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Jos McLaren - Breast Cancer Survivor

Jos McLaren - Breast Cancer Survivor

My journey with cancer began in 2020; it was, unfortunately, during the lockdown. I had been feeling pain in my left breast for a while, but everything that I googled showed that it could be related to hormones or periods but nothing related to breast cancer, so I was not very worried about it. I had just gotten back to the UK and was going to visit the doctor when the lockdown happened. So, I put it off for some time, but the pain started bothering me, and I finally got an appointment with the doctor.

The doctors ran a few tests, and I was confident that there was nothing serious, so I hadn't even informed anyone that I was going to the hospital. I was expecting the doctors to take a look at my scan report, tell me everything was fine and send me on my way, but I was there longer than I expected, and it was finally six in the evening, and I was the last person there when the doctors called me in. 

My reaction to the news

Three professionals were in the room, and I knew it was not good news. They broke the information that I had breast cancer, and my first reaction was to laugh at them. I even made a few jokes about how I never liked my hair, and the doctors were surprised that I was taking the news so well and asked me if I was expecting it, and I, for some reason, said yes. But, internally, I was very shocked and scared. 

Breaking the news to friends and family

I went home and called one of my friends to come over, despite the lockdown and broke the news to her. I also told my brother, who was in Canada at that time. Other than them, I did not disclose the news to any other family members. One of the main reasons for that was that I wanted to know if my sisters were at risk or not. 

I did not want to give them half a story and cause any panic before finding out if it was genetic or not. There was no history of breast cancer in the family, so I did not disclose this news until a week later. Gradually, I told a very close circle of friends because I knew they would support and love me through the journey, and I needed that at that time. 

My family took the news better than I expected. I am sure they had private moments where they processed the information, but to me, they were supportive. My dad especially asked me what language I wanted to use to address this journey. Because for some people, it was a battle, to others it was an invasion of their bodies, and each person addresses it differently; and I loved that my dad wanted to know what I wanted to call it.

Treatments I underwent

I began with chemotherapy, which involved two drugs. I was supposed to have three cycles and move on to surgery, but after the second cycle, the doctors took tests that showed that the drug was not as effective as they thought, so they switched to other drugs. Chemo with these drugs was supposed to go on for four cycles. 

But in October, I came home one day and felt breathless and decided to lie down for some time. Even after lying down for a while, I felt a burning sensation in my chest, I had a port put in that area for the medications and tests, and it made me wonder if I had a blood clot, which was a severe issue.

I immediately went to the hospital, and they put me on blood thinners while taking scans. The reports showed that the cancer had spread to my spine. After this, I was put on three more cycles of chemotherapy, and the doctors decided not to go ahead with the surgery because the chemo had already spread.

My mental and emotional well-being during the process

The doctors had told me not to work and to take a year off when going through the treatment since I work in a hospital and need to shield myself because of COVID-19 too. But, I knew it was not an option because I wanted to work and be around people. Even today, the people at work don't know what I've gone through, and it is a safe space where I can be myself without having people come up to me and ask me how I'm doing.

I made sure I got out of the house and walked daily. It helped my mental and physical health. Another thing that is very important to me is my faith, and I believe that God can heal. Even with all the people I initially told about the disease, their first reaction was, I will pray for you. That was reassuring to me and, in a way, gave me the strength I needed.

I met many of my friends even during the lockdown, following the safety measures, which helped a lot. I also did cross stitching again, which I had not done for years, and it was a kind of therapy for me where every day at 9, I would switch off the TV and phone and focus on it for half an hour.

The one thing that kept me going was my faith in God. I believed that no matter what I was going through, he was there for me, and no matter how everything turned out, I would still have him by my side.

Lifestyle changes during the treatment

One thing I did was focus on what I was eating and when. I knew many people faced acid reflux issues with chemotherapy, so I made sure I did not eat anything too spicy late at night. Another thing was to make sure I was drinking enough water to flush out all the toxins from the chemotherapy.

My preferences kept changing from cycle to cycle, and although the options were very few, I ensured I was eating right. It is a journey of listening to your body's needs and providing it with the necessary things. 

My top three learnings from this journey

The first thing would be to let people express their feelings and let them help you if you can. A lot of people around feel helpless when it comes to diseases like this and want to be of whatever help they can, and sometimes the small things might be a huge thing to them, so let them help you in any way they can.

The second would be to ensure you get out of the house regularly. It is easy to get caught up in the process and not notice the walls closing in until too late, so it is good to take a break occasionally.

The third thing is that it is okay to feel how you feel. Even the negative emotions that seem unnecessary are how your mind and body process the journey; if you don't let them out, they can stay inside for a long time. So feel the feelings and let it all out.  

My message to cancer patients and caregivers

There is always hope. Hang on to it and live each day with it. Don't let it go just because the doctors gave you time. They are just a few educated people working with the tools at hand, but you are an individual capable of more. Have hope and fight for it.

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