The day I was told: Della’s breast cancer story
When you meet Della today, she is confident, engaging and full of joie de vivre. We asked her to share her story of the day she was told she had breast cancer – and how she lost that joy for life during her breast cancer journey but, through helping others, rediscovered it.
The day Della was told she had breast cancer, in 2010, she found she didn’t know how to tell her friends and family. “I couldn’t talk about my treatment – I said it was ‘just a lump’,” she says. Her diagnosis came as a complete surprise. Della led a busy and fulfilling life, with a career and two daughters who were then aged 14 and 12, and there was no history of breast cancer in her family. As it turned out, dealing with the psychological effects proved to be much more challenging than recovering from treatment, but it spurred Della on to reinvent herself.
Della opted for a mastectomy, although she didn’t know anything about prostheses at that point: “I had never seen one before, and I didn’t know what a mastectomy bra was either.” Nor did she know where to turn when she needed to talk about how she felt – which made her even more grateful for the support of her church community, who helped her enormously.
“I was advised by my healthcare team to join a support group,” she says, “but I didn’t know what they were.” Looking back now, Della would urge other women going through breast cancer to find someone willing to share their own breast cancer story. “I wanted to talk to people like me who were going through cancer. I needed them to tell me ‘This is what I did, this is what to expect.’ I would have really appreciated that – to know what was coming next.”
In fact, once she had found a support group, Della’s experience was so positive that she became an advocate herself.
So much more than a cup of tea
It was only once she had been discharged from hospital after her surgery and was waiting for her chemotherapy to begin that Della experienced the full impact of what had happened to her. “I was hit with the reality that I had cancer, and I just couldn’t cope – I was hiding away. And I was too ashamed to say I needed help. This is the side you don’t discuss with your healthcare team – you just discuss the chemo. The emotional and psychological part of it nobody tells you, and I needed that help then.”
Chemotherapy made her tired. “I lost weight – I couldn’t eat. And because I was usually very active and busy, I felt as though I was not myself. I lost my joie de vivre – I was just lifeless. I was looking forward to being Della again.”
This was when her support group really helped. “I was offered counselling, massage, reflexology – everything that was new to me and that I really wanted to experience. It was like pampering after all that cancer had thrown at me.
“I always looked forward to going there and I definitely recommend to any woman diagnosed with breast cancer that she joins a support group. It isn’t all about having a cup of tea. There’s more to it, and that saw me through.”
She was so inspired by the help she received from her support group in the UK that she decided to go to Nigeria and set up a cancer support group there. Della wanted to be a ‘voice for the voiceless’ once she got better. “Especially in Nigeria, where I come from, we don’t talk about cancer. But I wanted to be part of the solution – to say to people that there is life after cancer, so I got involved with lots of voluntary work.”
Seeing herself as an advocate for talking about cancer and reaching out for the help you need, Della made an effort to talk to people and help them know what to expect. “I want to tell people ‘I have had cancer. Don’t run away from me.’ Setting up my cancer support group was part of my therapy – a way of getting to grips with myself.
“A lot of the things I got out of my support group in my darkest days, I felt I wanted to take back into the community. Not only was I helping them, but I was also helping myself,” she explains.
Asked what she did to get back on track herself, Della says she decided to turn her life around. “I decided to get fit, so I joined a gym once I became strong enough. I was determined to eat well and reduce the stress in my life too – I attended a mindfulness course which drew all these threads together.” Before long she felt full of energy again: “Sometimes when something bad happens, something good can come of it. That’s how I saw it.”
A second chance
Della rediscovered her joie de vivre by focusing on the positive aspects of her cancer experience. “I have had cancer; I have had chemotherapy. I felt like it was cleansing – I became a new girl. I felt like I was born again.”
Taking good care of herself and appreciating what she’s got has helped her rediscover her body confidence. “I love my legs – people compliment me on them – so I make the best of them. I look good, I feel good. I try to pamper the body that was damaged, to really look after it. And I give myself things to look forward to – like a mini-break or learning something new.”
Her advice to other women facing a breast cancer diagnosis is clear: “You are not alone – reach out, talk to people, educate them. I know people say don’t talk about yourself, but I talked about myself and I tried to get an audience. I want people to listen.”
Della’s is one of the most positive stories of breast cancer patients. Using her experience as a springboard to a confident future, she says: “I twisted it around and I got rejuvenated. I feel that God has given me a second chance. I’ve had it all now. That was how I became strong – and I’m not looking back. There is life after cancer. It was just one chapter, and there are more chapters in my life.”