Ask Billie: “How do I stop worrying about my family history of breast cancer?”

Written by Billie Bhatia

With a history of breast cancer in the family, one reader feels there is a constant reminder that her fate might be sealed. Stylist’s Billie Bhatia digs into the dilemma of fearing your future. 

“I have a family history of breast cancer, tragically losing loved ones to the disease. I know this sounds negative, but I feel like my fate is already sealed. While I try not to think about it, my aunt has just been diagnosed and the concern has crept back in. It’s starting to affect my relationships – I’ve snapped at friends who tell me to be positive, and argued with my boyfriend after cancelling plans because I’m not in the mood – how do I stop the constant worry?” 

Growing up, cancer was omnipresent. It was in the news, the TV shows and films I watched (Stepmom, I see you), and in the stories of friends who had known someone battling the disease. Cancer was simultaneously everywhere but nowhere, until it landed on my doorstep and I learnt of its devastating effects first hand.

I was 13 years old when my aunt (who was only 40 at the time) died from breast cancer. It was quick, aggressive and ugly. Fast forward 10 years, and this time the cancer came for my mum. A precarious stage 2 breast cancer on the tipping point of no return, and it turned my life upside down.

Overnight I went from graduate layabout to full-time carer. I sat with my mum for hours every week during her chemotherapy, trying to distract her from the harsh medication pumping through her body and the cool cap freezing her skull. I fed her, rubbed her legs when they itched from the drugs, carried her upstairs when she couldn’t walk, and tried hard not to think about the fate that was surely coming my way, too. So when I say I’m sorry and I understand, I don’t say it with pity, but with the same fear-riddled bones.  

I was tested for the BRCA1 breast cancer gene when I was 24 – after an incredulous 80% of my mum’s family had either been diagnosed with, or died from, cancer. Although it came back negative for my sister and I, it meant nothing. I’m no Einstein, but even I could see the stats didn’t particularly lean in our favour.

During this time, I was afraid of cancer. Every time the word crept into conversation, I winced. There was still uncertainty as to what my mum’s outcome would be (thankfully, she is in remission now) and when I wasn’t sobbing over her, I was having nightmares about finding a lump. Out of fear, I rebelled. If time wasn’t on my side, I was going to throw the bird up to cancer. While it was an effective coping mechanism for a short amount of time, in retrospect, ignoring cancer was as problematic as allowing it to consume my life.

You have every right to be concerned with both the news you have received and the underlying implication for you. You have every right to be angry, sad and frustrated. To say I’ve never let my feelings affect my behaviour would be an outright lie. I’ve screamed, shouted, cried, kicked a door (don’t recommend) and done a lot more stupid shit I can’t talk about here because my dad reads this column.  

So, here’s my advice. When your friends tell you to be more positive, say you need a moment. You need to feel negatively about life for a short while in order to find the positive. They can either do that with you (smash some plates and shot tequila, maybe?), or give you some breathing space. When you’re about to launch into an argument with your boyfriend, take a deep breath, hold back the rage and calmly explain that you are going to have to sit this occasion out, but you’ll be there for the next one.

I don’t want to sound like a slogan on a crocheted cushion, but remember this: you are more than cancer. You are more than a statistic that says one day you will likely be ill. You are more than the tumours that might claim space in your body. You are more than the treatments that could make you weak. Right now, you have the power to let as much or as little cancer into your life as you choose. And in my humble opinion, it’s a much too precious space for a villainous creature like that.

Ask Billie anything on Instagram @stylistmagazine

Images: Getty

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