Inspirational stories: Many of us have them but may not even realise how important they truly are or are too modest to shout it from the roof-tops. Successes should be shared and enjoyed, especially when certain hurdles or obstacles have had to be overcome to get there. Your story could help others reach their full potential. For this reason, I wanted to find some truly inspiring people who have a story that needs to be told. Each week I will bring you a different story with a different angle but one that you will just have to read.
This week’s story comes from Samantha Reynolds who, after battling Cancer, set up her mentoring service, SamSpaces.
A Space to Grow
Space is such an important concept, especially when faced with adversity. As humans, we need physical space and emotional space. Space to breathe, heal, reflect and grow. I didn’t appreciate the importance of this until I found myself recovering from a year of treatment for hormonally receptive breast cancer and now an official ‘survivor’ of three diagnoses altogether over the last ten years and having faced three separate remission periods, I have learnt that the journey of recovery and healing can be just as overwhelming as the diagnosis. To me, a diagnosis is that awful moment when some giant anonymous hand reaches out the universe and presses a pause button and then flicks you over, like a rag doll, so you fall, head over heels, down the rabbit hole.
To me, a diagnosis is that awful moment when some giant anonymous hand reaches out the universe and presses a pause button and then flicks you over, like a rag doll, so you fall, head over heels, down the rabbit hole. The image of Alice tumbling down that dark hole, desperately trying to cling onto familiar objects, twisting and turning upside down, totally disorientated and yet still trying to see things with a sense of humour and positivity, is an effective image that has often helped me relate my experience of breast cancer to others. Being only twenty-seven when I was first diagnosed, I felt like a child again, needing my parents support both emotionally and financially at a time when I should have been embracing my independence. I felt just like Alice falling to earth with a bump and crying rivers of tears, eating biscuits (pills) that made me feel small and vulnerable and that rabbit and his ‘biological’ clock ticking away echoed in my head constantly.
Through three separate diagnoses, I almost became immune to the conveyer belt of appointments, the blood tests, the smartie tube scans, the waiting, the questions and the thousands of cups of tea! The monotony was a strange comfort, like stepping stones across furious rapids. It created a sense of control. I had times and dates to stick to, to keep me in line and keep my thoughts ordered and focused. As the operation passed and chemo loomed (the first time), I decided to keep a diary for three hundred and sixty-five days. Being in the minority facing this so young, writing became my biggest healing tool.
Over the last ten years, I have had wonderful counsellors who I would talk at, without drawing breath, for an hour every week. They literally kept me sane. Yet, three months after finishing my first year of treatment, I split up with my then boyfriend and that was the last straw. I felt totally steamrolled, emotionally drained and we quickly realised I was clinically depressed and it was during my sessions the second time around that I was diagnosed with PTSD.
After soldiering through chemo, two rounds of radio and on and off maintenance drugs, such as Tamoxifen and Zoladex, anxiety levels were at their peak, mood swings were like ping pong balls going backwards and forwards and yet everyone was telling me how amazing I was. I felt far from euphoric!
No one had told me that after cancer could be just as traumatic but on a totally different level. That pause button should have been on play, but it wasn’t. The far-reaching effects had begun to drip into my life and as much as I tried to fight them, my resistance was low and frustration high. My breast care nurse was amazing the first and second time around, explaining how common it was to have depression after cancer and after being put on medication for a short time, the first time, the fog slowly began to lift and the self-nurturing and healing truly began.
My fertility was the biggest fallout and having been trying for our second child when I was diagnosed the second time, the choice of growing our family was ripped out of our hands. Having that decision made for me, was, and still is, the most challenging far reaching side effect of all of this. I hadn’t realised how much denial and desire for control had stopped me from properly processing what I had been going through. I felt like a ‘ticking time bomb’ and the anxiety that came with that, manifested in lots of ways. I was trying to be an upbeat, efficient wife, mummy and friend on one hand and putting unnecessary pressure on myself to ‘bounce back’.
It was just after my second diagnosis that I decided to write a blog about my experiences. Being a younger patient and now having had more than one diagnosis, I felt I needed to offer that solidarity to other people and reach out to let them know that they were not alone. The blog was received well and I began to network on social media and access the amazing cancer community. The honesty was liberating. It gave me purpose and I loved how writing was helping me heal through so many issues that I had struggled with, specifically post treatment.
I began mentoring other patients facing similar challenges and chatting to people newly diagnosed through my consultant. The talking, hand holding and face to face contact made it all feel worthwhile.
Two years later, at another routine appointment, my consultant felt a lump in my right breast and the rabbit hole opened up and swallowed me down for the third time. As the results came back at speed and confirmed that this lump was also another grade 2 oestrogen receptive tumour and a separate diagnosis from the previous two, my consultant and I discussed the options. I started to have three monthly injections of Zoladex to down regulate my oestrogen and work alongside the tamoxifen and I decided to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a huge decision but this time, I actually felt empowered. Even though it was a hugely emotional and scary time and the operation was incredibly painful and enough to make me talk anyone I knew out of considering any type of boob job, the cancer had not spread to my lymph glands so no further treatment was needed.
During this time, I kept writing and having started the blog with a point of view of reflection, it was now happening in real time. Being able to communicate with friends and family in this way was brilliant and helped me work things out in my own head. As I recovered from surgery, the writing helped me focus and heal.
I realised that because I had my writing, as well as extra holistic support, counselling therapy and certain wellbeing professionals on the end of the phone and a wide and consistent team around me, I had perhaps avoided any mental health issues this time. I was a proactive patient. I wanted to research all the things I could do to help myself. The idea suddenly hit that I could report on all the things I had tried to help my well-being and therefore make it a less overwhelming process for patients. It could help others to access a network of support and practical help, that could aid recovery and healing after cancer.
Samspaces evolved in April 2015 and has been consistently growing ever since. Being able to reach out to other people who are still walking in the fog of post treatment and adjusting to life again afterwards, is so important. Collaboration is key and being able to work with other wellbeing professionals, as well as other patients and learning from their experiences, makes this community stronger and hugely effective.
I run a monthly support group called SafeSpace in the Farnham/Surrey area and I also sell a Samspace bracelet that represents the threads of healing, resilience and strength while raising post-cancer awareness. I love how organic this process is and I am hoping to launch an extension to the website in the form of an online virtual support community in the new year. Here, those recovering from treatment for any cancer, or any supporters and those affected by cancer in any way, can connect with each other, share, explore and utilise this network of professionals and wellbeing tips and links on a monthly basis, in their own space. It is a deeply personal journey and people have different needs and time frames that need to be nurtured and respected within an environment of solidarity and trust. I have realised these are the fundamental foundations of healing and everyone should have immediate access to that.
When a dear family friend lost her battle, as I recovered from my second diagnosis, I was in a very dark place, but while reading an email she had sent me around that time, we had both agreed that when life throws you a curveball, there is only one thing left to do, and that is to throw it back! So, here you go Universe, Samspaces is my curveball and it’s coming straight for you!
If you have been affected by Cancer and would like to find out more about what SamSpaces has to offer and how the service can help you, please visit Samantha’s website.