On the 18th January 2011 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and following a mastectomy, lumpectomy and total lymph clearance, six months chemotherapy, and 15 radiotherapy treatments, I began a new chapter of my life – living with Breast Cancer...
Being told I had cancer is something I'll remember forever ….My first indication that something was wrong was when the Breast Consultant rang me at 7.30 in the morning to tell me there were abnormal cells in the biopsy he’d taken and I would need a lumpectomy to determine what they were. It wasn't until just before surgery he told me the cells they’d found were cancerous……NOT just abnormal but cancerous…my world tilted....They found two tumours that day and discovered that the cancer was also in the lymph and sentinel lymph nodes, which indicated it had started to spread beyond the breast.... the mastectomy was planned for the following week - on my youngest son Jack’s 18th birthday… and that’s the thing about this and any other illness, it’s not only the effect it has on you, but those around you…
Three weeks after surgery I met my oncologist who told me what my six months of chemotherapy would involve, and what the side effects could be, and it was quite a long list! Unfortunately it didn't suit me awfully well, and after the first treatment I felt anything but normal. Hungover? yes. Difficulty breathing? yes. Body swollen to such an extent that all visible signs of ageing disappeared? yes... Panicked? Definitely ! However, these things meant that the chemo was doing its work in destroying all the cancerous cells and female hormones in my body. I also lost my hair but found a myriad of ways to tie a headscarf. I became very adept with my fan for the hot flushes, and found somewhat alarmingly that I could actually fall asleep standing up! I learned too that pineapple is great for mouth ulcers but not for nose bleeds, and that a bright red face and large stomach is a look only Santa can carry off! I did however gain a right arm and hand that Popeye would be proud of thanks to the arrival of Lymphoedema, which I will now have for life. I’m happy to say that radiotherapy was very much easier - the most stressful part of it was trying to find a parking space at the hospital every day! And as with the chemo, the professional care I received there was excellent.
Although I was unable to work during this time – hairless is not a good look for a TV presenter – I did keep in touch with QVC by writing a weekly blog. The response I had to this was overwhelming, and during these last few years we have built an incredible support network with thousands of women who write to each other as well as to me.... they have called it 'Ali's Army', and I feel very proud to have been able to help other women who find themselves where I was.
During my treatment I was asked to write a fortnightly account of my treatment for Breast Cancer Care – this was far more factual, and is something that if I'm honest, I now find quite difficult to read.
Alison Keenan talks at Breast Cancer Care Show 2011
So much of this wretched illness is associated with loss… losing a breast of course being the most permanent, and sadly I lost my left breast the following spring. Inspite of the radical treatment the cancer had already started to spread that side as well, and so I was very relieved it was found in the early stages. It wasn't easy though, as frankly it's very difficult to deal with your loss of femininity which goes hand in hand with your confidence and courage. So when I was asked to be a model at the Breast Cancer Care Annual Fashion Show in London on October 3rd 2012, and along with 21 other survivors, I strode out in front of a 2,000 strong audience, determined to claw back a little of what cancer has taken from me. With my family and friends there to cheer me on, I count this as being one of the most uplifting days of my life.
Through the fashion show publicity I became an Ambassador for the charity Breast Cancer Care, and am so grateful for the support they provide for ANYONE affected by this wretched disease, and for most of us that includes our family and friends… I have had a great deal of reconstructive surgery over the last few years, which has taken its toll, but I think now I accept that I can never be who I was before, but am grateful to just be....The ripple effect is quite devastating when Cancer touches your life, but there is help out there, and there is always hope.
In fact it was hope that inspired me to design a pendant for Breast Cancer Care, and The Haven (a retreat for those diagnosed with Breast Cancer) and QVC made it happen. Over the years I had read of so many other women's battles not just with Cancer, but all kinds of tragedy, and although no two situations were the same, there was something fundamental we all shared – we never gave up hope. Whether caring for a poorly child, coping with disease, supporting a parent, missing a son, loving a daughter, losing the battle, fighting the fight, there is one thing that keeps us going. And so I wanted to design something that would embody that sentiment. The pendant is for those times when it's difficult to tell someone how you're really feeling: I hope your treatment won't be so bad this week, that the scans will be clear. I hope you're coping without her. I hope each day you know how much I love you. I hope that you are feeling stronger, or I hope you never have to go through this...or as my daughter said to me – I hope you get better forever.....
On January 18th 2011 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Today someone else will receive that devastating news, and the next day, and the next.... I am lucky. I am still here, and will continue to fight. But if you want to do something incredibly simple that will help support those searching for the cure for this wretched disease, then you may be interested in the links below.