What it's like to be diagnosed with breast cancer during lockdown

一本道理不卡一二三区 I feel as though I’m writing about someone else. This bombshell within the Covid bombshell is my utterly surreal reality right now.

Esther Shaw
Esther Shaw with her husband and two young children 

I don’t think April 2020 was easy for anyone, but just when I thought that trying to care for an 11-month-old baby, home-school a four-year-old, and squeeze in some writing where possible during lockdown was enough of an ask, I found a lump.

When I first felt that raised, odd-shaped area on my left breast – while sitting in the bath with my little girl, Jess, after a long day of juggling work and increasingly elaborate cardboard creations – I almost laughed. What a ridiculous twist of fate it would be that if, on top of everything I was trying to contend with in the midst of the coronavirus, I was about to find out I had cancer.

That same evening, I spoke to a GP friend who lives close to us in Battersea, south-west London, and she agreed to jog down to see me informally the next day. She was relaxed, and thought the lump could be sport-related (I’d increased my running and yoga during lockdown to help my headspace).

Despite this, she insisted I get it checked out. My husband Rob has private medical insurance through work, so I was lucky to see a consultant pretty quickly. I attended that first appointment in a central London clinic on my own feeling relatively invincible.

I’d left Rob at home with the children, assuming I’d have a quick chat and a scan, and be sent on my way with a swift ‘all-clear.’ I’m just 41 and a lifetime of regular exercise, never smoking, and not having eaten meat since I was nine was supposed to count for something, right?

一本道理不卡一二三区But as I got ushered through the clinic, from mammogram to ultrasound, with biopsies along the way, I started to get the feeling I wasn’t going to get the outcome I’d been expecting. Soon after, at 11am on April 9, my consultant dropped the bombshell: while nothing was 100 per cent certain without the biopsy results, it could be a tumour. With those life-changing words pounding around my head, I walked out into the eerily silent streets of lockdown London, feeling as though I’d been hit by a bus. A pretty damned big bus at that.

一本道理不卡一二三区Even typing this, I feel as though I’m writing about someone else. But I’m not. This bombshell within the Covid bombshell is my utterly surreal reality right now.

The remainder of April was one long blur of appointments, scans, phone calls, and a constant ricocheting between extreme emotions (made so much worse by having minimal human interaction and far too much time alone with the internet). But I somehow made it through to my diagnosis meeting on April 16, and the upshot is this: I have grade-three triple negative breast cancer.

一本道理不卡一二三区I have a rock of a husband, utterly devoted parents and sister, and unbelievable friends, all of whom are going to get me through this. And, despite the severity of what is happening, I’m managing to find humour in the madness of it all (getting diagnosed with cancer at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic – who does that?)

I’m fit and healthy, and I’ve been running just about every day during lockdown, and made surprisingly good progress on the ‘do-the-splits’ challenge. While I’ve certainly had plenty of self-pitying and ‘why me?’ moments over the past few weeks, what I’m having to face up to is the fact that getting cancer is just bad luck. Though arguably, getting it bang in the middle of a global pandemic, can only be classed as extremely bad luck.

Esther on her morning run

一本道理不卡一二三区Without doubt, embarking upon active chemo at this point in time is going to have its challenges.

For starters, I’ve officially joined the ‘extremely vulnerable to coronavirus’ list, meaning I’m entering into a minimum six months of uber-isolation with my husband and little ones, just at the point when others are starting to come out of lockdown.

一本道理不卡一二三区Heartbreakingly, I haven’t been able to hug my mum and dad once in all of this. Ordinarily they would unquestioningly be here by my side, except they can’t be right now. Both are over 70 and my mum has an underlying condition, meaning my biggest supporters are currently under strict self-isolation themselves several miles away.

I haven’t been able to see my friends either – to laugh, cry or drown my sorrows at the bottom of a bottle of Malbec. No offence to Zoom, but talking intimately about breast cancer, hair loss and other unsavoury side effects, is not something I want to do via a video conference call. I know my girls are with me every step of the way, but there’s no denying that lockdown has made the start of this crazy cancer journey just that little bit more lonely than it might otherwise have been.

一本道理不卡一二三区By the same token, I haven’t been able to take anyone to chemo with me. All I can say is thank God for nurse Brian who was on the receiving end of my pent-up tears at my first five-and-a-half hour session on May 1. Not only did he take the brunt of my blubbing, but he also managed to turn my streaming tears into screaming laughter (behind our paper masks, of course).

I don’t want to be too down on any of this, as I realise a lot of women are getting their breast cancer treatment changed or delayed at present to reduce the risk from Covid-19, and that this is causing many a lot of additional stress and worry.

While Rob and I are doing our best to take one day at a time, we are also trying to work through some potentially pretty tough decisions that lie on the road ahead. This includes thinking about whether I should, when the schools go back, move out of the family home for the remainder of the summer term, to give Jess the chance to go back to her classes, see her friends, and live some sort of normalcy.

The good news is, none of those decisions need to be made today. For now, my focus is just on getting on with life, and that means trying to preserve some of my old life. One of the first things I asked my consultant after being diagnosed was: ‘Two of my favourite things – alongside my husband and children – are boozing and exercising. Can I carry on doing these things?’ His reply was: ‘Yes. Just not at the same time.’

Admittedly, since starting chemo – and having now faced the first few days of chemo hangovers and the extreme fatigue – I think I might be waving away the wine. For now, at least.

But I have managed a run every morning, out across Clapham Common at 6am wearing a face mask (this is the only way my oncologist will allow me to go on exercising outside of home). I’ve been told (reliably, I think), that this is a form of altitude training.

一本道理不卡一二三区It has certainly been a learning curve, but then again, so are most things in life right now. I’m not going to pretend I’m a superwoman, I’m not. I’m also not going to pretend I never crumple in a mess, as I do. Quite frequently.

I also fully acknowledge that I’m right at the start of the journey and I’m in this for the long haul, with six months of chemo ahead of me and an operation (and potential mastectomy) towards the end of the year, and maybe radiotherapy to follow that.

Right now, I don’t know what lies around the corner. But then again, I don’t suppose any of us do. April 2020 has changed my life forever. It has changed all our lives.

When I lie awake at night, one of the phrases which keeps coming back to me is something passed on by a friend who has also been through breast cancer. ‘It’s a difficult road to accept your own mortality and come out the other side.’ But that’s exactly what I need to do. I need to concentrate on dealing with this Covid/cancer/chemo curveball that life has thrown at me, and on getting out the other side and on with my life.

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