Wednesday, 20 March 2019
LAST week the nation mourned the death from breast cancer of BBC newsreader and Radio 5 Live presenter Rachael Bland.
The 40-year-old mum of one passed away on Wednesday — 48 hours after revealing she had just days to live.
Rachael was also known for the success of her chart-topping BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C, which launched in March this year.
Together with the podcast’s
co-presenters, Lauren Mahon and Deborah James, she had been due to appear at this year’s Henley Literary Festival.
The event, appropriately titled F*** You Cancer, is going ahead at Phyllis Court Club at 1pm on Sunday, October 7.
A spokesman for the festival organisers said: “Rachael had planned to join her co-hosts at this event. The thoughts of everyone at Henley Literary Festival are with her family.”
The subtitle of Rachael’s podcast — “Putting the can in cancer” — is an approach very much shared by Alison Porter, a Henley author who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and whose book about living with the disease is published on Tuesday (September 18).
Stronger Than Before is the book Australian-born Alison says she went looking for when doctors gave her the bad news in February 2015.
“I was about to go away on holiday,” she recalls. “And I sort of brushed up against something and suddenly found that one breast was a lot harder than the other one.
“So I went off to the doctor and they immediately said, ‘Well, if it’s anything, we think it’s a cyst. But if it’s anything we have to send you to the breast cancer clinic. It’s an NHS protocol.’ So I wasn’t too worried, but I went off and had a biopsy and all that, all on the same day, all in a big rush because I was going away.
“I came back after two weeks, and as I got off the plane my phone pinged with a text saying that my appointment had been brought forward. That didn’t feel like a particularly good sign!
“And so I was diagnosed — it was something called invasive lobular cancer. There’s all sorts of different kinds, there’s not just one type of breast cancer. Some are more slow-growing than others, you know?”
Having been diagnosed with a large tumour, Alison, who lives in West Street, underwent two lots of surgery in the space of two months.
“The first one didn’t get everything. They have to be able to call ‘clear margins’ to make sure they’ve got enough tissue that doesn’t have any evidence of cancer. If they don’t have clear margins they know there’s still a presence of cancer there. So then I had to have a mastectomy in a second surgery.”
At this point, most patients would be treated with either radiotherapy or chemotherapy, but because Alison had previously suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, this was not an option for her.
“This is one of the reasons why I wrote the book,” she says. “I had chronic fatigue before, so I have a suppressed immune system. I couldn’t do chemo or radiation because I knew that it would take me out, because my immune system couldn’t cope with it.”
Faced with the need to research other treatment options, Alison’s professional background stood her in good stead.
“Obviusly there is a standard protocol for treatment, but if you have a reason to consider that the standard protocol is not appropriate for you, as I did, then you have to start looking around because nothing else is going to be offered to you and you need to decide what you’re going to pursue.
“My natural instinct as a writer is to research. I’m also a coach and a counsellor, so I had the skills to be able to monitor my own mindfulness around this process — because it’s pretty scary. It’s quite terrifying, especially when you go off-piste, as I did, and choose a different route of treatment.”
Pausing to reflect, she adds: “It’s interesting that cancer treatment is not 100 per cent exact. It’s clinical trials. So even with chemo — and there are things there like a lower dose form of chemo, which was something I probably could have considered — how do you know it’s working? And the answer was, well, we’re in clinical trials and X amount of doses of chemo will have a good result.
“But what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t deal with your individual cancer. So it’s not an exact science. Nor is it within all the other alternatives that you can pursue. So it’s a very frightening experience to go through. Because some people survive, but many don’t.
“And unfortunately, because it’s so culturally pervasive, the idea of cancer as a killer, then that’s what you think of when you think of cancer. Even if you have a smaller lump or something that’s caught very early, you’re still dealing with the cultural fear of getting cancer — like it’s a death sentence.”
Having decided to go “off-piste”, Alison’s doctors were able to offer her something called the group test.
“They test your circulating cancer cells — it’s called a group test because it’s only done in a laboratory group against a panel of drugs, chemotherapy drugs, and other supplements and natural treatments to find out which is the most effective. So they’re using your cancer cells to see what kills them most rapidly — and they might have a panel of supplements to work with after that. And I’m still here,” she adds quietly.
Understandably, the word ‘cure’ isn’t one that cancer patients tend to use very much — if at all.
“Because it’s not certain, there’s no such thing as a cure for cancer in current treatment,” says Alison.
“What you get is a remission — so if you survive for five years after your diagnosis you’re considered to be in remission. That’s not a cure, so you have to learn to live with a massive amount of uncertainty.
“Because you can live waiting for the other shoe to drop, or you can just say that I’ve done what I can and make all the dietary changes that can support your health.
“So it wasn’t just about treatment — it’s about your diet, it’s about lowering stress. There’s so many factors that can contribute to cancer that there’s a lot that you need to do afterwards to make sure that you’re putting yourself in the best possible position to heal.”
At what point did she start thinking about writing a book?
“I suppose after the first year. I remember sitting with friends having lunch for my birthday and somebody said something about it. And I said, well, you know, I didn’t really know last year if I would be here this year. But it was the first time I’d allowed myself to think about it. Because your mind goes into survival mode — you want to survive and you don’t want to let in the possibility that you might not make it. So you really do go for it.
“I just kind of had it [the book] in my mind because I’d had such a struggle to find all the information — there’s so much out there but finding it all in one place is not possible. And if you do want to go off-piste there’s very little.
“A lot of people focus on diet, but there’s nowhere that someone says, okay, here’s the process, this is what you’re going to be offered in terms of treatment, this is how the treatment works, this is what you can expect, here are some alternatives and this is how to take care of yourself through the process. There wasn’t that all-encompassing guide, really — and so that’s what I had in mind.”
Was she a bit surprised that the book hadn’t been written already? “Yeah, I was, because I could see elements of it everywhere. There’d be a guide on the medical side, there’d be the very kind of alternative treatments or there’d be books about diet and perhaps mindfulness. All of those elements, but none of it coming together — especially for breast cancer.”
Having floated the idea of the book, Alison was subsequently invited to attend an annual writers’ workshop run by leading self-help publishers Hay House.
Held in central London in November 2016, this was attended by around 200 aspiring authors, who were then invited to submit a detailed proposal.
“This was a rare opportunity,” says Alison. “Because it’s very difficult to get your work seen by a publisher. Everyone at the workshop has the opportunity to put forward a proposal and of those couple of hundred about 60 people put their proposal in. Which is, when I met with the publishers, they said that’s a pretty average number for that event. Because it’s pretty intense. They tell you what the proposal should contain. You need to give a full marketing plan. You have to say what your social media plans are. You have to analyse the market — competitive titles. You have to give full sample chapters. So it’s kind of not surprising that some people don’t end up submitting a proposal — there’s a lot of work and you have to be serious about writing a book.”
Of the 60 or so people who did submit proposals, Alison was the one awarded a book contract.
Stronger Than Before is published by Hay House on Tuesday, priced £12.99. For more information, visit www.alisonporter.co.uk
17 September 2018
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