Disclaimer: This blog is in no way a substitute for professional medical advice. It is based on my own thoughts and experiences and I urge you to see a doctor if you have any concerns regarding your health.
TW: Please note that mental health issues, self-harm and themes of suicide are also discussed.
This is my breast cancer story. And the only place where we can start is at the very beginning…
DARKNESS AND RAINBOWS
In mid-January of 2021, I was 39 years old, married and the mother of two beautiful young boys. We lived in the leafy and idyllic western suburbs of Brisbane, where I worked from home on my small jewellery business, Birdee & Star.
After the harrowing year which was 2020, I sadly witnessed so many fellow small businesses close. Despite the hardships in the wake of the pandemic, I was determined to keep my business afloat.
Unfortunately, there was a problem. My mental health was at an all-time low. After such a suffocating year, I was truly struggling. And I mean struggling. For a little context, I have suffered from mental health issues since my youth. Over the years, I had been diagnosed with Major Depression, Anxiety, OCD and more recently, Borderline Personality Disorder. Needless to say, I had a lot on my plate!
I had been managing my health issues to the best of my ability with regular therapy sessions and medication. However at the beginning of 2021, I had all but given up. It had become too hard. I wanted out and tragically, I wanted to end my own life.
Self-harm and suicidal ideation had been a struggle for me in the past, and I had made attempts on my life on more than one occasion. Despite loving my children more than life itself, I was once again buried in that dark place and I couldn't find a way out. I felt like I wasn’t a good mother and they were better off without me. I wanted to die.
On one hot, muggy Brisbane afternoon, I was dragging my heels to finish a pair of hand-painted rainbow earrings. I usually adore rainbows, but on this day they felt ‘too happy’ for me. However, I didn't want to let my customer down. Despite how I felt, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and got to work.
As I layered the many colours upon the arched bamboo base, I allowed myself to breathe and enjoy the moment. As depressed as I was, the tiny voice of optimism that resides within me demanded to be heard. I listened and for a moment, I thought that everything might be ok.
After an hour or so, I decided to take a break. I leaned back, took off my glasses and rested my right hand on my chest. And that’s when I felt it. A lump.
My heart stopped as the unexpected discovery sent my mind into overdrive. What was this? Has this always been here? No, it can’t be…
I frantically began consulting ‘Dr Google’ in the hopes of appeasing my mounting anxiety. But almost everything I read pointed to cancer. With my mind racing, I tried to tell myself that I was just jumping to the worst case scenario and there had to be another answer. There just had to be.
I must have sat and stared into space for what felt like forever before I gathered myself and completed the rainbow earrings. I was numb, scared, conflicted and confused. “It’s all in your mind Shannan,” I told myself. “Tomorrow is another day…”
After a very restless night, I kept my plans to meet up with my Mum for lunch. She had been concerned about the state of my mental health and wanted to cheer me up, so we went for a drive to Moreton Bay.
The whole morning I was preoccupied with my unexpected discovery. Mum thought my distant demeanour was purely because of my depression, but I didn't know how to tell her what was bothering me.
As we sat at a nice restaurant with a view of countless boats moored nearby, I grappled with my fears. I gazed at the fish swimming peacefully in the sparkling turquoise water below me, and longingly wished to join them.
I took a breath and decided it was now or never. “Mum, I have something to tell you…”
My Mum was shocked and concerned all at once by my news. Then her face turned serious as she questioned why we were out to lunch and not sitting in a doctor’s office. I hadn't wanted to cancel our day trip, and quite frankly I needed the distraction. But Mum being Mum, she was onto the doctor’s without a moments notice planning urgent appointments on my behalf.
Friday morning came in a heartbeat and I was on my way to the GP. My usual doctor wasn't available so I saw a young doctor who gave me my first ever professional breast exam. I had always avoided this sort of thing in the past out of embarrassment, but now I was left with little choice.
“It’s most likely a fatty deposit, but I’ll order a bilateral ultrasound ASAP just to be sure.”
The doctor's words were mildly reassuring, yet I could sense some trepidation. Also I had never had a breast ultrasound before. Some of my friends had had them in the past and luckily they revealed nothing more serious than benign cysts or fibrous breast tissue. I hoped that I would be just as lucky.
I remember walking into the waiting room of the radiology clinic and filling out the patient form, complete with a breast diagram. I drew a circle over the right breast where I felt the lump and suddenly my breath caught in my throat. My anxiety was mounting. Soon enough my name was called and I found myself laying half naked in a hospital gown in the dimly lit ultrasound room.
Next minute the lovely tech came in and we made small talk as I awkwardly manoeuvred myself into various scanning positions. She found the lump easily and I saw it light up the black and white monitor like some sort of dark matter marble. She examined every millimetre of it, took measurements and discovered two more smaller ‘satellite’ lumps closer to my nipple. After what seemed like forever, she excused herself and went to discuss the results with the doctor. I lay there waiting, covered in ultrasound goo with a thousand crazy thoughts running through my head.
After some time she returned and said, “The doctor would like you to have a mammogram too, just as a precaution. Have you had one of those before?”
Another first. A mammogram! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Surely this is all just routine?
I found myself in another room filled with hi-tech machinery straddling a device that seemed better suited to making pancakes than scanning breasts. Surely no women were ever consulted when designing these machines! I glanced down at my sore, flattened boob and wondered if it might spontaneously burst under the pressure!
Once the scan was over, I gladly took some deep breaths and awaited my next step.
I was sent on my way with my scans and advised that the results would be sent to my GP in the next couple of days. A family friend had driven me to my appointment and I asked her to take me home via the shops so that I could buy some cigarettes. I know, I know, not the smartest move after all I had endured, but I was stressed. I planned on having a few drinks that night to relax, and the cigarettes were the guilty pleasure to top it off.
No sooner had I left the shops and gotten back into the car, when a message flashed upon the screen of my phone. It was a missed call from my GP’s office. With my anxiety rising, I calmly asked my friend to wait in the carpark for a moment as I returned their call.
“Are you able to come back to the doctor today?” The receptionist had a distinct tone of urgency in her voice as I asked her what time as they were closing soon. “As soon as possible, a doctor will be here to see you as soon as you arrive.”
My friend hustled to get us back to the GP in record time. The whole ride over my mind was alternating between disbelief and denial. It can’t be good news if they want to see me immediately, can it? I was in an absolute daze.
We arrived back at the GP and I was ushered into a room with another young doctor I hadn’t met before. He gently asked me to sit down and looked over my results.
“I’m sorry to have met you under such circumstances Shannan…” he began with earnest.
My heart froze. My eyes stared transfixed. I went completely numb.
“From what we can see, it appears that you likely have breast cancer. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this news.”
At that moment I let out a huge gasp which reminded me that I hadn't breathed in a while. Then my eyes welled and my throat began to tighten. I cant remember what I said next, or if I said anything at all. I was in complete and utter shock. It couldn't be true, surely not!
He began to tell me about the next steps. Seeing a breast surgeon, an oncologist and the further tests that would be required. It was all a surreal blur.
He asked if I wanted him to call anyone after he got off the phone from the breast surgeon. I could barely think straight so I asked him to call my Mum for me. I couldn't bear breaking the news to her, especially when I could hardly speak.
I left the office, staggering about with a wide-eyed stare. My hands were absentmindedly clutching at referrals and a pamphlet about breast cancer. I climbed into my friend’s car and told her what he said. She tried to tell me that everything would be benign, but I thought better of it.
Mum called and we met her in a nearby park. She ran over to me with bloodshot eyes and hugged me tighter than I could ever remember. We sat down and tried to plan the logistics of getting me to and from all the appointments and juggling my two kids. The school holidays were nearly over and my youngest was just about to start Kindy. What was happening to me? Was this real?
In a blink, I was sitting on my back patio listening to music, having a wine and crying my eyes out. I had told my husband the news earlier and now I needed time to myself to process everything that had just happened. How did I go from crippling depression to having cancer? How long had it been growing for? Have I noticed it before and disregarded it? Why? Why me?
As I drunkenly reconciled my thoughts, I felt that I must have deserved my diagnosis. I had wanted to die after all, had my wish been granted? But this wasn't fair, I wanted to die on my terms, not being eaten alive by cancer.
I walked back inside, my eyes red and swollen. I was an absolute mess. Then I caught sight of the colourful rainbow earrings that I had made just a couple of days earlier. I picked one up, and studied it’s glossy resin finish.
“Thank you little rainbow…” I said whilst stroking it’s shiny surface. “You might have just saved my life.”
No matter what was coming next, in that moment I decided that I was going to fight. I was going to live.
Thanks for reading! Until next time...