Breast cancer can be an emotional challenge as well as a physical one.
From wild swimming and crochet, to poetry and saying yes to help, seven women tell us what’s been key to helping them cope…
Writing was cathartic
Emma Davies, 43, works for the Royal College of Nursing and lives in Exeter with husband Darren and children Toby, eight, and Chloe, four. After being diagnosed in 2019 she wrote a book, Take My Hair But Not My Humour (One Mum’s Journey Seeing Off Breast Cancer).
“Two things stand out: asking for and getting the support I needed, and writing my book. My priority was getting through this – and for the first time in my life, I felt like my true authentic self. I asked for help and didn’t feel guilty, advocated for myself, asked ALL the questions. I had an excellent hospital team, but also contacted Reframe (cancer-support.reframe.co.uk), which provides personalised cancer support. My nurse, Suzanne, was an absolute godsend, and became a weekly go-to and source of advice.
“The book came about after I started sending blog updates to friends, who kept saying, ‘You’re funny, you should write a book’ – so I did! Using my slightly sweary, dark humour, I was able to document my quest to kill ‘Lumpy’ and found it so cathartic. I now donate £2 from every paperback sale to my local FORCE cancer charity, who were absolutely amazing throughout my treatment too.”
Finding community is everything
Kreena Dhiman, 42, lives in West Sussex with husband Satty and children Amaala, three, and one-year-old triplets Aanav, Arvaarn and Anaayan. She was diagnosed in 2013 and is a proud Breast Cancer Ambassador for Estée Lauder Companies Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, which is marking its 30th anniversary and aims to give a voice to underrepresented communities and empower them to regularly check their breasts (elcompanies.co.uk/BCC).
“As a South Asian woman, for me, community was key. Cancer was taboo, none of my peers were talking about it, and voices sharing personal cancer experiences were almost non-existent.
“The communities I found through social media became my lifeline. It’s the people who have walked in your shoes that provide the deepest empathy, it’s those who have known the word cancer intimately that catch you when you fall. The comfort of finding your tribe is so powerful.
“As time’s passed, I’ve found community outside of social media is so important. The work The Estée Lauder Companies UK & Ireland’s Breast Cancer Campaign do helps build community, particularly in prominent settings like the wonderful Future Dreams House alongside the Future Dreams Charity.”
I needed to let people help me
Helen Addis, 44, works for ITV’s Lorraine and lives in Surrey with husband Mark and children Archie, 13, April, 11, and Belle, 9. Diagnosed at 39, she set up The Titty Gritty (@thetittygritty) to get people talking about breast cancer, and is an advisor for virtual cancer care clinic Perci Health (percihealth.com).
“The rug was pulled from underneath me when I was diagnosed. I’m a very practical person – I like to approach things by thinking: ‘Right, what do I need to deal with this situation?’ Actually, what I needed was to say yes to offers of help from friends and family. However, it took me a while to realise I couldn’t just run around as normal, saying ‘I’m fine’. Accepting people’s offers didn’t come naturally, but it was lovely and helped endlessly. Friends would drop off tray bakes or curries, for instance, and it meant I could focus more on taking care of myself.
“Another thing was reiki. I tried counselling, but it didn’t really click at the time, then a friend suggested a local reiki practitioner. I’d never been into that sort of thing before – but my goodness, it was amazing. I’d drop in after chemo sessions and always felt so grounded and calm afterwards.”
Crafting brings me peace
Joanne Ford, 24, lives in Bedfordshire and works in PR. In early 2021 she was diagnosed with the BRCA2 gene mutation.
“Finding out I had the BRCA gene mutation during the pandemic was hard. It was a crazy time anyway, and I couldn’t go and see my friends, who I would normally turn to. I’d originally taken up crochet so I didn’t spend the whole of lockdown on my phone, watching TikTok – but it soon became a real tonic for coping with the diagnosis.
“All of a sudden, I was having to think about what this meant for my future, seeing people who’ve had preventative double mastectomies – it can be really overwhelming. With crochet, you have to focus. There’s lots of counting, trying not to drop a stitch. It’s lovely having a hobby that’s creative and lets you switch off. I’ve been making jumpers and gifts for friends, and started sharing my creations on Instagram (@jochet.x).”
Podcasts and nature walks were my crutch
Rebecca Hartley, 44, runs Saving Grace Events and Tatton Park Pop Up Festival and lives in Cheshire with son Zach, 15. An ambassador for the Prevent Breast Cancer charity (preventbreastcancer.org.uk), she was diagnosed in 2015.
“Podcasts really helped me – especially Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul [podcast], and I love Diary Of A CEO with Steven Bartlett. During my two years of treatment, going for a walk in our local National Trust park and along the lake, while listening to a podcast, became a real crutch.
“I find being in nature, especially near water, so soothing. And listening to other people’s stories, the challenges they’d faced and overcome, always left me inspired. It’s a reminder that everyone goes through tough times. Some days, I’d put a podcast on and cry the whole way through. But I always felt better afterwards.”
Wild swimming makes me glad to be alive
Yvonne Howells, 66, lives in Warwick with husband Alan. After having a preventative double mastectomy, she raises awareness of hereditary breast cancer alongside Anita Care Lingerie (anita.com) and the National Hereditary Breast Cancer helpline (breastcancergenetics.co.uk).
“My mother died from breast cancer in 1973 when I was just 14. After finding out I’d inherited the faulty BRCA2 gene, I was told I had an 85% chance of developing the disease. Going through a double mastectomy is a painful journey, although one I am so grateful I was able to take. One thing that’s really helped me cope is to stay as fit and healthy as I can. I run regularly and have completed two half-marathons, and do at least one outdoor swim a week – even through winter!
“I have swum in places like Stoney Cove, Bodmin Moor, Bude and Snowden. It makes me feel glad to be alive, and there’s something about cold water that takes you away from everything, and closer to nature. Many people have thought me mad – but when they eventually give it a go, they find it helps their mental health too.”
My poetry kept me connected
Grandmother-of-seven Lorraine Leiter, 69, lives in Essex with husband Ray. After being diagnosed in 2020, she now fundraises for the research and support charity Breast Cancer Now (breastcancernow.org) and is encouraging others to sign up for Wear It Pink this October (wearitpink.org/signup)
“I’m normally quite negative, but the day I was diagnosed, it was like a switch flicked. I thought, ‘I’m going to beat this, and I’m going to write about it’. Putting pen to paper has always been how I cope, but this felt like I was writing for my life. It was lockdown, when you couldn’t see friends and family, so I shared my poems in a WhatsApp group, as my way of telling everyone how I was doing.
“It really kept me going – because no matter how bad I felt, I had to get better so I could write my latest poem. They were normally quite light-hearted and always rhymed. I’d write about how I was feeling, what I’d seen at hospital. I’ve written 30 poems over 18 months of treatment (and I’m very happy to say my cancer has gone). I’m hoping to publish them in a book to raise money for Breast Cancer Now.”