My true story of how cancer transformed my life

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I had it all. I was happily married, had a beautiful daughter, a great job, earned a good income, loved what I did, and I looked after my health.

And then I got cancer and my world fell apart. 

Not because of cancer.

But because of how my habits influenced the way I handled my diagnosis.

This is Edwina’s real, raw and honest story of how a cancer diagnosis changed her life. In this account, she talks about how it’s made her who she is today, and the lessons she continues to learn through her transformation journey.

Breast cancer has always been a part of my life.

My grandmother on my mother’s side had it. My mother had it, my aunt on my mother’s side had it, and so did my half-sister. My Grandmother died from it when I was 16. My sister died from it four years ago, and my mother died from it this year.

Because of the family history, I was considered a high-risk to develop it as well, so I had regular check-ups from the age of 18. My breasts had always been described as ‘lumpy’ and at the age of 22, I underwent my first surgery to remove a lump. It wasn’t cancerous but the doctors felt it was best to remove it.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was working as an interior designer after getting my degree at uni. I worked in the industry for 20 years, including as an associate interior designer for one of the largest firms in the world. I loved my job but worked long stressful hours, so when I was due for my check-up, I put it off for 3 months.

After I finally went for my ultrasound, I received a call-back. They had found cancerous spots throughout my milk-ducts and I was told that my breast needed to be removed. I had about three days to decide if I wanted them to just remove my breast, or to remove it and have an implant. Because I was young and wanted to look ‘normal’, I decided to have an implant.

The start of treatment

In the week I had the surgery, my husband began suffering from anxiety. I was the primary bread-winner, while he worked part-time and took care of our daughter. But the worry about surgery, not knowing what would happen as a result of me having cancer, the possibility of changing dynamics in the household, whether he’d had to work fulltime, and what would it mean financially for us, began to take its toll.

I hadn’t really talked about my diagnosis with anyone, including my husband. Instead of talking about it, we tried to make the problem go away by ignoring it. In some way, we thought that if we could deny it existed, then maybe it would disappear. We carried on like nothing was happening because at some level we thought the sooner everything got back to normal, the sooner the problem would go away.

On the night before my surgery, my husband had a panic attack. His sister ended up coming to stay with him while I was in the hospital. From my perspective, it felt like his anxiety was more important than mine, because his anxiety was all anyone could talk about, and it became the focus. It made me feel like my cancer didn’t matter — that I didn’t matter, and I wasn’t important. I said nothing though and didn’t tell anyone that I needed support.

Even though I wasn’t talking about my cancer, I expected it to be the focus. I expected people to be empathetic and supportive of me, despite not telling them what I was going through. We live in a world that expects empathy but in truth, you can’t have empathy without vulnerability. And because I wasn’t vulnerable, I didn’t get the empathy and support that I wanted and needed.

I had the surgery and took 8 weeks off work, which came out of my sick leave. I went back to work, and only a couple of people at work knew what had happened. 

Another setback

Just under a year later, I found a lump under my implant, along the scar line of where the implant had been inserted. This grew as a result of cancerous cells that had been left on the back of my skin. 

I underwent surgery to remove the lump and had to wait for pathology reports to confirm that all cancer had been removed. Pathology confirmed that some cancer cells were still present, so I had a second operation. All up, I spent around two weeks in the hospital.

In addition to surgery, it was recommended I undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy. At this time, I was in a band and we had booked to tour the US in three months. I decided to go on tour, use that time to recover from surgery, before starting chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

But this meant that I had to tell the band members what had been going on, which I found hard.

I didn’t want people to see me as the sick person, or that I had allowed myself to get sick. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me and I didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable around me. Not sharing with people enabled me to avoid dealing with all those difficult emotions. I tried to keep it a secret so I didn’t have to deal with anything.

Another reason I found it hard to share with others is because I get quite emotionally affected by things. I often assume that others will feel just as affected as I do. So in order to protect them, I tend to keep things to myself. 

I see now that all of this was my way of trying to control things — trying to control how people feel, trying to control how people saw me. But I didn’t realise this at the time.

I was able to keep my first surgery quiet, but you can’t really hide several months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so I had to let people know what was going on.

The band members were very supportive. We had a good tour with good reviews and it was a great diversion for me. But when I returned home, it was time to start treatment.

Once again, I was reluctant to tell people but I had to let people know what was happening. The people at work were a great support. In fact, I actually had better support from those who were outside my family. That’s because my family were still trying to pretend it didn’t exist by not talking about it. We were just used to ‘soldiering on’ and not talking about difficult things.

I tried to be superwoman

When I realised I had to have chemotherapy, I decided that I was going to look at it as a detox rather than a poison. I had seen people on TV having a hard time with chemo, so I decided that wasn’t going to be me. I felt well, I had no symptoms, and had no preconceived ideas on how it would affect me. So I decided to go and have the treatment and see what happened. 

I tried to pretend I was okay, but it was exhausting. I’d have treatment every three weeks and would have two weeks where I would feel okay. I’d feel OK for a few days after treatment and then feel exhausted. But I told myself that when it was all over, I’d be right as rain. 

I kept working throughout my treatment, only taking off time when I needed to. I’d also take my daughter to school, and dress up for work as if nothing was happening. I kept working for financial reasons, but also as a way to feel normal and distract myself. I was still riding my bike 20km every day, and I even rode it to radiotherapy.

I was consciously trying to be a superwoman and keep it all together. I’d go to work and come home and be busy at home helping my daughter with her reading and schoolwork, all while going through my treatment. I had 4 months of chemo ad 3 months of radiotherapy. My husband looked after our daughter and cooked the meals, but I was still doing a lot of work at home after being at work all day. And my daughter was only 6 so she didn’t really understand what was going on and had no sympathy for me. 

A new chapter

After I finished treatment I realised I didn’t want to look after anyone else other than myself anymore. I had been neglecting myself for years, and pretty much went through two years of cancer on my own. I had continued to look after my husband and daughter during this time, but now I decided it was time for myself. I ended up leaving my husband, but we still kept the same arrangements as before — he looked after our daughter after school while I was at work, and I’d pick her up after work and take her home.

I later found out that my breast cancer wasn’t genetic, as it was different from the kind the rest of my family had. I now believe it was caused by a build-up of stress, related to my work.

After I left my husband, I also changed jobs and started weight training again. I managed to fit my training in at either 6 am or 6 pm.

What I learned from cancer and transformation

Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot — both from my cancer and through my own Transformation journey. This is my second year of Transformation with Imani Tribe Transformations and these are the things that I’ve learned and the habits that I continue to work on.

Avoiding problems only perpetuates the problem

Before my cancer there was nothing wrong in my marriage. But avoiding problems, avoiding difficult emotions and avoiding conflicts ended up costing me my marriage. What I learned here is that avoiding problems doesn’t mean solving them. It just means these problems turn into bigger ones. We must be willing to face our fears head-on, instead of sweeping them under the rug and pretending that they don’t exist.

We need to ask for help

I used to think that asking for help meant I was a burden to other people, but now I see that it was really about low self-worth — not thinking I was important enough to ask for and to deserve help. If I had my time over again, I would ask for help and I would take help when it was offered. 

Looking after yourself doesn’t guarantee you won’t get cancer

Just because you look after yourself doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get cancer. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was slim, fairly active, ate well and felt healthy. I had worked on being healthy because I thought I was in a high-risk for developing cancer. I thought that being healthy would give me the best chance of not getting it. So my diagnosis came as a shock, to say the least. However, thinking that way is really a form of self-entitlement. Just because we do something good for our health doesn’t mean we have a right not to get cancer. 

Make time for myself

I am convinced that stress caused my cancer. I spent years looking after everyone else, even while I was having treatment. I put work before my own needs and even put off my regular checkup for 3 months because I was ‘too busy’ at work. It’s important to make time for yourself and make yourself a priority without feeling guilty. Because you can’t give the best of yourself to the ones you love if you don’t take care of yourself first.

Transformation won’t stop life’s curveballs but it will help you get through them

Undertaking transformation and working on yourself and your mindset is no guarantee that you won’t be touched by disaster or tragedy. Life throws us curve balls all the time. We’ve seen that this year with Coronavirus. However, if you invest in yourself and work on your mindset, you’ll be able to deal with the curveballs when they come.

You can’t expect empathy without vulnerability

It’s very common to expect empathy and support when we’re going through difficult times. Yet, most of us don’t want to admit that we’re struggling with something. However, you can’t have empathy without vulnerability. In order to expect people to support and help you, you need to be honest about where you’re at and what you’re going through, instead of pretending that you’re okay. And that requires you to be vulnerable.

Let go of control

A lot of us want to control things in our life. We do this to feel safe. But the truth is we can’t control anything — only how we react. When I hid my cancer because I didn’t want to be seen as a sick person, I was trying to control how other people saw me. When I tried to protect people by not telling them difficult things, I tried to control how they felt. Even my living a healthy lifestyle was me trying to control whether or not I’d get cancer. We need to relinquish control because trying to control everything only causes us stress. It also means that we’re living in fear. As much as we want to control the future, we can’t. We have to let go of control and focus on living in the now.

Training and working on yourself is preparing you for life

Working on yourself, going through a transformation and building healthy habits isn’t about getting a good body or training for a particular sporting event. It’s training you for life. The lessons and skills you learn while going through transformation are what will make the biggest difference when life knocks you down. It’s these things that will determine whether you get up and what you do next.

Why I do what I do

Thanks to the Imani Tribe FitPro Mentorship coaching program, today, I’m a Body and Lifestyle Transformation Expert at Vitality Transformations where my goal is to empower people to be healthier, stronger and more energetic — in body and mind. And my goal is to empower as many other people as I can to develop strong, healthy bodies and minds, so they will never have to go through what I have been through.

You see, looking after yourself isn’t just about looking after your physical health by exercising and eating well. It’s about developing strong habits and mindsets that will help you deal with the curve balls that life throws you.

Looking back, I didn’t have the mindset to deal with cancer. I wasn’t able to manage my emotions, and so I avoided dealing with them. I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable, so I didn’t ask for help or tell people what I needed. Not dealing with these issues, or talking about anything, ended up costing me my marriage, and it meant that I went through my cancer diagnosis on my own. 

If I knew how to handle my emotions better maybe things would have turned out differently.

Build a stronger body and a stronger mindset

Working on your transformation and your mindset may not be able to stop cancer, coronavirus, a road accident or any other curveball that life throws at us. But one thing it will do is help you get through it to the other side.

For example, if two people got cancer and one had been working on themselves through transformation, and the other one hadn’t, the way they would deal with it would be very different. The one who has worked on themselves will manage things better. They would be able to let go of control. They’d be able to be vulnerable and ask for help instead of pushing people away. They would be able to handle their emotions and stress. And they’d be able to deal with their fears head-on, instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

In a nutshell weight loss transformation is not just about losing weight and getting a good body. It’s about equipping you with the knowledge, systems, strategies, tools and skills so you can get through all the days — even your toughest days.

Since my cancer, I’ve been working on myself to become healthier, change my mindset and habits and reduce stress in my life. I know that this won’t necessarily prevent cancer from touching me again. But I do know that it will help me deal with it differently to how I handled it the first time. 

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