similar to immunotherapy, followed by surgery, a double mastectomy with reconstruction, and then radiotherapy. Reactions to treatment are highly individual and impossible to predict. You are told about every possible side-effect and, today, patients are given medications that can make most of them reasonably tolerable. I always advise people to go back to their cancer team if they are suffering from any treatment-related symptoms at all as there is usually something that can be done.

I ended up taking almost a year off work as I found that any stress caused my mood to plummet. I also suffered brain fog from chemo, and, frankly, was so busy with appointments, it was hard to find the time to work. Other people work throughout, finding it a distraction. Every experience of cancer is different and deeply personal, and there’s no right or wrong way to handle it. I hope King Charles’ love of art, exercise, gardens, his family, and nature will help him as they helped me.

Though cancer is the club that nobody wants to join I feel a kinship with anyone who has had to hear that terrifying diagnosis. I’ve learned to compartmentalise my thoughts, actively push away thoughts of recurrence the moment they start to creep in. Right now, I’m thinking of the King, and wishing him, as I wish everyone facing cancer, the best possible outcome.

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