I’m really lucky that I haven’t lost anyone in my family to breast cancer. But over the years, I’ve watched friends, close and not so, come into contact with the disease. But, emotional connections are a huge part of why people donate so generously to cancer charities, and hopefully will continue to do so until it is eradicated.
So, I’ll tell you three stories about cancer that made it not just the thing that happens to someone else.
There are so many aspects to this one particular, awful disease, but one friend’s is a little different. She lost her mum far too soon to ovarian cancer, at the age of 14, and subsequently, all the female members of her mums family. They all carried a particular gene called BRCA. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes belong to a class of genes known as tumour suppressors and if these genes mutate, there is a very strong link to hereditary breast cancer and also ovarian cancer. If you carry the gene, the risk of dying of either of these diseases increases hugely. My friend has always taken part in ovarian cancer research, because that’s what actually killed her mother, and it was during the course of research, given her family history, she was asked if she wanted the BRCA test, basically to see if she’d live or, like her mum, die far too young. And that’s how stark it is. She has two young boys who need their mum for a lot longer, so she took the test, which showed she has the gene. Before the BRCA gene was discovered, thanks to research, it was always a mystery as to why all these women died; lots of women in her family as far as she can trace had died young and nobody really knew why.
The first thing she did was voluntarily have her ovaries removed; so the choice of having more children was immediately gone. It’s quite a big operation, so there was recovery time to go through, but at the same time a premature menopause as well, with all the associated issues. With her ovaries gone, no cancer could form in them. Not so long after, she had a double mastectomy, because the BRCA link to both is so strong, that to keep her breasts was an almost certain premature death sentence. In order to stay alive, to see her sons leave home, marry and to maybe one day be a grandmother, she had no choice but to take these impossibly difficult options. And she did it with the most extraordinary grace. In fact, it was the making of the decision to remove both breasts as a preventative measure that took more of a toll than the actual surgeries.
Another friend, not so close at all really, but another mum in the school playground, we all watched dying from breast cancer in front of our very eyes, when really she tried so hard to live. From losing her hair, losing weight, losing energy – it was just a series of losses plain for everyone to see. But hers was an aggressive cancer that took her really very quickly, leaving her two young children beyond devastated. Losing your mum is not something that you ever, ever get over. You carry that loss through your life until your own dying day.
And finally, my beautiful neighbour who is being so positive and so brave and just coming to the end of chemo and radio therapy. She was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks after leaving her job to look after her children instead, realising she wanted to be a full time mum. Her skin hurts, her hair is gone and still she is getting up every day to take her very young boys to school, going to Tesco and just doing all the things she used to, only a little bit more slowly. The awful fact is that she doesn’t know and nor do any of us whether she will still be here to do the school run in five year’s time. I can barely imagine living with that dreadful, pervasive fear day to day.
And these three stories are all down to a shitty, awful, destructive disease that grabs women (and some men) and basically uproots their lives forever. What we need to do is ensure that cancer research, and particularly in the month of October, breast cancer research, is adequately funded to eradicate it forever. So there aren’t any more stories. There are many brands donating in October from sales of beauty products, so that’s one way to do it, and I’ll be highlighting a few through the month, or you can just donate directly to any cancer charity which is probably a better option. It’s something that is very much needed and small donations add up to saving lives. Which is really rather big.