Ruth Hemmingway

I’m Ruth, I was diagnosed with Bilateral Breast Cancer in November 2019. Cancer has meant that I have questioned the meaning of life and what it means to be a woman.

The bottom dropped out of my world. ‘What do you mean I have cancer? I have the perfect diet. I have been vegetarian for over 20 years and this is what Macmillan recommend. You must have my results mixed up with someone else…… No, I can’t have cancer. I spend half my life in the gym. Have you not seen my core muscles? Are you sure it’s not a cyst?’ …..Quickly followed by a howl of pain. 

This wasn’t the deal. This wasn’t the bargain. I looked after my body with a healthy diet and lifestyle and it looked after me by being healthy and well. Except that it hadn’t.

My biggest fear was chemo. The surgery I could do, I’ve had surgery before, but no way was I strong enough or brave enough to go through chemo. That just wasn’t happening. Anything but that. 

At the beginning of January 2020, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery of silicone implants. Waking up from my hospital bed to see my husband and then my friend was so emotional. Barely able to stagger to the toilet, I spent two days in the hospital. I had surgical drains which I ignored because I couldn’t deal with them and every single one of my ribs was bruised. I didn’t sleep at all the whole time I was in the hospital. 

I came home and my house was filled with flowers from friends. Even people I hadn’t seen in a while were so kind in thinking of me. I was completely over whelmed by other people’s love and thoughtfulness. My friends and family visited me and I found other people’s love and caring totally overwhelming. 

The pain didn’t stop and two weeks later I had returned to the hospital for a follow-up appointment. The Consultant took one look at me, announced that I had an infection in my right implant and he would need to operate immediately. 

There followed the worst week of my life. I have never reacted well to general anesthetic, but this was awful. For three days, I was unable to get out of bed, I was throwing up something green and revolting every hour. A rash covered my whole body and the only thing I could do was to try to sleep because that would send the pain away. Once out of bed three days later, I was able to phone the hospital and it was established that unknown to me, I’m allergic to the penicillin. I know, how can you get to the age of 42 and not realise you’re allergic to it? This is how little sickness I’ve had until now. A 3.00 am trip to A&E on the same day as I buried both my father and mother in law. Life doesn’t get worse than this. 

Then the silver lining. Test results back. The cancer hadn’t spread to another part of my body and I was declared cancer free. I’m going to say that again, I don’t have cancer anymore.

Two weeks later, back in hospital, the Consultant told me the news that broke me. The infection hadn’t gone away. My right implant needed to be removed immediately. If I thought I was broken before, this was nothing to how I felt now. I cried as two Dr’s removed my implant. I immediately went home, found a jigsaw, switched on Friends, and didn’t move for two weeks. Who am I? I don’t feel like a woman anymore. I asked my husband for a divorce, saying that he deserved to find someone better than me. I’m ugly. I’m broken.

‘You threw me so far from myself, I’ve been trying to find my way back ever since.’

But like it or not, time moves on. Then the news I never wanted to hear. ‘Test results show that you would benefit from chemo’. I couldn’t even scream in pain. 

It was agreed that I would have four cycles of chemo, instead of the standard six. I started my first chemo session on 30 March 2020, one week after Covid lockdown. I had asked the hospital hairdresser to shave my head. I was upset at the time, but surprisingly, losing my hair didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would do. By this time, I’d been thinking about it constantly for four months. My first chemo session was so upsetting. I had a total meltdown. Snot everywhere, such an attractive look. I’m glad my husband wasn’t able to attend, there is no way I would have been able to hold it together for him.

My experience of the Covid lockdown was different than everyone else. By this stage, I was living on a different planet than everyone else. One of face masks, needles, chemo calendars, and amazing friends dropping food parcels at my door. I experienced the sheer joy of my first dawn run in the park. Watching sunlight break over the park when I hadn’t moved out of the house for two months. Life didn’t get better than this. It felt like I was the only person in the world and the sun was shining just for me. I attended online coffee afternoons, mindfulness sessions, and bedtime stories with Breast Friends. A truly amazing support group. I couldn’t have got through chemo without them. 

My third cycle out of the way, I then hit rock bottom. Maybe the doctors are going to tell me it’s all joke and they want me to go through the full six cycles. I had seen other people in Breast Friends have their treatment delayed, what if that happened to me? For the two weeks prior to the last cycle, I barely moved out of bed. I couldn’t speak to anyone anymore, not even my husband. 

Then the moment of sheer joy. The last cycle done, the final injection complete. All of my treatment done; no more. 

Nothing. 

We’d beaten cancer. 

My husband and I clung to each other as tears flooded down our faces. I then bashed the hell out of a drum cymbal to represent the end of treatment. 

Even despite all of this, my biggest challenge has been finding a bra that fitted me. A month after my treatment ended, I was put at suicide risk from the hospital. I had spent six months looking for a bra. I have a back size of 30 (BMI in the Healthy range) and there are no mastectomy bra’s manufactured in the UK in this size. I don’t feel like a woman anymore so wearing a gorgeous matching set is important to me. Except, there are none available at all. By any company. I have now written to every single mastectomy bra company to give them feedback and I’ve had a great response from some of them.  

Look Good Feel Better have been amazing. I’ve had hair, nail, and make up workshops and this has started to give me my confidence back. Knowing that I can put on makeup and do a manicure like a professional gives me such a bounce. 

My hair is starting to grow back now. Losing my hair didn’t bother me, but I have been extremely stressed by it not growing back fast enough. I’m not sick any more, so why do I look sick? Not only do I not feel like a woman, I don’t look like a woman. In the last three months, I’ve looked like Prince William, Sir Patrick Stewart, John McEnroe, a Woodstock escapee (with my wig on), the fourth member of Bros and Jedward’s stand-in. I just want a pixie cut, so I can go back to being me again. 

The silver lining in this has got to be me valuing time and love more. I particularly value my female friendships and family more and this has strengthened my relationship with my husband (I’ve just had the perfect day, and I’m very glad I spent it with you). 

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. 

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