Share Your Story: Maddy Cooper
How Breast Cancer Changed My Life
Around five years ago, in 2014 when I was 27-years-old, I went to see my GP for a checkup before heading overseas to travel. I had no intention of getting a breast examination when I was there but for some (subconscious) reason, I asked to be checked. Strange enough, my doctor noticed a lump on my right breast but due to my young age, there was no immediate concern.
I was advised to monitor it over the next month to see if there were any changes. At this stage I wasn’t really considering the possibility of it being breast cancer, surely it wasn’t possible and it only happens to women over 50 right? I couldn’t be more wrong and I soon came to realise that whatever it was which guided me to be examined by my GP that day, in turn, saved my life.
After a follow up appointment I was sent to a specialist for a biopsy. I received a phone call the following morning asking if I could come in to discuss the results – I knew then the news was not good.
That phone call was the start of a whirlwind which changed my world forever. I was diagnosed with a grade 3 ductal carcinoma with calcification. Within two weeks I was scheduled for a seven-hour surgery – a skin-sparing mastectomy and a latissimus dorsi (climbing muscle from back) flap reconstruction.
The first few days post-surgery were a painful, surreal blur with tubes and dressing sticking out in all directions. After six weeks of recovery, I started a course of eight chemotherapy sessions over a six month period, followed by a year of Herceptin (for HER2 positive breast cancer) and five years of hormone therapy (which I have only JUST completed!). The hormone suppression threw my body into a menopausal state and I was left to experience an array of side effects such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, fatigue, sleepiness, hyperthyroidism, exhaustion, and gut dysbiosis. Not to mention a marriage break-down in the middle of it.
Why me and why now?
Accepting what had happened was extremely tough. I felt like I was in the prime of my life with so much potential and opportunity. Then all of a sudden, the world as I knew it was ripped out from underneath my feet.
Looking in the mirror at a bald, pale, sickly reflection with a massive scar across my back and an implant where my breast had once been was the hardest psychological thing I have ever had to deal with. For a long time, I felt unattractive and not the way a young woman was supposed to look.
What made it harder still was living in utter exhaustion. I had always been an active, busy, and social person with exciting career goals and travel plans. I still wanted all of that. I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to get out and enjoy life but I physically just couldn’t. I suffered severe fatigue from early on, which made simple everyday things extremely challenging – some days just having a shower was an achievement! (And to this day I still have debilitating episodes of fatigue which can make commitments difficult and the need to be flexible a necessity.) It was (and still can be) frustrating not to be able to live up to my own expectations.
So, how did I get through it all?
To survive the journey I was on I had to let go of everything I thought my life should be. I had to find a place of peace, acceptance, and appreciation within myself, and let go of the frustration and anger. Yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhist philosophies became my haven in the dark and enabled me to begin to look at the world in a whole new light. With self-discipline, patience, practice, and kindness towards myself, I was able to cultivate a new mindset and a positive attitude.
I learned about the philosophies of forgiveness and compassion. I practiced meditation techniques to reduce anxiety and bring me into the present moment. I discovered the power of the breath and the Relaxation Response. Learning to breathe deeply and with awareness became a vital tool for me to reduce stress, calm my nervous system, and find peace of mind.
Through practicing yoga I became connected with my body in a way I never was before. It taught me to listen, to be present, to be aware and focussed. It helped relieve tension, create space, and build strength and resilience. It taught me how to rest and care for myself at a deeply restorative and regenerative level.
Cancer opened my eyes to what was actually important in life. I used to find life hard. Work was stressful, relationships were stressful, career goals were stressful. I had so many expectations (I had set upon myself) of what I should be doing, where my relationships should be and comparing myself to others – manifestations of what I thought would make me “happy” which I later learned were based on ego.
I look back now, still finding the whole experience surreal but with such gratitude for who it has enabled me to become. Today I look back and do NOT think “why me” – I am proud of my scars, of my strength, of my body, and of my mind. I am more alive, more grateful and more aware than ever before. If it were not for getting sick, I would never have experienced yoga on such a deeply beneficial level or become a yoga teacher. I would never have been introduced to philosophies and mindful practices which have changed the way I view the world. Or have met the many amazing, inspiring people who have shaped my life along the way.
Life is precious and our health cannot be taken for granted. Too many of us today live with unnecessary stress and sickness. Each day in each moment we have a choice – a choice to be happy, healthy, balanced, grateful, kind and aware. It is my path to share this with others and to empower the individual through the gift of yoga, breathwork, and mindfulness.
‘When on the right path, all you have to do is walk.’ – Buddha