Cervical cancer survivor Kirsty Browne on curing the cancer of doubt
When I was 26, my world turned inside out overnight. I was completing the final year of my pharmacy degree and studying hard for the pharmaceutical intern exam. I was also told I had a rare type of cervical cancer.
It was an unexpected curve to say the least. Even as a scientist, I thought I was way too young for cancer. I had been proactive with cervical screening and had received the HIV vaccine when I was 17. I can honestly say the diagnosis knocked the wind out of me.
But it wasn’t exactly a hard knockdown. For the first few months, it felt as if I was living someone else’s life. Or performing in some tacky soap opera. I simply went through the motions, I never truly engaged with cervical cancer. At the time, I think it’s what my mind needed to just keep going.
My brain went into fight or flight mode. I forced myself to juggle treatment, study, work and egg freezing to preserve my future fertility. I had no idea what ‘normal’ looked like for a cancer patient. Could I conceal my prognosis from prospective employers? Was that ok? Was it legal? The sensation inside me was indescribable terror but I just pushed through it. I passed my intern exam, secured a role as a pharmacist all while attending up to 2-3 appointments per day.
I started my new job feeling like a shell of the woman interviewed. I was exhausted. I was in pain. I was convinced my boss would ‘find out’. The doubt had utterly crippled me. Although I was desperate to prove to everybody that I was okay, deep down I had no idea if I really was.
It wasn’t until after completing the treatment, when I was told that I would actually beat the disease, that the force of it all truly hit me. My emotions went haywire, to say the least.
My thoughts, which darted everywhere, sounded something like…
I have had cancer.
Does this mean I will always be sick?
Who will love me?
Will I keep my job?
Do I have to tell people?
Will I ever get married?
My adrenalin wore off just as I was learning to stand in this new, uncomfortable identity as a cervical cancer survivor. Is this who I am now?
In my experience, the decisions you make to recover, to not be seen as a ‘sick person’, are the hardest. They are also the most important. I know it was the treatment that saved my body, but my mindset saved my life. Learning to fight for your health, for a career, to find love, to build a family – there really is no handbook. I had to work it all out for myself. I still am.
I have spent the last 5 years on a rollercoaster of shame, anxiety and doubt. Cancer tortured my mind far more than it infected my body.
Today, I am in a rewarding corporate pharmaceutical career. I have a loving partner and a young son. I’m not sure when the doubt melted away, I think it is a constant battle until you realise it isn’t. For me, the greatest achievement was finding the map for my life before I was diagnosed, and believing I could still navigate it. There’s something special about beating your chest as you march towards your goals, whatever they might be.
To all those cancer survivors who have re-routed themselves after cancer, and even more loudly to those who are not there yet, march on!
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