Reader Eimear Coghlan Shares Her Journey with Cancer, Losing Her Hair And Embracing Being AmazeBald
Being told you have breast cancer can be scary, intimidating and life-changing.
For reader Eimear Coghlan, being diagnosed with cancer was the start of her journey. Being told her news at just 31 was a shock for both her and her family.
Yet she took the journey, and she grew with it. From telling her friends and family to rocking her amazebald, here Eimear tells us how she embraced the news of breast cancer and made a positive change in her life.
Eimear, can you tell us how you were diagnosed with breast cancer? What symptoms did you spot?
My story begins in mid-November 2014. I had no prior symptoms other than on the Monday I picked up a cold really easily so I knew I was run down. I went through a full jar of honey with hot water to ease my sore throat. Though I was poorly, I forced myself to go my usual Samba dance class on the Wednesday which is a quite vigorous workout using your arms strenuously. When I woke up on Thursday morning, a very noticeable 7cm lump the size of a small lemon had grown overnight. It was not there the day before.
I knew a lump that size was abnormal so I went to my GP that same day where I was told it was probably a cyst. I was referred to a Breast Clinic for an ultrasound appointment the following week. I could see the doctor’s worried face as she looked at the screen and she took 3 biopsy samples. I was told me that it was a growth that could be cancerous and that it was “quite worryingly”. The doctors were shocked that a lump that size could grow overnight. A few days later I did a mammogram and on the 4th December 2014, I was diagnosed with Stage 3A breast cancer which had already spread to my lymph nodes. Since I’m young, my cells are growing more rapidly so my cancer’s speed of growth is Grade 3, the fastest speed.
I was told it was curable if I started chemo straight away and that the cancer probably had been growing in me unnoticed for a year or more. I personally believe that being run down, ingesting lots of sugar (honey) and the oxygen from my workout made the cancer develop that aggressive lump overnight. If that big lump didn’t appear like it did to alert me, the cancer would have been silently spreading through my body.
What advice and support was available to you from your time of diagnosis?
The NHS has been absolutely fantastic and so efficient. From diagnosis it only took 12 days before I started my first chemo treatment. Every doctor and nurse I came across have been so friendly and kind. I have an amazing Breast Cancer nurse who speaks to me after my meetings with the Oncologist and the Breast Surgeon to go over any questions I have or help me understand all the information I was given. It’s also great chatting to fellow Chemotarians in the chemo ward. People openly ask each other “So what cancer do you have?”. It gives us all, young and old from all walks in life, that one thing in common to chat about and you learn a lot from each other’s experiences.
How do your family and friends cope with your cancer?
My family and friends have all told me how I delivered the news and my positive attitude has made it easier for them. I’m the youngest of 7 so it was quite a shock for my siblings that the “baby” of the family had cancer at only 31. I was so excited with my shaved head, every day I group messaged them photos of how I was rocking my new look. It was also my way of reassuring them to not worry. Having documented the whole journey, I then came up with the idea of the blog as I wanted to inspire women to not fear the hair loss but to embrace it, to celebrate their head, be proud of it and make it look edgy.
What are your biggest daily challenges of battling your illness?
Most people say “battling cancer”, “fighting cancer”, or “you will kick cancer’s butt”, but I actually don’t feel like I’m in any battle with cancer. To be in a battle, means there is a possibility you could lose. My breast cancer journey has given me so much insight, a greater self-awareness and it has deepened my Christian faith that regardless what happens to my body, I have gained so much spiritually I feel like I have already won. For this reason, I feel like breast cancer has been my blessing.
I use my 3 hour chemo sessions as my time to reflect, soul search and write poetry. The daily physical challenges I face would be the effects from the chemo which would hit me the hardest the first few nights. These physical struggles have enriched me as they make me knock on the door of my deepest thoughts and explore the confines of my soul.
Has your condition held you back in anything you’ve wanted to do?
2015 was supposed to my year that I got serious about Samba as it’s my goal to dance in Rio de Janeiro Carnival one day. When I started chemo, I knew I wouldn’t have the energy for the vigorous Samba classes so my Samba dream is on hold for a while. Instead, 2015 has become the year that breast cancer brings me on an enlightened spiritual journey.
How have you learned to deal with how your cancer has affected your appearance?
I have discovered the power of make-up and accessories! When I shaved my head I had a nice shadow of hair which has now disappeared as most of my hair has fallen out. Now I fake a hair shadow using a big brush dipped into black eye shadow and brush all over my head so make-up is my wig! I bronze my temples and into my hairline to define my forehead and make it look smaller. Now I don’t look like an egg and my bald head looks like it is an edgy style choice! My eyebrows have become sparse so I tint them at home, tinting above and beneath my actual eyebrows to make them look thicker. I haven’t bought any new clothes as I just rejig my outfits to be funkier. Big earrings and neck pieces are a must to tie your new look together. Now I’m always accessory shopping!
Did your blog help you address dealing with hair loss in public?
My bald head made me brave and made me want to announce my story publically so I could help others who are facing the same fear I had about shaving their head. I thought I was doomed to hide underneath a wig for 6 months until my hair grew back. I didn’t realise that I could actually rock my bald head like one big accessory.
Have you had any positive experiences you’ve learned about yourself since your journey with breast cancer began?
Cancer has actually inspired me. I feel like I have achieved a spiritual maturity at 31 that I wouldn’t have reached until my elderly years .Cancer has given me a whole new perspective of life that I feel uplifted. Every day I now count my blessings, not my struggles and I no longer worry about tomorrow or the future. Tomorrow will sort itself out, today is what truly matters.
Thanks to my bald head, wherever I go I command attention and I command respect. I stand out and I love it. I have had so many people come up to me to compliment my head as they think it’s part of my image. It’s the greatest ice-breaker and a friendship former too. Cancer has given me a voice, a story that resonates with people and a sense of purpose.
What advice would you give to someone who has been recently diagnosed?
Let cancer inspire you and embrace the hair loss journey, knowing that these hardships will enrich you and strengthen your soul. You will also discover how truly loved you are by your family and friends and in turn you will see how amazing they are. You will feel cuddled by everyone’s support.
If it weren’t for chemo you would have never known what fabulous shaped head you have lurking underneath your mop of hair. Be amazebald and rock and love your new look as if it’s by choice.
What’s the one thing you wish people knew about battling having breast cancer at a young age?
I would like young women to know that there is a possibility that chemo treatment can affect your reproductive system and in turn your fertility. I was never aware of this as it’s not talked about in the media.
Unfortunately, freezing my eggs was not a sensible option for me as it would have delayed my chemo treatment by a month plus it would have required me to be pumped with oestrogen, the very hormone that breast cancer binds to which could make the cancer grow. Instead I get an injection called Zoladex once a month which shuts down my ovaries to minimise damage while I’m undergoing chemo.
As for most women who have breast cancer, after I have my surgery and radiotherapy, I will then have to be on a 5 year hormone treatment which mimics a menopause. This is so the cancer isn’t reactivated. During these 5 years, they strongly recommend not to get pregnant as it could prove fatal to the baby. Though medically they don’t advise it, some women go on a pause from the hormones after 2 years to try to have a baby.
If you’d like to read some of Eimear’s poetry, or follow her blog through her journey with cancer, click here to check out Ahead With Style.