“I am taking positive steps towards good health and a happy life”
“It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I wake up in recovery to the distant bleeping of monitors. The nurse checking in on me and me worrying if everything had gone well. When I finally come around enough to ask, the nurse reassures me that the surgical removal of my ovaries (oophorectomy) had gone as planned. After a moment of relief, I just feel numb. Physically and emotionally.
It’s been a long journey.
I was going from being a healthy 39-year-old to a fully menopausal woman. Within hours of the surgery my sex hormones dropped to almost nothing. But it has meant I have drastically reduced my risk of ovarian cancer – the same cancer that took two of my aunts, a grandmother and a great-grandmother much too early.
As I lay there in recovery I knew it was the right thing for me to do. However, women who undergo surgical menopause before their natural menopause period, are at an increased risk of health problems, including heart disease and osteoporosis. In some cases, the effects of the menopause can be debilitating and only the future will tell how I’ll cope with it.
At 33 I discovered a cancerous lump in my left breast. This led to a lumpectomy to remove it, an axillary clearance to remove my lymph nodes, chemo and radiotherapy, while added complications meant stays in intensive care.
Although I had the most amazing support from my family and knew I was one of thousands of women who are diagnosed with cancer every day, I felt so alone. Alone with my fear that I would not see my little daughters grow up and start school. My twin girls were two at that time, my older daughter was four.
Between then and now lies a long road of transformation and recovery. Although there were always a few days in between chemo cycles that totally wiped me out, I think as a family we did pretty well. I made a pact with myself that I would get up every day and take my girls to nursery.
At that time, I received a book about how to manage the many side-effects of cancer treatment through diet. It was the first time I realised the link between the foods I ate and what’s happening inside my body. And although at that stage I only dipped my toe into the water, I felt I personally could do lots to support how I was coping and that felt great.
A blood test confirmed that I carry a mutation in my genetic make-up. I tested positive for the mutated BRCA1 gene – the so-called Angelina Jolie gene. The mutated gene means an increased risk of breast cancer of up to 85 per cent and an increased risk of ovarian cancer of up to 60 per cent from the age of 40.
Although I knew the chances that I was a carrier of the faulty gene were high, I remember being so upset when I found out. I felt disappointed, angry and low. Instead of focusing on finishing radiotherapy then getting on with the rest of my life, I knew I had another journey to embark on. A journey that I knew would be another “biggie”.
Although my genetic mutation had thrown cancer at me once, the chances of more breast cancers are high. So, two years after my diagnosis I underwent a risk-reducing double mastectomy. It took quite a while to recover from and it was painful. But on the upside, it did teach my girls to carry their own school bags from an early age. By that time, I was lucky enough to have seen my three girls start school.
Although I tried to carry on with life as normally as possible, I was mentally at an all-time low. I was incredibly anxious that my cancer could return. I obsessed over every little pain, always thinking it was more cancer. It was so hard for me to move on. By then I had changed my diet. I went on the clean-eating bandwagon. Sugar free, dairy free, gluten free, cut out alcohol and anything I thought was ‘unhealthy’.
Weirdly, when my diet seemed the most healthy, my mental wellbeing was at an all-time low. I knew food alone wasn’t going to be enough for me to regain some strength. I started yoga, counselling and even tried hypnotherapy.
I got hooked on yoga, so much so that today I teach classes and host retreats myself.
I made another big change in how my family and I eat. After a nutrition course at Leith’s Cookery School, I shifted my focus on to all the amazing foods I wanted to eat. No more “free from” – just lots of family-friendly dishes with lots of vegetables that are full of nutrients.
Full-Of Diet not Free-From
I believe it is this positive approach to food. In combination with my yoga and mindfulness practice, that has led me towards a full recovery. I now have a toolbox of strategies I can use when times get tough. The decision to remove my ovaries long before I would naturally enter menopause was no light one to make. But since I have taken control over my own mental and physical wellbeing I trusted the process a lot more.