Jacqueline Carson, 56, is a hypnotherapist. Divorced, with two grown-up children she lives in Barnard Castle in the North East of England. A diagnosis of breast cancer has changed her life - for all the right reasons. Here, she shares her story.
"Looking back at my life in 2013, I really wasn’t in the best place. A single parent to two teenage children, I was working all hours in a very stressful job as a social worker. My teenage children would say to me, ‘Can you get home before 9pm so we can have dinner together?’ But my job was consuming me.
Then in October 2013 my father, Bill, was rushed into hospital after a fall and never came out again. His death was a huge shock to my whole family. He had been constant for me since my mum died when I was 23 and I relied so much on his support. My life began to unravel, I was smoking 30 cigarettes a day and was drinking a bottle of red wine a night, just to cope with the grief. I was in a very dark place.
Then, in the early spring of 2014 I had another shock. I found a lump the size of a large pea in the side of my left breast. It didn’t hurt and it didn’t move but it felt hard and I assumed it was a cyst as I’d had ovarian cysts in the past.
Out of the blue
I certainly didn’t worry too much. But fate took a hand as I received an invitation asking women under 50 to go for mammograms. This invitation from the NHS came totally out of the blue and was a new pilot in our area. It possibly saved my life.
I went along for the mammogram and two weeks later I received an invitation to return. They had found something.
There is a history of several cancers in my family and I’ve had aunts and cousins who have had breast cancer so this is when panic began to set in.
It was after another mammogram and biopsies that my consultant informed me that it was stage three cancer and that was the point I burst into tears. I was going to die. I didn’t want to leave my children. I couldn’t bear to think of them hurting. I was a single mum. How would they cope without me? I felt cheated and even said to the consultant, ‘I haven’t got time for this’.
People who I could normally rely on suddenly disappeared. My partner of six months left me. Certain friends were nowhere to be seen. I don’t know why, perhaps they couldn’t cope and didn’t know what to say but I felt very isolated. I was offered a lumpectomy or a mastectomy and opted for the lumpectomy.
It was less invasive but I was petrified that the cancer might return. I started on the drug Tamoxifen but suffered with terrible side effects, my skin was peeling and swollen. I was plunged into menopause and had lots of hot flushes, terrible anxiety and a feeling of total doom and gloom. Life had no meaning, I felt dull and depressed.
Wanted to come off Tamoxifen
Although I wanted to come off Tamoxifen, the doctors and nurses persuaded me to stay on it for two years. They said the cancer could return if I didn’t take it. But the side effects were so bad that I knew I couldn’t go on feeling the way I did.
Enough was enough. I spent months researching every option and decided it was my life and my decision and I was going to come off medication and do what I could to be as healthy as possible. Anything was better than living like this, though this isn’t medically recommended.
My first hurdle was to quit smoking. I’d smoked since the age of 23 and had tried to give up several times but this time I knew I had to succeed.
I’d received several complementary therapies on the NHS including acupuncture and hypnotherapy during my treatment and had enjoyed hypnotherapy so much that I decided to train in it and qualified in 2016.
So I asked a friend who I’d met on the course to help me quit. I smoked all the way to her house for the appointment, hoping to enjoy the taste and smell for one last time. But after one two-hour session with my friend, I never touched another cigarette. Today I can’t even stand the smell.
I didn't want to drink anymore
Quitting drinking was harder. I feared that without it, I wouldn’t feel as relaxed or sociable. Using self-hypnosis helped. I decided to write myself a list of all the triggers that made me drink – such as pouring a glass at the end of the day to relax and then chose a date – 2 Jan 2019 – to simply stop. I told myself it was poison. I didn’t want to drink anymore. I haven’t touched a drop since.
When you stop drinking, life is so much better on the other side. It’s so liberating not to have that pull of a craving. I allow myself two cups of coffee each morning and that it is my only vice. Everything has improved – my sleep, my energy and my overall wellbeing.
But after I stopped drinking, I began craving sugar so I did some self-hypnosis to cut out sugar.
After more tests, I also discovered I’m intolerant to gluten and dairy so I’ve used the same technique to cut those out of my diet. I decided that I would become vegan. I’ve never looked back. Now, if I touch any sugar or carbs I get spots and my stomach bloats up. It’s just not worth it.
I'm happier and more fulfilled
Now, nearly a decade on, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life. I’m happier, more fulfilled, and my job as a hypnotherapist and meditation teacher is so rewarding. The words ‘All clear’ are difficult ones. I had my last visit to the consultant two years ago and was examined and no lumps found. I was referred again last year due to pain and lumps and sent for a scan which did not reveal anything suspicious. There will always be a risk but for now I think I’m clear.
The consultant and oncologist were against me giving up Tamoxifen. They didn’t seem interested in the horrendous side effects I was experiencing and did not discuss or advise on how to heal my body, how to improve my lifestyle or how to avoid cancer in the future.
It’s not been an easy journey. I’ve lost friends and even family members along the way because my life is so different now. I’m no longer interested in drinking and socialising as I used to do. But that’s ok.
I’m on a different trajectory now and I’ve found out what’s important to me. Having faced my own mortality and survived cancer, I no longer let fear stand in my way. Now, I want to be able to help other women see just what is possible in their own lives and how they can be truly happy.
Cancer Research UK’s head information nurse, Martin Ledwick, said: “Tamoxifen is a very effective hormone therapy drug used to reduce the chances of breast cancer coming back after treatment. It can also help people with a high risk of developing breast cancer. Unfortunately, many cancer drugs have side effects which can vary in severity from one person to another.
“It’s incredibly important that patients fully understand the benefits of any medication and the risks of stopping it before deciding to stop taking it. They should discuss it with their doctor before making any decisions.”