7 Things You Learn When You Get Breast Cancer At 26

1. You
become very casual about getting your boobs out.

The first time I went to see a doctor about the lump that had
appeared in my right breast, I felt uncomfortable about the
fact I was exposing myself to a stranger. I had all the body
hangups of the average 26-year-old woman. I felt exposed. My
bare chest and squidgy stomach were on display in front of a
complete stranger. I laughed off the awkwardness of the
situation, otherwise feeling incredibly relaxed about the
mysterious mass my hand had brushed in the shower a few days

The second time I got my boobs out in front of a stranger, a
surgeon at the hospital’s breast unit, I still felt more
anxious about being laid bare in such a way than about what
the lump could be. Until all this kicked off, I could have
counted the people who had seen my chest in all its naked
glory on one hand.

I knew I had cancer the fourth time I got my boobs out in
front of a stranger. I’d been told just a few days earlier
and this time, I found myself in front of a mammography
machine. This time I cared significantly less about people
seeing my boobs. This was no longer exploratory. This was
real. This had just got serious.

These days, I’m so used to being prodded and poked that
sometimes I get the Artist Formerly Known as Boob out before
I’m even asked to. No, Alice. The nurse giving you your
travel jabs does NOT need to examine your breasts. Keep your
top on.

Alice Purkiss

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2. You stop
sweating the small stuff (most of the time).

I know how clichéd it sounds, but when you’re diagnosed with
cancer, you start to look at the world differently. From the
moment they told me there were mutated, cancerous cells
making a home in my boob and trying to kill me, my
perspective shifted. I was no longer stressed out by work or
trying hard to be the person I, or society, thought I should
be. I stopped caring about what I looked like. My weight. The
length of my legs. I couldn’t concentrate on being a good
friend, daughter, girlfriend, employee, citizen. I had to
concentrate on surviving.

When faced with my mortality, the worries I could do nothing
about slipped away and were replaced with new concerns.
Concerns about surgical risks. Worries about hygiene during
chemo. Decisions had to be made about my treatment plan. Did
I want chemotherapy first, or surgery first? Did I want to
have fertility treatment? (Answer: No I bloody DID NOT want
to have fertility treatment, but I did it for Future Alice,
even though I don’t think she will want kids). Did I want to
have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy? Did I want to have
radiotherapy for the best possible reduction in recurrence
rates? Would the treatment work? Would the cancer come back?

For the first time in my life, I had to make myself my
priority. I didn’t have the time, energy, or space to worry
about what my hair was doing. It would soon fall out anyway.

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3. You will
be stronger than you ever could have imagined.

You will be stronger than you ever could have imagined.

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I live with depression. Have done for years. I take tablets
to deal with the shadows. Sometimes, I go to really dark
places in my mind. They’re the sort of places I don’t want to
go, and sometimes they’re the sort of places I’m not sure
I’ll ever make it back from.

So when they said the words “breast cancer” I was not
confident that I had the mental strength to make it through
what lay ahead of me. There were times when I didn’t have the
energy to be anything other than a weak, snotty, tearful
mess, but overall I surprised myself.

Some people called it bravery. Some people said it was
inspirational. I know it was just a stubborn streak and
belligerence. I was not going to let my breast kill me, nor
was I going to let it stop me from living while I was going
through the hell of treatment.

The time following my diagnosis has been the hardest thing I
have ever done. But I was consistently surprised by the
wealth of strength I found in myself. Even when I hit rock
bottom – and believe me, there were times when I thought
about giving up – somehow, I managed to pull myself out of
bed, even if I only made it to the living room.

But I’m not altogether sure I can take the credit for this…

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4. Your
people will be your salvation.

I quickly learned that some people were going to let me down.
There were people who weren’t there as much as I would have
hoped. There were people who retreated for their own
protection. I get it. I totally get it.

But then there were the people who became my heroes. The ones
who took me to hospital appointments when I couldn’t make it
on my own. The ones who called me pretty much every day to
check in. The ones who treated me like myself. The ones who
didn’t give me the “cancer look” (grim expression, watery
eyes, head tilted slightly to the left). The ones who realise
that even though my treatment is done, cancer is never
really, truly over. The ones who brought me Nando’s after
five days in hospital. The ones who aren’t scared when I tell
them I feel emotionally, physically, and mentally battered
after treatment. The ones who realise I’m just coming out of
a war zone.

My people were my salvation. Are my salvation. My husband, my
parents, my family, my friends – they all pulled together in
ways I never could have imagined. My gratitude for that is
endless. It’s another cliché but it really is true that you
learn who is important in times of crisis.

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5. Anyone
who’s had any kind of cancer becomes part of your tribe.

Anyone who’s had any kind of cancer becomes part of your tribe.

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Alice Purkiss

Cancer is a cruel and indiscriminate disease that worms its
way into the lives of so many people across the UK and the
world every single day. I’d been so lucky before I got sick.
My family were largely well and healthy. We had never been
touched by cancer, so I didn’t really know much about it.

People who’ve lived through cancer form a bit of a tribe.
There’s an understanding that’s difficult to explain to
someone who hasn’t been through treatment. There’s a
camaraderie, a knowledge, and an empathy that’s impossible to
recreate and one you hope your loved ones will never have to

I’m so lucky to have discovered some incredible people on my
cancer travels. From the Boob Gang girls I went through
treatment with, to the CoppaFeel! Boobettes who make it their
mission to spread boob love across the country, the
brilliantly brave and wonderful models I walked with in the
Breast Cancer Care Fashion Show, and the newly diagnosed
women who stumble across my blog and get in touch every week.

But this tribe isn’t just limited to the type of cancer you
have. I know people who have had lymphoma or ovarian cancer
and even though their experience is different, I “get” it.
And I know that they “get” breast cancer in the same way.

We’re all united by one of the very worst human experiences.
It’s a horrible thing that unites us. But it’s an incredibly
special bond.

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6. Breast
cancer is not just an old person’s disease.

I was so naive when I found the lump.

I had a vague sense that young women could get breast cancer,
but I never really anticipated that it would happen to me.
Even when I found the lump, even when my lymph nodes were
swollen, even when the radiographer’s face changed, ever so
slightly, as she examined the mass on her screen, even when
they stuck a biopsy needle into my boob, I never really
thought that it could happen to me.

According to Breast Cancer Care around 5,000 women under 45
are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. The number of
those women under 30 is minuscule. Luckily, I was in the
habit of checking myself, so I found the lump early. But
despite it being only small when it was removed, the cancer
was aggressive and growing quickly. I was also exceptionally
lucky because the NHS system worked like a well oiled machine
and I got referred for all the relevant tests, despite my age
making it incredibly unlikely it was cancer. Had my cancer
not been picked up early, I could be facing a very different
narrative to the one I live with now – that my cancer was
curable – and has gone, for the time being at least.

That’s why I bang on about bangers all the time, encouraging
everyone to check their boobs and bits and pieces. Knowing
your body could save your life. Knowing my body probably
saved mine.

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7. You will
find humour in the very darkest of times.

You will find humour in the very darkest of times.

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Alice Purkiss

It’s hard to understand until you’re living in the midst of
it, but really, really funny things happen when you’re
getting treated for breast cancer at 26 years old. I mean,
that’s not to say it was a laugh a minute every day for the
nine months I was in treatment. Obviously. But there were
times I laughed harder than I ever had before.

I was forced to cut onions with sunglasses on when my
eyelashes disappeared. One day I glanced at the telly and
realised I was the spitting image of Gregg Wallace. I threw
up in a recycling bin and worried that the hospital would get
fined. Still to this day we joke about what sandwich my
surgeon ate before he took off my boob. When my husband put
my wig on. Maybe you had to be there. But for all the times I
cried and raged, I laughed and laughed and laughed too.

Alistair Barrie, who wrote the stand-up show No More Stage
about his wife’s run in with breast cancer, nailed it
for me when he said, “If you stop laughing, you’re not
living. If you’re not living, the cancer has won.”

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