Former cancer patient and Beatson volunteer Elaine Sneddon tells how the support of friends and family, humour and the support of local cancer charities helped get her through her cancer journey.
On 19th December 2017, six days before Christmas I was diagnosed with HER2 positive, matatastic (started to spread) breast cancer. My husband Peter and I were devastated, stunned, world literally turned upside down. We walked out of the breast screening clinic into Nelson Mandella Place to hoards of Christmas shoppers and revellers on their works days out and it just felt that our lives were on Live Pause.
Our biggest fear at that point was how do we tell our then, 16 year old son and our 13 year old daughter. They were so looking forward to Christmas and we just couldn’t burst their bubble so we decided to keep it to ourselves and didn’t tell any family or friends until after my niece’s baby shower on 6th January.
I had a lumpectomy on 17th January which didn’t work completely – insufficient margins I think is the term so a full mastectomy was required but they couldn’t do that right away so, I then had six cycles of chemotherapy, on the fourth dose I ended up in the Beatson hospital for four days with neutropenic sepsis and then after my sixth cycle developed clots in both lungs - a rare side effect of chemo apparently but not one I was aware of - so further surgery and radiotherapy were delayed for 6 months. Finally had mastectomy in December 2018 and finished radiotherapy in February 2019. So it was a tough fourteen months.
When you are going through cancer treatment every day is a fight. I know some people don’t like to call it that and talk about “living with cancer” but for me every day was a fight. Some days you literally don’t know which way is up, you can’t get out of bed, you struggle to get upstairs, you feel sick, you experience side-effects you never knew existed - peripheral neuropathy, chemo burn. You get poked and prodded, scanned this way and that, bombarded with so many questions and so much information. You are trying to process so much and it is often the psychological and emotional effects that have the greatest impact.
There’s no question that the medical treatment at the Beatson is second to none but most days its standing room only, the nurses, doctors and radiologists are rushed off their feet and they don’t always have the time to address those psychological and emotional effects.
The support of my family and friends - my Cancer Fight Club as I liked to call them. A cancer diagnosis can often be harder on those around you because it can be easier “living it” than worrying about someone close to you going through it, if that makes sense. Sometimes, people who are your friends don’t know what to say, but I would urge you to say something even if it is “I don’t know what to say” and often actions speak louder than words.
My “Cancer Fight Club” were tremendous. A friend, who had also been through breast cancer several years before, hosted a lunch at her house for me prior to the start of my chemotherapy treatment. This gave me the opportunity to see all my friends and for them to offer their support in whatever way they could. Over the next several months, some would come round for a cuppa and bring cake, some cooked meals for my freezer, others would take me out to lunch or to the cinema if I felt up to it, some sent flowers and brought me magazines and one even insisted on doing my ironing – now that’s a true friend!
I set up a WhatsApp group Elaine’s Cancer Fight Club to make communication easier and, to a degree within my control, because answering calls or responding to twenty or so texts a day can be exhausting.
At the end of my treatment I hosted a prosecco afternoon tea for all my family, friends and neighbours that had been part of my journey – to say thank you and to raise funds for some of the charities that had helped me during and after treatment.
Having friends that can just listen or be there when you need to talk, drive you to appointments or just make you see the funny side is priceless.
The other thing that got me through was humour – you might not think it but there have been some hysterical moments amidst the cancer darkness. Part of the treatment for breast cancer causes hair loss which actually didn’t bother me too much but wigs and being bald can be quite amusing.
I have two teenagers and those of you with kids will know that to your kids you’re not just known as Mum but more often than not as “Mumwheresthe” So one day my son shouts down the stairs Mumwheresthe Veet hair remover? because apparently it’s not cool anymore if you are a 16 year old boy to have hairs on your chest – who knew? So, I suggested looking in the bathroom or asking his sister who also used hair remover for the three hairs she had on her legs at 13. Anyway, a wee debate ensues each accusing the other of finishing the Veet and then they both look at me who by this point is lying creased up on the floor… Now I’ve not got an eyelash, an eyebrow or a hair on my head totally bald so the last thing I needed was the Veet hair remover!!
Another day during the summer my friend Jane came to take me out for a drive in her new car – a convertible Mazda – very nice. I jumped in and off we headed, like Thelma and Louise, sunglasses on towards Silverburn. Half way across the Kingston Bridge I suddenly felt my wig start to move so, as we couldn’t pull over to put the roof up, there I was hanging on to my wig for dear life with visions of it flying off and floating down the Clyde.
The third thing that helped me through my cancer journey was the support of the Cancer charities like MacMillan, Maggies, Cancer Support Scotland and ofcourse Beatson Cancer Charity.
Beatson Cancer Charity not only finance crucial life-saving research, fund clinical posts and help buy important state of the art equipment but they also provide practical support and a human touch to help patients and their families cope with cancer treatment. From providing teas, coffees and lunches to outpatients in the Chemotherapy day unit to providing complementary therapies like massage, reflexology and reiki for inpatients in the award-winning Wellbeing Centre to offering much needed holidays at the Beatson caravan in Ayrshire.
A cancer diagnosis impacts many areas of your life – health, emotional well-being, home, family, finances and ability to work. The Beatson Cancer Charity’s Specialist Health and Work team helped me reassess what's important for my future in terms of getting a work-life balance and maintaining my physical and mental well-being. They signposted me to other helpful organisations and suggested that volunteering might be a way of giving me a focus and gently reintroducing myself into work. The team are experienced in health and work issues and can help those who continue to work during treatment, want to return to work or are looking for a new job or looking to retire.
The services that Beatson Cancer Charity offer cancer patients and their families are invaluable and can make a big difference to their physical and mental wellbeing. Services are free but Beatson Cancer Charity don’t receive government funding so it’s from fundraising and other donations that ensure these services can continue to make a difference to the lives and recovery of cancer patients.
I liked the Beatson Cancer Charity’s approach so much I now volunteer there. Not only is volunteering a way of me giving back but I get so much more out of it. I’ve made new friends, it’s given me a purpose and given me something to focus on other than myself.
My mantra now is “there is always someone worse off than yourself” and if you can empathise or help them in some way then it’s worth doing. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing someone walk into the Wellbeing Centre looking a bit stressed and worried and then an hour later seeing them walk out looking more relaxed as if walking on air after a treatment or relaxation session.
I wouldn’t choose to have cancer but I think it has made me think about things in a whole different way and overcome a lot of my fears. I say yes to a lot more.
Find out more about volunteering or read the do's and dont's of being a supportive friend