Rachel’s Chemogiftbag Experience

For several years now, I have seen the Chemogiftbags poster at the Royal Mail sorting office. I never thought I’d ever contact them. And then I got breast cancer. 

I never felt a lump, just a thickening and it was different to the other breast. My friend’s wife was having chemo for breast cancer, so I thought I’d better play safe. A trip to the GP was followed by a long two weeks, in the middle of which was Christmas. Then the hospital visit where the doctor doing the ultrasound said “Expect to have treatment in the next year”. It was Wednesday December 30th 2015. There were two lumps – two and half centimetres and 3 millimetres, known as Fat Man and Little Boy in our house, named after the two atomic bombs dropped in Japan at the end of World War Two. But I never felt a lump, just a thickening.

By the time we left the hospital that day, everything had changed, but we were okay. Surprisingly okay. After being in tears in the waiting room, a talk with the nurse changed everything. We came out of there ready to kick cancer’s butt so hard. The nurse’s surname was Lancelot – our knight in shining armour.

I’d been doing martial arts for three years at that stage, and we not only train physically, but mentally as well – how to cope with the world today. I honestly believe my whole cancer experience would have been very different without the help and support I got from my instructors both before, during and after treatment. I was able to be positive throughout the whole thing (apart from the time I used the F-word at a piece of toast). There’s no point in me thinking miserable thoughts – it just makes me miserable and spoils life! It also helped me get through the uncomfortable and occasionally painful part of treatment – three hours of cold gloves (-17c) during chemo to prevent nerve damage in my hands was not pleasant (but survive the first hour and your hands go numb so it stops hurting). The nurses tell me I’m only the second patient to cope with them.

And I suddenly found a whole raft of people who cared, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, medical staff and strangers. Every time I went back to work after each chemo, I would get nothing done for two days, due to the wonderful problem of numerous well-wishers who wanted to check I was ok and see how I was doing. Amongst the strangers was the Chemo Gift Bag team of lovely people. Lynne who delivered my bag was so kind and says she still thinks of me when she goes to the sorting office! The contents are great, well thought out and useful – apart for the comb. I’m really not sure what the comb was for, as by the time I received my bag I’d already lost my hair. But the relevance of the contents isn’t the main thing I got from the bag – the contents could have been anything. The important thing for me is someone cares enough about me, a person they have never met, to put thought and time into doing something to make me feel better. There was a wonderful keyring in the bag that I treasure, it’s hung up by my sewing machine and has charms on it saying “Made with love”, “Hope” and “Believe”. 

I’m a firm believer in making the most of everything and in shaping my own experiences. The support I received from everyone helped me stay positive and enjoy the ride. There was so much laughter and happiness in 2016 which is unbelievable since it should have been the worst year of my life. Wearing rabbit slippers to work because my feet hurt and I had no comfortable shoes. I’m an engineer and work in a male dominated environment, so wearing slippers which have ears and a tail in the office is quite an experience. The men didn’t dare comment, but the ladies and I had quite a few giggles that day.  

I got a new perspective on the world, everyday experiences suddenly become magical when you can’t do them for a while and you really appreciate the “first time after the op”, the “first time after chemo” events. My husband has my first time riding my horse after my mastectomy as the screensaver on his phone. I remember seeing raindrops in a tree glistening like diamonds in the sunshine. Small things, large things – all become treasured. 

Life hasn’t been easy since my diagnosis, but I’m determined not to be a victim and not to suffer. To be a warrior not a worrier, and always look for rainbows during a storm. Cancer has surprisingly given me so much, a great appreciation of life, some great friends, great opportunities, a new way of viewing the world to see the good and some fantastic experiences. I’ve had a horse named after me (he’s called Warrior after my “Be a Warrior” motto during chemo), I’ve got to meet one of my heroes – an event rider who completed Badminton less than a year after having chemo for a form of blood cancer, and have had an elephant cake made for me. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, but life’s better with cake.

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