The stigma around cancer is a persistent one. I remember some 15 years ago, my grandmother was in London from Egypt, staying at our house during her treatment; we were at lunch one day and when asked my star sign (Cancer), I just couldn’t bring myself to say the word out loud. Fast forward and the fear around the word is no less pervasive, no doubt worsened by all the scare-mongering campaigns and the serious lack of visibility for both cancer battlers, and survivors. All we see are bald-headed men and women on TV, looking frail and frightened when that is far from the complexity of the reality. Indeed, the relative survival rate for women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer is close to 100%, while for women with stage II breast cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 93%. That’s a whopping majority.
No wonder, perhaps, that when my good friend Lauren Mahon of Girl Stole London got diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago, she decided to do something to combat the stigma, to allow her to take back some of the control; to portray a positive, inspirational, hopeful – but most importantly honest – image. That’s just how she rolls and I will forever be in awe of her for the bravery, humour and determination with which she has faced some seriously shitty news.
Lauren got together some of her blogger buddies, myself included, to take part in a Girl VS Cancer shoot for the fab tees which she’s created to raise funds for breast cancer research, as well as to alleviate some of the pressure of not being able to work while undergoing chemo. Indeed, cancer takes a toll on much, much more than just your physical health. She shared the photos and wrote an amazing post about the reality of it all, here.
I joined Lindsay Holland, Laura Jane Williams, Emma Hill, Megan Beth, Abbie Tanner, Millie Cotton, Hannah Louise and, of course, Lauren, for a fun #GirlSquad shoot in East London, shot by Moeez Ali. I’ve shared some of the images here, as well as links to buy the tees and some insight from Lauren into what you can do if your friend is diagnosed with cancer…
What can we do for a friend when they first get diagnosed with cancer?
For me, the best thing to do is just be there. And by be there I mean reach out, let us know you love us and are thinking of us. If/when we need you, we’ll holla. The offer of a prosecco down the pub is also a must; we need it. Of course you are going to have ALL of the questions, cancer is scary and takes so many forms. However, we’ll be processing and repeating ourselves a LOT. Direct all your enquiries to those closest to us – we’ll appreciate the headspace.
What can we do for a friend when they’re having chemo?
Chemo is a strange beast; everyone reacts in different ways and will want different things from people… Get educated and read up on the cancer rather than asking me all of the questions. I really appreciate people offering to take me out for coffee, walk, exhibition, cinema. Something low key. Especially during week 2-3 when you’re feeling more human but still quite weak. It gets hella lonely. Plans will always need to be loose as the chemo can be so up and down but it’s nice to have little things to focus on.
Does chemo hurt? What’s the real bug-a-boo?
Mine doesn’t hurt going in, it’s IV and you feel nothing. The aftermath is different for everyone. You hear about these big, scary symptoms like sickness, hair loss and infections but it’s the cumulation of small little things that really get to me… I get hella constipated which is fucking annoying and painful and the veins in my arm get tight and sore.
After the steroids wear away, I get palpitations, fatigue and flu symptoms, and the general anxiety is a constant battle to keep at bay. It’s a gruelling treatment on the mind as well as the body. I struggle not being able to be out there being a firecracker as usual, and the fact that I don’t recognise what my body is doing anymore… I’m tired of being tired and I want to use my body again.
Should we still invite you out and stuff?
I like to be… Because even if I can’t go boozing I might feel up to popping in for a coke. I’d rather turn down the invite than be left out. One thing I appreciate is my pals taking note of my planned chemo dates, this way we can usually gauge what I’ll be able to manage. First 7-10 days are usually a no-go for me but I try to do little things after. Shifting plans slightly or bringing the party to me is always a sure fire way to lift my spirits. I’m still me… Just a bit sick right now.
How do we make plans to see you without being annoying? Do you want more space?
The best thing to remember is that I’m feeling crappy so if I say no to seeing you it’s not a personal thing. The most important thing is that you ask. Get a date planned in way in advance; asking when you can come see me whilst I’m in a chemo coma is not going to be productive as I can just about remember my own name in that state. Just before my next chemo session holla at your girl/boy and then we’ll both have something to look forward to.
Do you still wanna hear about all the stupid stuff that’s going on in our lives?
YES PLEASE!!!!!!!!!! Life goes on and I want distracting.
What do you wish people would stop / never say to you?
When I got diagnosed everyone knew someone who had cancer and blah blah blah. I get it. It’s reassuring. But just because your friend’s Mum was okay doesn’t automatically mean I will be. During the ‘staging’ process (when you have scans to check for spread etc) you don’t need that clouding your mind. I’d always recommend putting people in touch that have been through cancer rather than relaying their story. People who have been through it can support like nobody else can.
For some reason the word ‘Hope’ is getting right on my tits. Hope you get better? That implies I might not and that kind of language has no place in my life right now. WILL. Now that’s a word I like.
What are some practical ways in which people can help a friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer?
During the first 7-10 days if you could just come and be chill, bring your laptop and just do you whilst I nap. I have had friends come and make me all of the healthy food for the week and that is such a help. I’m often too weak to cook and so end up eating all the shit stuff. There’s a lot of stresses such as finance and new symptoms that pop up; having my people go off and look into these things really helped me out because a lot of the time as a cancer patient the internet is not your friend.
What are 5 items you’ve bought / been given that have been particularly amazing?
1. Heated Throw: My temperature fluctuates so much that this is a god send! Sometimes I just use it on my feet because they get cold.
2. Digital Thermometer: You’re hyper aware of your body and at threat of infection like never before. Doctors recommend you have one and I use mine a LOT if I’m worried I might be coming down with something.
3. Cotton Caps + Lint Roller: My hair began shedding mid-cycle 1 and it’s not nice waking up to hair all up on your pillows. Mum bought me some cotton sleeping caps to protect my head and a lint roller is oh-so necessary for getting hair off pillows and clothes.
5. Handheld Blender: You’re going to want food quick and easy thats goooooood for you. Invest in a handheld blender. A good one. Soups to smoothies covered.
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This photo went viral last month, aiming to raise awareness of what breast cancer can look and feel like.
All photos by Moeez Ali
Please, please, please check your titties xxx