I’ve been known as the ‘crazy, curly blonde’ my whole life. But that identity, that me, was lost when I was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 35.
The loss of who I was, my style, my personality, began with the words “cancer” but continued on through a year of intensive chemotherapy, radiation, many painful surgeries and culminated in the loss of my hair and going bald.
I lost my sense of self as a woman – and as a person in the wider world – every time I looked in the mirror and saw a deformed breast and scars. It was hard to remember who I was before cancer.
Thankfully, only 3.5% of thirty-somethings in the UK go through breast cancer. I was one of the unlucky ones. And what I found was a dearth of information, resources and advice for young people. Almost everything is targeted at the 65+ woman.
Who would tell me how to find a safe place to shave my final wisps of hair off; where to buy stylish bras that don’t hurt scars; which mascaras are gentle enough to use on the few lashes still clinging on; which are the best natural haircare products for baldness and new, sprouting hair and how the hell do you draw on eyebrows?
I could find little or no support, which made going through cancer even more isolating, lonely and frustrating.
Finding my confidence, post-cancer, has been hard. It’s felt like learning to walk again. But I’m getting there and these are a few ways I’ve managed to regain control and feel more like that ‘crazy, curly blonde’ again.
1. The power of Instagram
Having cancer is lonely. I spent long stretches of time at home and going to chemo and radiation appointments alone, while my boyfriend was at work, was grueling, especially as I was the youngest patient at the hospital by at least 30 years.
I ended up closing myself off from everyone. I didn’t have the energy to explain how I felt, what I was going through. It was all too complicated. Sometimes I felt like a pressure cooker about to explode, other times I felt completely numb.
But when I did feel like sharing my feelings, I turned to Instagram. Being able to share my raw experiences, gradually made me feel less alone. I connected with other cancer patients, we encouraged each other. I began to feel liberated. I started to feel what felt like confidence coming back to me.
2. Facing the truth
I still can’t totally believe I’ve had breast cancer. Over a year later and after two breast surgeries, having my lymph nodes removed, IVF (to freeze my embryos), an agonizing Port-A-Cath surgery, six cycles of FEC-T chemotherapy, 20 treatments of radiation and ongoing hormone therapy – and still think: ‘Did I really have breast cancer?’
Coming to terms with having breast cancer isn’t easy – there were tears and sleepless nights – but it’s an ongoing part of my recovery. Accepting the brutal truth has enabled me to release the frustration, anger and tears that I’d previously locked up. It’s given me a greater appreciation of what I’ve been through. I now feel proud of myself.
3. Do one thing a day that makes you happy
I’m now having post-cancer treatment which is so tough. Sure, it's not as physically traumatic as all the surgeries and chemo, but what I didn't expect was how low I would feel once my cancer treatment was all over. It's as if people expect you to be back to normal. One of my darkest days was straight after my final radiation treatment. Suddenly, the nurses, doctors and other patients - my everyday support network - were all gone. I have never felt so scared, so lost, so sad. Returning to work has also been emotional and stressful as I try and gain a sense of my new post-cancer self.
So, to help soften the journey I’ve been trying to do at least one thing a day that makes me happy. Something that relaxes me, which draws me out of my dark thoughts and sparks my imagination. I’ve been writing poems, coming up with new porridge recipes (it's the only thing I can cook), fantasizing about fashion and writing letters to my best friend. In these moments I feel uplifted. I hope they can carry me through this new chapter of rediscovering myself after breast cancer.
Follow Alexia on Instagram to follow her #canceruncensored journey.