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Ten things breast cancer taught me

Breast cancer changes the way you view things – from life’s various trials to the most trivial day-to-day experiences. We asked author and two-time breast cancer survivor, Sharon Morrison, to share her own particular insights. 

1. Let people in
Being open about my cancer was the cue my friends and family needed to get involved. No, they weren’t coming to my home to do the housework (which is a shame really), but they kept in touch every month by phone, card, letter, email and the occasional visit; they even ran races for me and had prayers said at Mass. By deliberately externalising my feelings, they knew they could show theirs, and we were all the better for it. 

2. …especially your kids
My children were eight, ten and 14 when I first had cancer, and I decided that keeping them in the loop from the beginning was the best way of avoiding a bigger problem later on. The best thing I did was to appoint my sister as the official sounding board so they always had someone else to turn to and, crucially, they could ask her everything they felt they couldn’t ask me. They were with me too when I had chemotherapy, so could see it wasn’t remotely scary. 

3. Get your beauty sleep
After a few weeks of looking and feeling like a zombie, I nipped the chronic insomnia that seems to accompany chemotherapy in the bud and took sleeping pills. I was prescribed Zopiclone, which is a hypnotic drug (which means it induces sleep without affecting your mood or sensitivity to pain), and it’s non-addictive. I’d wake up feeling and looking refreshed and more than able to tackle the day ahead. When the treatment was over I weaned myself off the pills. 

4. Shock your taste buds
I didn’t lose my sense of taste exactly, it’s just that chemo makes food taste odd, metallic, unpleasant. My way round this was to choose comforting food that reminded me of childhood, like fish fingers and mashed potato; or that went ‘kapow!’ on my tongue, like lime juice and soda water, and gingernut biscuits dunked in tea. 

5. …but don’t gain weight
You’d think you’d at least lose weight but, first time round, I gained a stone which took 12 months to shift. This year when I was having treatment, I decided to see if gentle exercise would stop the weight gain before it started. I began walking, then jogging very, very slowly around the block, eventually building up to three miles a day. I didn’t gain weight; I lost it, but all the time feeling healthier and more energetic. So I haven’t stopped. 

6. Go hippy
I didn’t know very much about reflexology but had heard it had been helpful to others in handling the side effects of treatment. To be honest, anything involving having your toes fiddled with for an hour has got to be good, so I gave it a try. In fact I had reflexology the day before every chemo session and regard it as a major contributory factor in helping me cope as well as I did, both physically and mentally.  

7. Embrace the grey
When my hair started to grow again, steel grey in places, white in others, I decided NOT to reach for the hair dye. As much as I wanted to go back to the security of medium-golden-brown-with-caramel-highlights, I thought I should take advantage of my situation and turn a potentially ageing hairstyle into a short, funky look. Yes, there were a few double-takes initially, but I’m happy with my new style and there are no roots to retouch – bliss.  

8. Even the eyebrows?
Sadly my eyebrows didn’t grow back and this made me look tired and washed out all the time. After months of penciling them in, I decided to get my eyebrows tattooed on. It’s a semi-permanent procedure and will need to be refreshed once a year, but it’s made a big difference to me and I mentally thank my tattooist every morning when I look in the mirror. 

9. Don’t let employers get you down
When you’ve got breast cancer, the last thing you should need to do is ‘watch your back’ at work but, as I found out first hand, not all employers behave with integrity. Some will exploit every opportunity to undermine you at the most difficult time in your life and, although it will seem hard, you have to fight back. I found the very act of making a stand and confronting my employer, despite being petrified, made me feel stronger and more confident. 

10. Nothing’s THAT important
An experience like this changes you on the inside. I’m definitely more at ease with myself now. I can cry in front of strangers and not feel ashamed; I can handle difficult situations with calm; I can lean on those who used to lean on me. But, most of all, I’m just glad that I’m still on this planet and can continue to embarrass my kids and, occasionally, make them feel proud of the journey we’ve been on together.

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