This Breast Cancer Awareness Month we caught up with Sam, the founder of Sam's Spaces and fellow cancer survivor Natalie to share their inspirational story on life after cancer.
Sam: I began blogging about my breast cancer experiences just after my second diagnosis in 2012. I wanted to offer solidarity to other younger patients as I was 26 when I was first diagnosed. I had been affected with PTSD and depression in the aftermath of both diagnoses and felt this was an area that needed highlighting. The remission period can be just as challenging, but it wasn’t so spoken about and recognised. The blog soon became a website and a resource for others looking for inspiration and empowerment. You can find out more here...
Natalie: When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 36, I was like many busy multi-tasking mums: diligently trying to raise two children, run my own business and manage the family home. The diagnosis and treatment forced me to stop living life at 100 miles per hour and I had to learn to do nothing, which as every busy woman knows, is virtually impossible. Cancer was a massive wake up call – I looked at my diet, lifestyle and stress and realised I’d been neglecting my physical and mental wellbeing. The gruelling treatment, which included three surgeries and six rounds of chemotherapy made me feel less of a woman, less of a mother, less of a person. I was angry that I felt so weak, but over time that anger made me more determined to regain my emotional strength and physical fitness. On the advice of a friend, I turned to Yoga, which played a large part in my recovery and I discovered that what I needed most was to feel good about myself. Cancer took so much away from me – it became my identity for a while. I had to work hard to regain confidence and a sense of myself. So, with the help of an amazing support network, I trained to become a Yoga teacher. I wanted to pass on the very real benefits that I had experienced practicing as a student – it is a great stress reliever and makes the body feel alive. It was through my yoga classes that I met Sam. We quickly developed a great relationship, and it’s a good job we did because both of us were knocked sideways by further diagnoses – Sam’s third and my second, four years after the first.
Sam: Honesty is the best policy. It isn’t always helpful to mask what you might be experiencing, inside or outside. Reassurance and recognition are vital parts of the cancer journey, especially once treatment finishes and the recovery process begins.
Natalie: I’ve realised that for many years, maybe my whole life, I took my physical body for granted. It always did what I wanted it to, and I never really took care of it in a conscious way. During my diagnoses and treatments I felt incredibly let down by my body. The surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation left me fragile and weak and I lost my sense of self and what I had always relied on before no longer served me. Yet it was only through this loss that I began to gain. I took time to evaluate what was important to me, what had been missing and what I could do to look after what I now realised was my ‘precious self’.My advice would be to take some time to really reflect on what’s missing in your life and try (in baby steps) to replenish any voids that have opened up without you realising.What would be the one piece of advice you would give to women going through cancer treatment?
Sam: Respect the process and your own space. I underestimated how far reaching the effects of treatment and a diagnosis would be on my mental health. There can be shifts in areas such as identity, relationships, self-image, confidence and trust. I needed different spaces at different times to process and nurture myself.
Natalie: Acknowledging that what you’re going through is gruelling, unfair, scary, not-meant-to-be (or however else you experience it) is not weak and having a massage or sitting down all day reading is not an indulgence. Be kind to yourself. It’s not only ok, but also essential that you nourish the body, mind and spirit during treatment. Accept offers of help and tell the guilt to take a hike – it doesn’t serve you!
Sam: Practical support is really important. Finding your own tribe of people who offer you positivity, empathy and physical support can make a huge difference. Setting up the Safespace support group for those adjusting to life again after cancer came about because I wanted a space for anyone affected by cancer to connect with others, so they didn’t feel alone.
Natalie: This totally depends on the individual. Some people like to talk, some people just want to sit in silence but know someone is with them. Some people want a companion for appointments, some want to go it alone. I think one of the most heartfelt things you can do for a cancer patient is write to them – the organisation From Me To You (frommetoyouletters.co.uk) gives great advice about how to start, and you can also donate letters anonymously to cancer patients at the hospitals they support. Having regular letters is a clear sign that you are thinking of someone. One of the best letters I ever received was just full of news from the person that wrote it and even though there were lots of questions wondering about how I was, the person writing signed off with ‘no need to reply’ – which showed a great understanding of my energy levels. It’s really ok to just ‘receive’ when you’re going through something so traumatic. Your time to give and nurture others will come again.Victoria Derbyshire, a fellow cancer survivor said; ‘Cancer shouldn’t have this uber-powerful status. Cancer can be manageable, you can go to work, have a drink if you want to, pick kids up from school. I didn’t know you could do all those things when you had cancer. I’d no idea, so that was the big surprise for me.’ What would be the one thing you would de-mystify about cancer and why?
Sam: Everyone is different. No two diagnosis are the same, just as no two people are the same. We all respond to treatment differently therefore; some may feel capable of being active while others may not.
Natalie: I think this totally depends on your personal experience – the stage, grade, treatments and prognosis are so diverse that it can never be generalised. Maybe that’s what I would demystify about it – the term ‘cancer’ is a catch-all for many different types of illness and outcomes, so just be ok with whatever your experience of it is.
Sam: I often refer to this time as the descent down the mountain. You may have reached the top but you still have to travel down. It may be more private and easier to hide but it is just as important to manage it and be prepared, with the right tools and the right equipment. It is vital to go at your own speed, to be open and honest with those you choose to keep in your support team, because it will take as long as it takes, there will be good days as well as bad days but this is all part of the process.
Natalie: It’s a common misconception that cancer patients start whooping and celebrating when they get the ‘all clear’. I’m not sure that the term even exists in oncology offices – it’s more like ‘there is no evidence of disease’. I think those that care for you really want to celebrate, but the fact is that you need time to get to that place. There comes a certain point when your appointments start to be less frequent and the scans or blood tests begin to slow down. But follow-up can continue for many years and the feelings of anxiety, stress or fear of recurrence can rear their ugly heads at any time. The things that have helped me get back to normal life are yoga, mindfulness, therapy and connecting with people who ‘get it’ – in my case, women who have gone through cancer with young families. And time – you cannot underestimate how long it takes to begin to feel ‘normal’ (and for most people, this is a ‘new normal’).If you could say one thing to yourself before your treatment what would it be?
Sam: Cancer doesn’t have to define you but it can give you a purpose, for the better.
Natalie: You don’t have to do it alone.
Sam: Little rewards. Having lots of treats, outings and positive things regularly booked in either just for me, or with friends and family and utilising my own self-care, empowered me. My self-worth was tested, and I began to realise how important it was to keep doing the things that made me happy and calm as well as surrounding myself with my tribe.
Natalie: My children – they were 2 and 4 at my first diagnosis and 6 and 8 at my second. I wanted to carry on mothering and for them not to experience any stress or anxiety about what was happening. Of course this was totally unrealistic, but it gave me a purpose, which I think helped me to focus on just getting up every day and putting one foot in front of the other. I had, and still have, the incredibly powerful feeling that I would do whatever I could to make sure I didn’t leave them motherless.9.Do you have any tips for the side effects of your treatment?
Sam: When I had chemo, my mother would stock the fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables to make me smoothies to replenish my system after the drugs. That was the last thing I wanted! All my body craved after treatment was complex carbs. Literally, plain pasta and butter, salt and pepper. At first I felt guilty, I felt I should be nourishing my body with plant based foods but I realised I was nourishing my body by really listening to it and surrendering to what it needed. It wasn’t every day and it wasn’t all the time but I had a deeper sense of self respect, knowing that I was doing what was right for me.
Natalie: My tips would be to rest more than you think you need to, eat whatever you fancy, get outside, do some gentle yoga and surround yourself with a support network that meets your practical and emotional needs.
Sam: Three diagnosis of breast cancer has given me a courage I never thought I would have. I was desperate for another baby and after exploring adoption, surrogacy and IVF, after four years I decided to have a hysterectomy as well as my ovaries removed. It was a really tough process. My secondary infertility was the most challenging of all side effects of cancer and once I had decided to have the surgery, it felt like a weight had been lifted and I managed to complete my coursework to be a post-natal doula specialising in new mothers affected by cancer, just before the operation (which I found out I had passed two days afterwards!)
Natalie: During my first diagnosis I was just coming out of post-natal depression and figuring out my path through early parenthood. During the second, I was simultaneously managing an international move to America, finding and settling the children into a new home and school, making new friends and arranging sports clubs and after school activities whilst also spending an inordinate amount of time in hospital. In 18 months, I achieved a hell of a lot – not least surviving a heart-stopping operation (literally). So, when I really think back on the surgeries and treatments I’ve had, I can allow myself to accept that I’ve been strong.What is life like after cancer?
Sam: It is the downhill climb. I may be five years post my third diagnosis, but I am still traversing the valleys below the mountain! There are still boulders, crevasses, steep declines, icy patches and obstacles to navigate and sometimes it can be a day at a time and others, weeks or months. Having a group of people around me (or on our safespace whatsapp group!) who I can chat to and empathise with and check in with whenever I feel necessary, has been integral to living and enjoying life after cancer.
Natalie: I can’t lie – it’s been hard for me. But good, too. I relate it a little to becoming a parent – you can’t go back to what was before but you can learn to adapt to new challenges. I didn’t expect that I would suffer from depression, but after completing treatment both times, I did. Instead of feeling joyous and free and happy, I felt paralysed and fearful and anxious. I had to learn to accept my new body and grieve for what I’d lost. I found myself welling up often and at really inappropriate times. When you’re in it, you feel like it’s going to last forever and that you’re just doomed to feeling unhappy or spinning out of control. But gradually the darkness lifts – just like pain after surgery starts to diminish…time is a great healer, but so are people and I’ve met so many wonderful friends through having cancer that totally get it. That counts for a lot, there’s nothing like someone saying ‘me too! You’re not crazy!’.
Sam: After my double mastectomy in 2014, I felt about eighty! I got in touch with a local friend who is also a yoga teacher and we had a few one to one’s, before I joined a small class in my village and five years later, I still go, as well as practicing yoga every morning, even if just for ten minutes. I feel calmer and more grounded after a few poses or flows. It is time for me drop in on myself, reflect and process.
Natalie: I started regular yoga about a month before my first diagnosis. I had an amazing teacher – the most kind and compassionate woman and I felt at peace in her classes. I remember the night I was diagnosed, coming back from the hospital and knowing we had lots of phone calls to make and things to discuss – but it was ‘my yoga night’, and I just said to my husband ‘I have to go to class’. It gave me space to absorb what had just landed in my lap. After surgery, I wanted to get back to class as soon as possible (I think after 4 weeks) – I remember crying because I couldn’t lift my arm where I wanted to and my teacher gently told me off, reminding me to allow my body to heal at its own pace. It was in one of her classes that I had a vision about becoming a teacher – during savasana. Afterwards, she came up to me and said ‘have you ever thought about becoming a teacher?’. It was a very surreal, serendipitous moment!
Yoga for me is about being, not doing. When I practice and when I teach, I’m reminding myself and my students to be very present with what is. There is too much emphasis on the perfect posture, or the correct way to do this or that. No, what matters is listening to what is happening inside you, respecting what your body and breath have to offer you in that moment. Accepting and loving what we have and who we are. That can happen anywhere, there’s no need for a mat or a studio. Just take a breath – that’s all we need sometimes.
Sam: Wellness, to me, means having a balance. You cannot achieve optimum healing unless emotional, spiritual, physical and mental health are all working on similar levels. It means taking space to nurture ourselves inside and out as well as nourishing our bodies and our minds, with food, love, patience, recognition, respect and space.
Natalie: It means taking care of the body, mind and soul.How do you stay well both mentally and physically?
Sam: Having cancer introduced me to mindfulness and meditation. I don’t practice as much as I would like but with so many helpful apps and books on these subjects, it is more accessible than ever before. I love walking my dog and use that time for reflection and peace and quiet. I have regular reflexology, reiki and fascia massage on my scar tissue. I am getting much better at carving out time to just rest, either in bed or with a book. I use my weekends to digitally detox and have time away from social media. Yoga helps me on so many levels.
Natalie: I try to exercise regularly, which for me means dancing, yoga and being outside – either on my bike with the kids, or walking. I try to practise mindfulness regularly, which might sometimes mean I’m just taking a minute to find my breath, or notice sounds. I like to do what I call the ‘park and pause’ – when I’m running errands or taking the kids here there and everywhere, I park up and just sit and look at the sky or listen to a guided meditation. Sometimes I do it at home on the drive when I get back from somewhere – just take a few minutes of silence before moving on to the next thing.
Sam: Be kind, not just to everyone around you, (because you don’t know what is going on in their lives) but to yourself. Being kind is a way of shining a light of hope to others. Shining a light on yourself, is a form of appreciating all you are and all you have, all you have achieved and everything you want to be.
Natalie: Your infinite wisdom will only keep growing, trust in yourself.If you could only live in one item of Asquith clothing what would it be?
Sam: The Conquer Cami. It is flattering around the breast area after all my surgery and so comfy!
Natalie: I love the Happiness Halter Neck. It feels really comfortable and fits my reconstructed breasts really well. I wear it for yoga and ballet - it makes me feel feminine and stays exactly in place, whether I’m upside down or pirouetting!
You can find more about Sam's Spaces and the amazing work that they do here.