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In September 2007, in her early 50s, Cath Filby noticed a lump on her right breast. However, she was too busy at the time to do anything about it. She had had lumps in her breasts before, but she knew this one was different and she felt tired too, falling asleep in the afternoon which was not something she normally did.
Her doctor referred her for a biopsy several weeks later. During the 10 days before the results were given Cath recalls going over all the ways she had tried to look after herself over the years – eating healthily, not drinking too much, running two or three times a week. Once she was diagnosed with breast cancer she wondered if she had looked after herself so well after all.
Cath has written a book, Breast cancer: a journey from fear to empowerment, which follows her treatment step by step, and not just from the point of diagnosis. The first chapter deals with the death of her son in 1990 in a car accident followed by years of hard work running a family training business which Cath describes as “a means of escape from our shared grief”. The effort put into the business meant Cath and her husband were able to sell the business while they were still in their 40s and retire to Spain.
In chapter two Cath mentions her difficult childhood with a violent, alcoholic father and the trauma of finding out in early 2006 that her best friend’s son had died in another accident.The trauma of having to deal with another tragedy sent Cath into a depression. She feels it is important to lay the background to her diagnosis and believes that the stress she had endured, and particularly the way she had dealt with it, had an impact of the development of the disease.
Throughout the book she seeks to understand the why and how of cancer and to try and control it. She says having some sense of power over the disease was vital. She writes: “The perception of loss of any control I might have had over my life overwhelmed me…I firmly believed, and still do, that we have a role to play in the management of our well-being and good health.”
That perception was shaken, though, by the cancer diagnosis. Initially she blamed herself for being “too complacent” in her family life and she says she needed to remember to be humble.
Cath’s treatment takes place in Spain and she has to negotiate the Spanish medical system. What helps her, particularly in the early days, are her family, her sense of humour and a strong belief in God.
She had an operation to remove both her breasts, which was a difficult decision to make, but says that once she had made it it is important to have faith in the surgeon who will operate on you. “Your life really is in their hands,” she says, “but that does not mean you do not question everything that is going on at the time. A good surgeon should encourage your inquisitiveness.”
Pain management following surgery was hard and Cath realised she needed to give her body time to recover. She was used to being a dynamic, active person so it took time for her to allow herself time to take things slowly.
Diet formed an important part of her attempts to gain some control over the disease as she proceeded through chemotherapy. She researched food that would lower her oestrogen levels and would also boost her immune system so it could withstand the chemo. Contemplating chemotherapy and alternatives to it led to sleepless nights. She decided to opt for chemotherapy and describes the process in detail, including how it made her feel “robbed” of the motivation to live, plus the after effects such as losing her hair, having to wear a wig, the plague of infections she suffered as a result and lymphoedema [a build-up of lymphatic fluid in the surface tissues of the armpit and surrounding area which causes swelling, aching, throbbing and stiffness].
She tried to think positively. She describes the cancer as “an opportunity…to no longer take life for granted and arrogantly assume that a life-threatening disease would never strike one of us, least of all me, who had prided herself on living a healthy life”.
Throughout the book, Cath presents the cancer as being an opportunity to learn about herself. She says at one point: “I had to accept that my body was an organism which needed nurturing over a period of time and could not be bullied into a complete recovering as and when I demanded.”
She is drawn to complementary therapy because it deals with the whole person, but not to the exclusion of traditional treatment, and she covers her decision to have breast reconstruction in depth as well as potential setbacks along the way, such as discovering another lump in one of her new breasts, which turned out to be nothing to worry about.
The book ends with a few reflections and among them are that, for her, questioning everything and researching ways she could help herself and her healers were of paramount importance. She believes that with “the right input, the body, this amazing complex machine, can heal itself”. The right input for her is a combination of attempts to ensure her spiritual, nutritional and mental well being. And she says that she has been left with “a new found freedom” – “a freedom from the fear of cancer because I know that I have learnt so many valuable lessons about my inner self and my physical health and I am still continuing to learn”.
She hopes her book can help others who are diagnosed with cancer.
Cath is aware that cancer has changed her and those around her, but says she is too close to the experience still to know how much. She writes: “One thing I am aware of is that the journey through cancer has come to an end and my journey through life can now continue with the same degree of excitement that has always been part of my life force.”
*Breast cancer: a journey from fear to empowerment by Cath Filby is published by Britain’s Next Bestseller, price £9.99. Starting on 19th March Cath and her husband are walking the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain to raise money for two breast cancer organisations, Going For Bust and In The Pink Health. The walk will take 33 days. If you want to support their efforts, you can donate via their Justgiving page, but it doesn’t go live for sponsorship until 19th March: https://www.justgiving.com/yimby/cathrichfilby