Your Stories: Natasha Whelehan on taking things one day at a time

Today I’m continuing our new feature on Happy Magazine called Your Stories. As the name suggests, it’s all about you and your cancer story.

My aim with these is to shine a light on all of those of us who are facing/have faced cancer and share our greatest learnings – to inspire and motivate us all, for wherever we are in the journey.

To mark October and Breast Cancer Awareness month, our reader’s story today is by Natasha Whelehan, a mom, wife and breast cancer survivor who lives in Laois. Natasha’s story is one of courage and determination, level-headedness and practical approach and I just love it. There is so much in Natasha’s story to help us all.

Your name, age and where you’re from

Natasha Whelehan, 40, living in Laois.

Your diagnosis story

I unfortunately experienced what’s known as a delayed diagnosis. I first presented to my GP with breast pain at the end of 2015 when I was pregnant with my daughter, and was told it was hormonal and pregnancy related. I returned to my GP in September as I was experiencing ongoing breast pain and some tissue thickening. Again I was told it was hormonal. Further checks were carried out a few months later and again I was informed it was hormonal but the pain was becoming continuous at this stage. I returned to my GP again in June 2017 and at that stage I attended for a mammogram and ultrasound, followed by a biopsy on the same day. That was a Thursday. I instinctively knew it wasn’t going to be good news when the radiologist told me that they’d have the results the following Tuesday. On June 27th it was confirmed that I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) along with a large amount of  high grade DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ).

How did you feel when you were first diagnosed?

To be honest, my immediate thought was ‘I knew it’. I had been extremely anxious for months leading up to diagnosis and was constantly battling with the feeling that something was very wrong in my body. So when they confirmed I was right my immediate feeling was one of relief that I wasn’t going crazy. My first question was actually about my daughter, I was afraid that my diagnosis would mean she has a higher risk of developing breast cancer too. I suppose I tend to do a good game face so that initial conversation was all quite calm really. It was only when I went to get bloods taken that the enormity of it hit me and I cried like a baby. But then it was get up, get the train home, put the kids to bed. Life continues, even when you feel like everything is spinning out of control.

Your treatment plan

Initially following some scans, I had a Sentinel Node Biopsy in which 5 lymph nodes were removed. Unfortunately a significant cancer deposit was discovered in one. I then had a mastectomy and further 10 lymph nodes removed. The pathology results showed that there was cancer in one more node. I had a large mass of high grade DCIS with multifocal Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC). In total there were 9 foci of cancer. Essentially this means there were 9 small tumours of various sizes ranging from 2mm to 10mm scattered throughout the DCIS. As a result of very narrow surgical margins, it was advised that I should also have radiotherapy after finishing chemo.

I started chemotherapy in August 2017. The plan was for me to have 4 cycles of a drug combination called AC, followed by a further 4 cycles of Taxol.

On completion of chemo, I was then scheduled for 6 weeks of radiotherapy.

As my cancer was very strongly responsive to hormones,  I was told that I would then receive hormone therapy for 10 years.

How did treatment go for you?

My surgery went well, there were no complications and things healed well initially. Unfortunately after my first round of chemotherapy, my mastectomy wound developed an infection and refused to heal. This was an incredibly difficult time for us. I was back in hospital for a few days, IV antibiotics were not helping the wound heal and in the end my surgeon decided the best solution was to bring me back into theatre and clean and close the wound. I had a special dressing for a further 10 days to help the wound close.

All the while I was unable to receive chemo and it was 5 weeks after I had my first cycle of AC before I was back in the blue chair and ready to receive my second dose.

Following this delay my chemotherapy progressed to schedule. I won’t say it was easy, chemo is not easy. However it was doable. I learned what side effects to expect, figured out how to schedule things around when the crash would come each cycle, and managed to stay active and get out and about as much as possible in between. I have 2 small children and during my treatment I did my best to continue to be Mammy, so doing things like laundry, making dinner etc became insanely important to me. If I could still wash clothes and do as much as possible for my kids then cancer wasn’t winning, I was. I tried to be sensible and avoid putting myself at risk of infection, but still do things like go to playgroup, see my son’s Christmas show at preschool and go trick or treating. Lots of hand washing and surgical masks if needed were our go-to at different treatment stages.

I was incredibly lucky during my treatment. My mum and dad were unwavering in their support and always there for me, despite what must have been a terrifying time for them. As a parent my worst nightmare is something trying to hurt my babes, and this is exactly what they were living through. My mum rented a house in our town so she could be nearby and this proved a lifesaver. My daughter got chickenpox, followed by a respiratory infection, then my son got croup. All the usual winter bugs but having had a 3 week delay in chemo at the start we didn’t want ANYTHING throwing us off schedule again. As a result I stayed with my mum during these illnesses to try and minimise the chances of catching them. We were scheduled for my last chemo to be on 20th December, our wedding anniversary and were determined to meet that deadline if at all possible. My husband was amazing, as was his family and I received lots of support from friends. Just knowing that there were people who cared how I was doing and who checked in on me regularly really helped, especially as the drugs started to build up in my system.

Following chemo, I had 6 weeks of radiotherapy. It’s different for everyone and I was lucky in that I tolerated it really well and only really felt the side effects in the last 2 weeks. I got used to commuting to and from St James’s daily and took advantage of the time to read, listen to music etc. The staff in St Luke’s are lovely and they made sure they worked with me so that I would be home to help out with my kids once they were home from preschool/creche each day. I would say to anyone moisturise, moisturise, moisturise… it’s a lifesaver!

Worst/best part of treatment

For me, one of the the worst periods of treatment was when my mastectomy wound broke down. The weekend I was in hospital my hair started to come out. In an effort to keep some control, I had planned to cut it back myself and had already cut my long hair into a pixie before chemo started. But due to the wound infection I wasn’t able to get to the hairdressers to have it clipped right back. Sitting in a hospital bed for 4 days, away from my kids, unable to receive my chemo and watching my hair fall out was just demoralising. For me losing my hair meant I was now starting to look sick. In the end when I got out and had what was left cut back it was a relief to have it gone and I felt I was getting back some control. And to be honest once it was gone, it was just gone. I never wore a wig as I preferred hats and scarves. The uncertainty of those few weeks when I was unable to receive chemo was awful. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be desperate to get treatment that also scares you and at that stage chemo did scare me, but not as much as the cancer did. The relief when I finally got cleared for chemo was overwhelming.

There were also a lot of good times while I underwent treatment. My children have developed a closer bond with my mum as she was living here for 6 months. My son and I often had sleepovers and movie nights at Nanny’s house and Halloween trick or treating was brilliant. We tried to keep on finding bright spots, doing  fun things when we could. Christmas was lovely, and all the more special as I had my last chemo on December 20th. It felt like we’d reached a major milestone in treatment.

On a very simple, personal level if I had to pick a stand-out moment, it was the day my eyebrows started to grow back. Losing your hair is no fun, but losing eyebrows and eyelashes completely change who you see when you look in the mirror. For me, seeing my eyebrows starting to grow back was like light at the end of the tunnel.

What got you through treatment?

My family, especially my children. I kept going for them. There were days when I was tired, or my bones ached from drugs, or I was emotionally all over the place from steroids and/or the joys of chemo-pause (medical menopause was one of the side effects of my treatment), but my children needed me. So I got up, I got dressed, I put on some makeup and I went and did my best to be Mammy. I’m probably also quite a stubborn person and I guess part of me didn’t want to give in to the cancer, or the treatment. I drove my husband and mum crazy with my dogged determination to keep doing laundry myself and my insistence that I was perfectly able to go get the shopping, or take Abigail to playgroup. But doing as much of my normal day-to-day tasks as possible helped me enormously. Cancer takes so much and brings so much fear and uncertainty into your world. It’s also very isolating. I didn’t know anyone my age who had had cancer and felt very alone at times. Getting up, going out and just trying to do normal day-to-day tasks helped keep me sane.

Single best advice that helped you

My mum gave me the best advice. She always said ‘One day at a time’ and ‘This too shall pass’. It does pass, just keep going, one day at a time, don’t think beyond the next day and on the hard days think one hour at a time if you have to.

On a practical level, drink loads of water before chemo, it helps make it easier get an intravenous line in!

Where are you now/how are you now?

I completed active treatment in February and am currently NED (No Evidence of Disease). I started hormone therapy in January. This consists of a daily tablet called Tamoxifen which acts as an oestrogen blocker. I also have a tiny implant called Zoladex injected monthly. This suppresses my ovaries. The objective is to reduce the amount of oestrogen my body produces and block the effect of what remains. As a result I am now menopausal. These drugs do cause their own side effects, namely hot flashes and joint pain for me. I’m lucky I tolerate them pretty well so far. I also get an infusion of a drug called Zometa every 6 months in order to strengthen my bones and hopefully help prevent any future spread to my bones.

I suppose in reality while active treatment has ended, my cancer treatment is ongoing and will be for at least 10 years. This was one of the surprises of breast cancer for me. I probably watched a few too many hospital dramas and had an image of a smiling surgeon telling me “Your going to be fine, we got it all”. I didn’t realise how ongoing treatment for my particular cancer would be. That said I consider myself lucky to live in a time when these drugs are available and I have told my oncologist that I will take everything he has to offer.

How do you feel about your cancer experience now?

Cancer is terrifying, it brings anxiety and fear into your world and facing your mortality when you are in your 30’s is not easy. Even now on the days when I am tired or my back aches and the little voices in my mind whisper ‘It’s back’, I look at my children and pray that I get to see them grow up. I guess going through cancer treatment is like climbing a mountain. At the beginning it looks enormous and you wonder if you can do it, but just keep going and you can amaze yourself with how much strength you have. Cancer was the most difficult challenge I have ever faced, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, I am proud of the fact I got through it, and I’m grateful for the people who supported me through it all.

Has cancer changed you, if yes, how?

Yes definitely. On a physical level, my body is very different.I look at myself and I look so different to the woman of just 18 months ago. It sounds silly, but my diary looks different… I now have an oncologist, and scans and monthly Zoladex shots to pencil in alongside playdates and birthday parties.

On a deeper level, cancer has changed how I view the world. I try and only focus on the people and relationships that add value to my life now. I am a people pleaser by nature but I try to say “no” now if something doesn’t suit. I have suffered from anxiety for the last few years and since the cancer I have learned and developed better tools to help manage it. I don’t plan too far ahead anymore, in some ways I am afraid to, but more so I have learned all too well how life can change forever in an instant and I am getting better at trying to live in the moment.

Have you changed anything in your life as a result of cancer, if yes, what and how?

I have tried to reduce stress and learn how to manage my anxiety better. Mindfulness and yoga have become part of my routine. I’ve also made dietary changes and eat a lot less meat and dairy now. It sounds cliched but I try not to sweat the small stuff anymore and focus my attention on friends and family who have been there for me when I needed them.

What helps you now if you have a difficult day?

My kids are my greatest joy, and often a hug from them can be enough to recenter me and bring me back into the present if I’m starting to go down the rabbit hole of dark thoughts. If I am having a particularly bad day and my anxiety levels are high I find deep breathing and even a few minutes of mindfulness or yoga really helps. I have attended CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and find the tools I learned there very beneficial in helping me manage my fears of recurrence. I’ve recently started reiki and love it!

Single best purchase that helped you through cancer

The best thing I did was hire someone to come and help with housework. My husband was trying to work, help with the kids, I was sick, and then my wound broke down and it sounds crazy but it was stressing me out not being able to look after our home. Hiring someone to come and clean the bathrooms, change the beds, hoover etc, was a lifesaver.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone recently diagnosed, what would it be?

Reach out for support. The emotional toll of cancer is huge. I consider myself very lucky that I have a number of fantastic friends who were unwavering in their support, both during active treatment and now as I adapt to life after. But even still, I found it very lonely at times. No one in my group of friends was coming up to their 40th birthday bald and with one boob! I felt like I was watching life through a pane of glass. I could see normal life, I just couldn’t touch it. There were days I really just wanted to say that I was scared I wouldn’t see my kids grow up. It wasn’t that I was giving up or being negative, just that sometimes I was scared and the future seemed so uncertain. This is difficult for people close to us to hear, but I believe these are important emotions to express. I would suggest anyone starting out on this path to look into cancer-specific support groups, be they online or at local cancer treatment centres or if online forums are not for you request some counselling with someone experienced in dealing with cancer. For me, I found an online support forum dedicated to women my age with breast cancer. It was fantastic having a place to ask questions about treatment, side effects etc but also to have a safe place to express The Fear. I also attended a couple of counselling sessions at a local support centre shortly after diagnosis and a number of sessions after active treatment finished.

Thank you so much to Natasha for taking the time to answer our questions. Natasha has shared so many valuable insights here about making it through a breast cancer journey and we really hope you’ve found it helpful. Let us know in the comments what key insight you’ll be taking away from Natasha’s story here today, we’d love to hear it.

If you would like to complete the questions for our next Your Stories feature, please drop me an email at holly@happymagazine.ie

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