Angie Morris, BSc, NT, PhD Breast Cancer Survivor
Over Christmas 2015, I was scratching myself in bed and found a slight hardness in the upper right quadrant of my left breast. I didn’t think much of it, but my neighbour – a nurse – suggested I get it checked out. I had breastfed four children and had just turned 50, so I confidently, perhaps arrogantly, presumed I just had lumpy breasts. I was screened by mammogram and ultrasound where it was determined that I had a small tumour, so a biopsy was taken. A month later I had a lumpectomy with the removal of 3 lymph nodes under my left arm pit.
The tumour was analysed and I was diagnosed with a hormone dependent breast cancer, DCIS, with an Oncotype DX test score of 10, which meant that my treatment did not include chemotherapy, instead 35 rounds of radiation followed by 5 years of a drug to block my oestrogen hormone receptors. It took a while to realise how lucky I was. Yes I had cancer, but it was in situ, meaning it hadn’t spread and I didn’t need chemotherapy. Technically my prognosis was very good.
To tell or not to tell my children?
The experience of a cancer diagnosis is mind blowing, for many reasons. The “C” word for most people, has a strong connection with a death sentence and so there’s huge fear associated with it. Often compounded by people’s reactions when you tell them; I had the experience of an acquaintance hugging me, while sobbing as she slid down my body, ending up hugging my ankles.
A big dilemma was whether to tell my four children that I was sick. The radiation therapy was daily over 5 weeks – when they were at school. And, as I didn’t need chemotherapy, it meant I wouldn’t lose my hair. So, had I not told them, they would never have known. However, I was advised to tell them and upon reflection, if I had one regret regarding this experience, it was telling them.
My then 9 year old youngest son, 4 months after I told him, lost a third of his body weight in two weeks and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your digestive system. The poor little man was so stressed at the prospect of losing his mum to cancer that he had worried himself sick.
Taking my power back
As with every situation, there’s always a silver lining. And this, more than anything, is what I want to tell you about; after fear, the next strong emotion in facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment, is disempowerment. You’re told that the treatment is surgery, radiation and usually chemotherapy. You’re at the mercy of strangers, and there’s a risk you’ll lose your fight. You know that you will be very sick, tired, and normally will lose your hair. For a middle-aged woman, losing what you feel is your remaining beauty, is devastating.
I had to learn how to take my power back. This involved discovering what I needed to change about my lifestyle which would enhance my journey back to health. This included exercise, diet and attitude.
I previously did my PhD in the pharmacology of medicines. Having had four children around the time of the invention of “the kiddies’ menu” (i.e. fried food, pizza, chips and fizzy drinks), I knew I wanted to feed my family healthier food. And so, I completed several cookery courses, which then evolved into a Diploma in Nutrition, and eventually an intense course in the USA around Functional Medicine – the study of the pharmacology of food.
The father of medicine Hippocrates, coined the term “food is medicine”. The biochemistry of the body requires cofactors to function, derived from good nutrition. A combination of micronutrients; vitamins and minerals and macronutrients; proteins, carbohydrates and fats. If you don’t eat a diet of whole foods containing the required cofactors, the body doesn’t function optimally, equivalent to a car running on low grade petrol.
A diet of junk food, high sugar and processed carbohydrates doesn’t provide sufficient nutritional cofactors. Furthermore, certain foods can actually cause inflammation in the body (sugar, salt, crisps, processed carbs including white bread, white pasta and many baked goods). While others reduce inflammation (olive oils, green leafy vegetables, fatty fish and low sugar fruits). Knowing what to eat to minimise your likelihood of a cancer recurrence feels very powerful with every forkful.
My Survivors’ Tribe
As my own radiation treatment came to its conclusion, the breast cancer dragon boat group, The Plurabelle Paddlers was mentioned to me, as something to join. A Canadian oncologist had realised that paddling was great exercise for women post breast cancer. I’m not sporty or competitive and am a little fearful of water, but in June of 2016 I joined. The only requirement to join was to be a breast cancer survivor.
To have found this sport and this amazing collection of women, has made the cancer experience worth it. Pre Covid19, we trained every Saturday morning at Grand Canal Dock in Dublin, plus Wednesday evenings during the summer. What it meant to me, was that I designated a specific time for myself to exercise and socialise. For a lot of women, they never do that, always prioritising everyone else. I loved it. The exercise was challenging. And among such a cohort of women there was a diverse skill set. Trainers, coaches, helmswomen, accountants to do the books, all emerged in the most helpful way possible. Everyone had gone through the cancer experience, which meant it didn’t have to be discussed. Mostly we just wanted to have fun.
The highlight so far, was participating in the IBCPC (International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission) Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy in 2018. I competed along with 5,000 other breast cancer survivors from all over the world, on the Arno river. It was an incredibly uplifting experience. And since Covid19, the women have continued with individual training on single-person boats. The boats are sanitised before and after training – I’d say they’re the cleanest boats in Ireland.
Cancer teaches you to appreciate everything that you have. It’s often easy to look at the world and see a glass half-empty. But when faced with the risk of numbered days, you suddenly cherish your family, friends, your hobbies, nature and especially your health. You find joy in the little things. You make the most of every day. Human nature is funny, in what you need to experience in order to be truly grateful. And I am.