October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is a cause that is very close to my heart, as it is only two years since my very oldest friend was taken from us at the age of only 48 as a result of a long and painful battle with the disease, leaving behind devastated family and friends, and two children the same age as my own.
In order to help raise awareness and funds to help in the battle against this disease, I am delighted to be hosting a guest post on the blog today from Isla Aitken, author, and herself a breast cancer survivor. She is going to tell us about her experiences and her book, Making Pearls From Grit. Over to you, Isla.
Diagnosed with breast cancer while on holiday in Japan, former journalist, environmental activist and one-time politician Isla distracts herself with tourist adventures — including snorkelling in the South China Sea, learning about slipper etiquette and negotiating the three Japanese alphabets.
Back in the less exotic UK, in between chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, Isla considers those other scenes from life – such as depression and farting during sex – and realises how people can be fully constructed by life’s obstacles.
When the family cat dies of lung cancer just as Isla is being cured, her anger at the illness’s victory is undermined by her new discovery of the Japanese philosophy of “ikigai”: reason for being.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer while on what was supposed to be an 11-week trip with my husband and two young children to the Far East. I had already had my suspicions that something might be amiss, but with the trip all booked and organised, I decided to go ahead and, prompted by my GP, see a doctor in Tokyo.
Obviously the Japanese healthcare system had not been on our tourist itinerary but, as it happens, it was… well – not enjoyable, which I was about to say and is clearly the wrong word – reassuring. Reliable.
It took only one ultrasound and one mammogram in one appointment in the Tokyo hospital for the doctor to confirm that yes, I had breast cancer. What did I do? I went and met husband and children in an amusement park and took daughter on the log flume, while husband, according to son, screamed like a child on the rollercoaster.
What else could I do?
With a couple of weeks until the recommended biopsy, and then another couple of weeks until the biopsy result, we had plenty of time to explore Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as planned. And, cancer diagnosis notwithstanding, that was one of the best, most exciting periods of my life!
We enjoyed tranquil national parks, and the renowned cherry blossom, bullet trains, earthquakes (!), home schooling, temples and shrines, tempura and other unrecognisable food stuffs, snorkelling in a warm and crystal-clear sea…
The day after my biopsy result – delivered with detailed care and support by two Japanese doctors – we returned to Edinburgh, and my nine months of intensive treatment began. It took 16 chemotherapy sessions, three surgeries and 19 radiotherapy sessions but I was declared clear of cancer in time for Christmas.
I learned a lot in this period. I learned a lot about my own strength and resilience, and I learned even more about the importance of support networks, of being able to communicate with doctors, of having questions answered, of understanding what is going on. Most importantly, I learned so much about the kindness of people – not just friends, but mere acquaintances. There is such a depth of understanding and sympathy in most people, which leads to them wanting to help in whatever way they can – with childcare, or providing cooked meals, or donating money to cancer charities for research and cures.
That – the good will and benevolence of my community – was invaluable.
While I was being treated, I wrote a blog, to keep friends and family in the loop with regard to how I was getting on (and probably to help me process the experience). The blog was brutally honest. It was often wry, always immodest, and occasionally farcical. And friends started suggesting I write a book, based on the blog.
Which is what I did.
But obviously I couldn’t just regurgitate the blog, as that was freely available online… So, prompted by the recognition of my own strength – realised during my illness – I started thinking about all those other obstacles, scenes and issues I, and many other women, encounter in life, and which we overcome and assimilate into our very beings.
So the book, Making Pearls From Grit, has ended up being, not just a cancer memoir but also an uplifting story of survival, fortitude, courage and kindness. I hope it can let cancer patients know that they are not alone, and that there are so many of us here willing them on; and it will allow friends and family of those with cancer to understand exactly what they’re going through, without having to ask them personal questions.
My own journey is far from over – while I am cured, the emotional impact of the illness has fairly long-term repercussions. But with the support of my friends, my amazing husband and my brave children, I know how and why to enjoy every single day.
And we will be returning to Japan, to finish our interrupted trip.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I will be donating money from sales of Making Pearls From Grit to Macmillan Cancer Support, Maggie’s Centres, Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Care throughout the month. To find out more and help support the fundraising, please sign up to my newsletter via www.isla.org.uk or like and follow my Facebook page @IAitkenwriter.”
What an amazing story and an amazing initiative. if you would like to buy a copy of Isla’s book and help support breast cancer charities, you can get a copy here. Or make a donation to one of the many charities working to beat this disease such as https://www.cancerresearchuk.org and https://www.wearitpink.org/
About the Author
Isla Aitken is a former sub editor and PR consultant, who has given up her career to write full time. She is co-founder of a local cancer support group, and has been an active environmental campaigner for many years. Having published two short stories to Amazon, Making Pearls From Grit, a memoir of her experience as a breast cancer patient, is her first full-length book.
Connect with Isla:
Facebook: I Aitken Writer