“Sometimes what seems to be a tragedy turns out to become the greatest good in our lives. I learned so much from that experience and I came to value life in a new way. I began to look at what was really important to me” – Louise L Hay.
New Years Day… I updated my FB page with “Excited to see what 2018 has in store… Have a feeling it’s going to be a good one! HNY Peeps! ❤️”
I was bursting with excitement for what this year was destined to bring. I was turning 40 in May. Harriet was about to start big school. Sophie and I were still on a high after launching Serenity and Thriving and beyond excited to throw ourselves in to the second official year of our beautiful new business! This was MY year! Then, second week of January I found a teeny tiny lump….
Looking back, intuitively I knew something wasn’t right. I’d blamed the terrible spike in my anxiety the previous year on the fact I had a lot going on. If I’m honest, I’ve always been an anxious person. Sometimes the anxiety has been mild (A bit like the TV playing in the background – you know it’s on but you’re not really paying attention) and other times it’s been deafening. But it’s pretty much always been with me since I was a little girl and more notably since my early 20’s. I never knew I was living with high functioning anxiety. It was so normal for me to feel anxious – to have a tightness in my chest. Or to feel like I couldn’t take a full breath. I was always going a million miles an hour. I was successful. I was winning. Always delivering. I was a high achiever. And for the past 6 years a working mum with a successful career.
My previous employers had been really good to me – they paid for a nanny when Harriet was 3 months old, they let me work from home almost full time. As long as I delivered, I had the freedom and flexibility to do whatever I wanted. (The great flexibility debate – we’ll save that one for another time… ) Bingo! On paper I had everything. In reality, I was working around the clock from home with a baby that never slept. Given my predisposition to anxiety I definitely had postnatal depression. My home was a mess. I was a mess. I didn’t have time to catch my breath. But hey, look at me. I had it all. Earning the big bucks AND being a mum. It was killing me.
When I finally I took that leap of faith we’ve all been talking about and quit the high paying job to follow my dreams, I walked away from all I’d known for the past 12 years (security, stability, certainty… ) to take a punt on myself. It was terrifying. But with the backing of my husband and Sophie, my partner in Serenity, I knew we were destined for great things. We took on a lot in the first 6 months of the business. I’d finally found my calling. We both had. Our working relationship was and still is incredible. We compliment each other perfectly. It was a dream come true! It was exhilarating. But I was super anxious, more than ever. All the time. I kept saying to Sophie that I felt all out of whack.
But this was normal, right? We’d launched a new business. I had a 4 year old. I was meant to be exhausted and feeling a little bit uneasy, surely?! I couldn’t possibly be ill. I was finally taking care of myself (so I thought) I was running daily. I was eating really well. I wasn’t really drinking anymore. I was meditating, And I was following my dream with Sophie and the new business. I finally had the purpose I was craving. Life was looking great. But I still didn’t feel right.
When I went to have the lump checked the Doctor assured me it was probably nothing. I was 39 and unlikely to have breast cancer. She sent me to have an ultrasound for ‘peace of mind’. At the ultrasound I was told it’s a tiny lump 0.5cm. They didn’t think it was anything to worry about but they wanted me to have a biopsy for ‘peace of mind’ So off I went to have the biopsy. They called me back saying the results were A typical and I needed to come back for a core biopsy this time. Again, they assured me it’s likely to be nothing. This is just for ‘peace of mind’. My mind was far from peaceful at this stage… It was screaming loudly at me every second of the day. But I remained positive and hopeful. Surely it couldn’t be breast cancer?! Then the results came. They’d found cancer cells in this teeny tiny lump.….
I was blessed to catch it so early. The cancer was aggressive. Six months later and I would be in a REAL pickle. I opted to have a double mastectomy. I figured I couldn’t stand the thought of annual mammograms and the anxiety around another breast cancer developing. My surgeon supported my choice and was happy to do this for me. He agreed it was best for my anxiety to eliminate any future risk. I just had to wait almost 5 weeks. It was torture.
The weeks leading to the operation were a blur. I’d have to excuse myself in the middle of dinner and walk around the block to clear my head…. I couldn’t stop crying when I looked at Harriet. She was only 5. And weeks away from starting her new school – how was I going to cope meeting all the other parents knowing I had breast cancer?! I could barely look at my husband without sobbing. Imagining him as a single Dad. It was just awful. My mind was going wild and my anxiety was having a field day. My head was spinning. We had The Thriving Leader Retreat scheduled for March and of course Thriving in August. Ultimately, I kept thinking what if I die?! I was a busy lady! And I didn’t want any of this to get in my way. This was my year. I was turning 40! I had my own Business! Life was awesome!
The operation was a success but the final pathology was slightly different to what we anticipated. I actually had 3 small tumours and a huge slab of pre-cancerous change (hadn’t gone anywhere or done anything – yet). I was so lucky to catch it when I did at stage 1. My case was taken to a multi-disciplinary board where all the big medical brains get together to create a treatment plan. Out of 30+ cases that day mine was the only one where they couldn’t reach a decision on whether I should have chemotherapy or not. They told me I’m young, I have a long life ahead of me and I’m fit and well. I would get through the chemo, if that was my choice. ‘Peace of mind’ they said. My little extra insurance policy. So, I opted for four rounds of ‘magic medicine’. Three rounds in out of 4, right on my 40th Birthday, I developed a staph infection and ended up in hospital for a week. I was devastated. I think I cried a thousand rivers that week. I was bald, tired and so desperate to get through that last chemo. I’d come this far. I’d worked so hard to keep myself active and well (physically and mentally) throughout my treatment (Deed and I walked over 150k all up between my rounds of magic medicine) I’d worked on Thriving every week to give me a sense of purpose. I was so close. Then they said to me I couldn’t do the final round of chemo. I was devastated.
This is when I realised I had to take control. Take my power back… I’d been pumped full of drugs for so long. I’d had constant migraines for months. My instinct and intuition had been suffocated by all the treatment. So, I stopped and caught my breath. I took a moment to be still. And I started to process the past few months. I realised that I wasn’t meant to have the final round of chemo. My body was telling me I’d had enough.
The cancer had been caught so early. The specialists reassured me that I probably didn’t need the chemo, that they’d over treated my cancer. When I sat in my Breast Surgeons office post treatment I asked what next, what do I do now?! He said something so profound to me… ‘Go and enjoy your life’ And these are the words I hold on to daily.
My Big Lessons in Life:
1. Trust Your Intuition
I knew intuitively that something was wrong with my right breast for a long time (The pre-cancerous change could have taken years to grow to the size it was) I’d wake in the night feeling it. And my inner voice told me for months that something was wrong. I was completely out of whack. I was uneasy all the time. This dis-ease was breast cancer. Please, listen to your inner voice. Slow down enough to do this daily. I wish I’d been checked over before I felt the lump – it may have allowed me to catch this at the pre-cancerous stage.
2. Remembering What is Truly Important – Often it’s Right Under Your Nose!
Since we met when I was 22, my husband Deed and I have always worked full time. Often like ships in the night. Juggling the commute, the home, squeezing in exercise and now for the past 6 years raising our daughter Harriet in addition to everything else. I knew we’d become a bit disconnected and complacent with each other. We definitely weren’t appreciating each other. Then this year hit us. And we were reminded REALLY quickly of what’s important. How much we love each other and our little family (our fur baby Tilly included!) Deed has been my absolute hero this past year. He always has been. I’d just forgotten. We did the maths and quickly worked out we had two choices – either Deed worked to pay for a full time Nanny (our entire family is back in the UK so we are essentially on our own) to take care of Harriet throughout my surgery and treatment or Deed could take the time out from work to take care of us. Without hesitation he decided we were his priority. I’m so grateful that cancer has reminded me how special he is and how important it is for us to make time for each other and time for us as a family. I’d missed it and I craved it. And as crappy as the past 8 months have been at times, I feel blessed that we’ve had this time together – as a family.
3. Having Purpose
I needed to have purpose beyond the treatment. I couldn’t let the whole cancer thing define me. I wouldn’t let it. And it didn’t. Without Serenity and The Thriving Workplace, this past year would have been so much tougher for me. The specialists agreed. This played a huge part in my overall experience and my recovery. I wasn’t just Claire going through breast cancer. I was Claire running a business, being a mum and a wife and having treatment at the same time. My two days on site at Thriving were the best two days of this entire year. I was ME (albeit in a wig and beanie hat!) Only a handful of people knew what I had been though. And it worked perfectly. I got to immerse myself in this beautiful community surrounded by the most incredible people. You could feel the love and the connection the second you walked into the room and I drank it up. I was on a high for weeks after!!
4. Its What’s on the Inside That Counts
I really thought I was going to escape chemo and the whole hair thing. So when it all happened I had to try to explain to my 5 year old that I was about to have some magic medicine that would make my hair look like Daddy’s… This has been the toughest part for Harriet. She coped admirably while I was in hospital for 3 weeks. But the hair thing has really thrown her. She said she ‘hated it’ and asked me to always wear my wig to school (which I hated!) She asked every day initially when it would grow back and be long again. I had to dig deep. Truth be told, I hated the fact I was bald. I didn’t look like me anymore. I still kind of don’t. I had to remind myself and teach Harriet that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. It doesn’t matter what we look like. Having courage and being kind is far more important that how we look. I told her I LOVED my bald head. And that I’d always wanted to see what it was like to have no hair. Once I started to embrace it, she did too!
5. Importance of Extreme Self Care – Reconnecting with the most important person of all – ME!
I found an incredible life coach Shannah Kennedy (check out her book The Life Plan, it’s AMAZING) who has helped me to revolutionise my life this past few months and really get my priorities straight. Shannah has taught me that the most important person of all is ME. And after 40 years I’m finally starting to get this now. Fear has always been with me, it’s sneaky and pervasive and comes at me when I least expect it. Shannah has helped me to put fear firmly in the back seat where it belongs! She has introduced me to the most amazing women – Louise Hay, Byron Catie, Gabby Bernstein, Cheryl Richardson, Elizabeth Gilbert and more. Hours of listening has started to help me get myself back on track. And you know what, I absolutely love it! I now have an energy healer who I had an insane connection with the second we met – it was so meant to be. A wonderful kinesiologist who is helping me uncover and release things I had no idea I was holding on to. An amazing Naturopath who is helping me to balance my body and keep my pesky hormones under control. And now I’ve finally stopped running (literally!) I have my very own yoga teacher – and I actually like yoga! I’m eating really well. I listen to my body and I rest when I need to. I don’t over commit anymore. I’m learning to create healthy boundaries and to say no – without feeling guilty! Taking care of me has become my number one priority.
6. Power of the Present Moment – Letting Go of the Past and keeping the ‘What If’s’ at Bay
This present moment is all we have. It’s all we will ever know. Initially I was drowning in ‘What If’s’. I’ve had to work super hard to keep these pesky ‘what if’s’ under control (I still have my bad days!) All I can do is take care of myself to the very best of my ability in this present moment and the rest will take care of itself. I had to get busy living my best life. Being the best person I can be, in this very moment. The past is over and done. I cannot change this now or predict what is to come. Now I have started to clean up my fearful thought patterns I am learning to forgive my past, release my future and show up in the present moment with love and faith. And this feels amazing!
7. Being Grateful
I’ve always been grateful. My mum instilled gratitude in us from being young children. I have an endless list of things – being cancer free since February first and foremost – and especially people I am grateful for this past year. My amazing family near and far and my beautiful friends that have been by my side every step of the way. And those people I never in a million years thought would now play such a huge part in our lives – the amazing Director at Harriets kindy (who is a BC survivor!), the beautiful Registrar at Harriets new school (who is also a BC survivor!), the school mums who have supported us and only known us for five seconds! The week I spent in hospital with the staph infection was a very powerful reminder for me of the power of gratitude. I had sobbed for 3 days straight. I was told I could potentially lose my implant if they couldn’t get the staph under control. And my body couldn’t handle the final chemo. That night I couldn’t sleep – again. I looked like I’d done ten rounds in the ring. My eyes were puffy and swollen and I could hardly see out of them. I missed Harriet and Deed. It was awful. Instinctively, I pulled out my notepad and made a list of the 10 things I was most grateful for – my early diagnosis, my health, my family, the unconditional love from my Mum, my A Team of Specialists, Sophie and Serenity, to name a few. What a difference this made. I slept soundly and woke up feeling so much better. All was not lost!! There is always something to be grateful for, always!!
8. Less is Definitely More
My immediate instinct once the treatment was over was to declutter my physical and mental space. Reading Shannas book just before I was diagnosed had already got me thinking about this. It made such sense to me. I started off with the physical. My closet, the spare room, Harriets bedroom, my home office… I went crazy. Chucking, burning, selling, giving to charity… We emptied our garage (after 7 years!) And it felt so good. I felt light. My office is now my Zen Den – it’s clean and tidy. Super inspiring. Zero clutter. In turn, this has given me the mental space to be with and examine my thoughts – I have the mental capacity to do this now. It’s an amazing feeling. Decluttering my mind. Getting rid of all the thoughts I no longer need. Less is definitely more for my mind too.
9. State of Mind is EVERYTHING
I learned very quickly that when my state of mind was good I was ok. When it was bad I was terrible. Still is. Soon as I was diagnosed I reached out via friends to women outside of my immediate circle who had also been through breast cancer. I asked them a million questions. Found out how they coped. How they kept themselves sane. I took their experiences into mine. I read articles about women who worked and exercised throughout their treatment – I knew if they could I could too. I knew my mind was the biggest thing for me to manage. It took work and it still does, daily. But I see it for what it is and I give it the respect it deserves. I appreciate that I’m a sensitive soul and I’m starting to embrace this. I now understand I am not a helpless victim of my own thoughts, rather a master of my own mind. This has been a very powerful revelation for me!
10. Realising Guilt is a Totally Useless Emotion
Along with anxiety, guilt has always been my constant companion. Always. I know this is a learned thing for me. My Mum has always ‘Felt terrible’ about everything. What a waste of precious time and energy! Mummy guilt, work guilt, food guilt, exercise guilt, housework guilt, crap wife guilt, crap friend guilt. not good enough guilt, not smart enough guilt… And the list goes on! After Thriving I was wracked with guilt – I knew I was struggling but I didn’t want to let Sophie down. Serenity is still so new and I’d made a commitment to her. But I knew if I wasn’t right and if I didn’t allow myself time to heal physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally then ultimately the business wouldn’t work for me long term. So, I put the guilt aside for once and was honest. Sophie was amazing. And completely understood. As she has this entire year. She’s handled me and this whole situation with compassion, empathy and a love that knows no bounds. She insisted that I down tools and do whatever I needed for the rest of this year to get myself right again. And with her blessing I have taken the remainder of this year to look after ME.
I’ve learned so much about myself this year. You know that saying, you don’t know how strong you are until you have to be?! It is so true. This is not to say any of this has been easy. At times it’s been hideous. I’m still vulnerable. I still have my wobbles. BUT, I’ve been cancer-free since February the 19th!!!! I am looking at life through a new lens – with real clarity. When I look back over the past 8 months I am astonished how well I’ve coped. How well we coped as a family. How well Sophie and I coped as friends and business partners. And how grateful I am that I had The Thriving Workplace to focus my time and energy on during and immediately after my treatment. That sense of purpose was so important for me. Something more than just my journey with breast cancer. I truly believe the universe delivered – I couldn’t have asked for a better space to be in with such incredible people like YOU. My work now is so meaningful. My relationships have depth. We are authentic in every single interaction with every single person we come in contact with. We’re not in it for the money anymore. We’re in it to make a difference in our own lives and yours too.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for allowing me to share my story with you.
With love and thanks,