Margaret was in her thirties when she learnt she had breast cancer. Some three years later, after the removal of the affected breast, she was leading a very busy life working full-time at the Open University, studying part-time for an OU degree and running a family. Fitness activities such as jogging and various sports had become very important in her life. She was also very involved in cancer research fundraising activities. She described the impact of her brush with death in this way:
Until I was told I had breast cancer I had never seriously contemplated my own mortality. Fortunately the prognosis is good and I seem to have survived the trauma in relatively good mental shape. I attribute this largely to my positive, optimistic nature but the experience has certainly changed my life and outlook in many ways, some obvious, some not so.
My overall view of life has changed. These days, no matter how bad things seem, I still have a sense of how good it is just to be alive. Things I worried about in the past don’t seem as important.
When I had my operation [a mastectomy] I experienced little, if any, physical pain, not requiring sleeping pills or pain killers. I put this down to the fact that I was generally very physically fit, earlier that year having taken up jogging, tennis and aerobics. These days I have a passion for exercise and I know this is based on an inner feeling that if the cancer recurs I will be in good physical shape to ‘fight’ it again. Since then I have also helped to raise money through sponsored events for charities, usually cancer-based though not always, and this is something I had not done before, perhaps through a feeling of wanting to repay or put something back for my good fortune in surviving.
I feel fortunate that I have a positive disposition but I realise that it isn’t this way for everyone. I wonder how people without this optimism cope. I don’t always feel happy, occasionally I am frightened and pessimistic. At these times I feel my family and friends find it difficult to cope too, they are used to the ‘positive’ me, reassuring them. I feel as though I’m letting them down and struggle to regain control quickly. Fortunately this doesn’t happen very often.
Six years later …
Looking back at what I wrote in 1992 I realise that things have changed quite a lot. I still like to exercise and keep fit, but I’m no longer obsessive about doing so, and no longer feel as though I owe a debt for surviving. Overall, I’m very positive and optimistic, I hardly ever dwell on the prospect of the cancer recurring and now assume I will live to a ripe old age and die of ‘natural’ causes. Three years ago I had reconstructive surgery and a breast implant – a difficult and complicated decision which took three years to make – and I’ve found that not having to use a prosthesis or wear special or adapted clothing has also distanced me from the event.