After being diagnosed with stage 4 terminal breast cancer I decided to re-focus on my creative self and have gone from Chief Executive to poet.
In 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts and had a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This took me out of the world for about a year, that was followed up with Tamoxifen for 5 years and then I was just getting on with my life; I never even thought about breast cancer again. 8 years later, I started getting abdominal pain, I had just got back from India and thought it could just be a stomach bug. In the end, I went to doctors and began a journey of diagnosis from February to June when I went into hospital to have my ovaries removed. They told me they could not do the operation because the cancer was not just on my ovaries but in 12 other places. The biology came back and I was finally diagnosed with stage 4 terminal breast cancer. They then checked my top half and the cancer is in my backbone, ribs and shoulders. It is a hormonal breast cancer and I am being treated with an oestrogen blocker and chemotherapy. I just had my seventh round of palliative chemotherapy – it’s now about keeping me alive. I will always be on something until it stops working and then we will see what happens.
I am not dying of cancer, I am living with cancer. The initial shock of thinking I could be dead this time next year and worrying about how long I have to live passes; some days I wouldn’t even know that I have cancer. You just get on with living. In the last 7 months, I have had 2 more scans and the cancer is now stable and hasn’t grown or gone anywhere else.
We all know we are going to die but it’s different feeling like you are going to die. The impact on me has been alright really, apart from the emotional entrapment around all the people I love and thoughts about I am not going to see my niece get married and all that sort of stuff. It has really opened my heart in a deeper way, and I noticed that I can see and feel the love and compassion in the people around me, it’s raw and real and that is actually quite nice. Creating lovely experiences and memories with people is more important than things or anything material. You get a deeper sensitivity about what’s important and when it comes to the crunch. This is what life is all about, it’s about love and connection.
My working life has always been about building communities and looking after other people, whether it was through community projects or campaigns. I was a social campaigner from 14 years old and then had 40 years of working in and around collective communities to improve peoples’ lives. I have always worked around the Merseyside and was the head of a council in house youth service. I was looking at the policy and strategy and once austerity started in 2010, I realised if we didn’t do something radical, we would disappear. I started a youth organisation, which is now a very powerful co-operative between the staff and young people in Knowsley and develops youth services against the current trends. I loved my job and went into a bit of a mild shock when I realised I only have a couple of years to live and knew I didn’t want to spend it in meetings. I wanted to spend it writing poetry and being creative and developing myself as an artist.
The thing that keeps you going, keeps you alive and heals you, is your life’s force and life’s energy. If I can keep that up and keep being creative, I think it will do as much for me in the journey as the chemo or any other alternative physical health things. I think it’s about me as an emotional and spiritual person now and I have to focus on myself and my own healing, which is the complete opposite of how I have always been.
On my 55th birthday, I will be launching my book of poems called “Most Women I Know”. It’s a random collection of my work that I have pulled out of carrier bags under the bed. I have been writing since I was about 13 and the wonderful thing about my early work is that it rhymes incredibly, it is very young and shows my personal journey. Getting my poetry out into the world has always been in the back of my mind and because of my circumstances now, it has actually happened. It’s a dream come true!