About 15 years ago, excitedly getting ready for a holiday with my beloved late husband, I went for a fake tan. It was before the very quick fix of spray tans, so the lovely beautician, my life saver as it turned out had to massage the tan into my skin. We were talking, normal, random chit chat, when she went very quiet, and seemed to be concentrating intently on my left breast. I jokingly said that I didn’t think that there was enough bulk in them to take so much time, smiling, she answered and very gently said, ‘Sarah, when you get back from your holiday, please go to the doctor, there is a little lump here, and best to check it out’.
I was not at all bothered, thought it would probably go, I was sure that I was peri menopausal, and of course with the trait of most people who have had enthusiastic careers with alcohol and other drugs, we tend to be very good at denial even though I had been off the sauce for some years, that particular attitude was still firmly in place.
So wonderful holiday and down to my husband nagging I did go to the GP after we came home. I loathe wasting time, and most especially that of the over stretched NHS, and still blindly I was thinking, it will be something or nothing, no history in the family was as fit as a fiddle, the GP examined me, and without any hesitation told me that I should see an oncologist, it might be benign but she suspected it was a cancerous lump.
Back then, there was very little connection in the press or by the clinicians that wine could be a cause of this horribly invasive disease. Even when I was doing the Q & A with the specialist, not a word about alcohol, smoking yes.
Was I frightened? No. Was I angry? Yes. I was fuming, because I did know that there was a link between alcohol and many cancers, and that merely a few drinks each evening could potentially lead to this, so my anger was that it was damned unfair, after calling time, years before that I now had this to deal with. There was the chance that I was unlucky, but I truly believe that my drinking led to this diagnosis.
My treatment was impeccable and cannot praise all the staff involved enough. I am still here scarily for some firing on all cylinders, worked through the treatment as much as I could, and even insisted that my family or friends were not involved in my visits to the hospital. I wanted to own it, I wanted my health to be my responsibility, which might seem slightly odd, but I had for many years put them through enough agony with my drinking. That is another side effect of being an alcohol dependent, habitual, call it whatever suits, even at the darkest of times we tend to isolate ourselves, even when ill with more ‘acceptable’ issues, because of the past guilt.
The reason I am writing about this now, is with all the recent press on mental health and how much devastation it causes, it has made me want to be open about the emotional effects both to my family and myself that, bottling up my feelings, pretending that no matter what I was invincible, was not the way to deal with either of the mental turmoil I went through with a toxic substance that I used to escape from life latterly, or the physical illness that I wanted to keep so private. I would have had sympathy with the cancer, but never with the alcohol, there simply was no empathy shown at all, and at that time, I did understand why my loved ones were so incandescent with my alcohol habit. The word that sums up both was and is Stigma, and I hope that now anyone who feels alone, unable to open about their problems or fears, should, and not only to their GPs but their peers, their co-workers and loved ones. By doing so, they are not castigated or made to feel ashamed, but be supported and given appropriate care. They should be praised for their bravery, rather than act in the way I did, which was incredibly damaging to my mental health, and if I had still been drinking would more than likely ended up either six foot under or in no position to help anyone with their problems.
I told lies, I kept secrets, in my head, for all the right reasons, to protect others, but with no self-love I was badly affected by it. No one can or should be expected to carry this sort of baggage around alone. Today there is news on discrimination towards obesity, because it is visible, people do make assumptions of capability, however, even if we look fit and well on the outside I am more than sure that most of us would be so relieved to have in place an openness within society to not just gender equality, age and disability, but with problems that may have been brought on by the biggest gateway drug of all, alcohol. It seems to me to be the last bastion of stigma when we feel so frightened to be honest and open about it.
I hope that more and more employers, friends and family will try to see this honesty as courage, rather than women and men like me who took the wrong approach of an ingrained stiff upper lip.
It hurt like hell.