When the helper needs help, how do you cope?

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THE signs on the walls of her office could have been written for Audrey Birt. Or, for that matter, by her.

“Believe in the possible”, “Freedom not fear” they shout in large pink letters. They are just a few of the positive slogans the Breakthrough Breast Cancer (BBC) charity uses to help bolster the emotional and mental health of those suffering or recovering from cancer. They are words which its Scottish director Audrey has had to cling to herself for the last 18 months. Back in April last year, just as she returned from holiday and looking forward to an extension on her home being built, the 
56-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the second time.

“When the diagnosis came I realised it had been 15 years since I’d had my first bout of breast cancer,” she says. “It never really goes away. You don’t think about it every day but you know that there’s always a chance of it coming back. Then there are times it creeps on you...when you lose people in your life...it has an impact.

“The diagnosis was very early again, as it had been the first time, so I was lucky. I had surgery, I couldn’t have more radiotherapy because that’s what I’d had the time before, and I didn’t need chemotherapy... I just kept thinking ‘this is not going to kill me, I can do this again’.”

The irony of being in charge of a charity which raises millions to fund vital research into breast cancer treatments at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital, and being struck with the condition is not lost on Audrey.

“But why shouldn’t it happen to me?” she smiles. “When I first got this job I raised my fear of cancer returning with a nurse friend of mine, and he just said, ‘it could come back, but not because of your job’. He was right. But being here... well you couldn’t ask for more understanding employers.”

Audrey has headed up the BBC team in Thistle Street for the last three years. Prior to that she had been head of Diabetes UK Scotland, and before that a nurse. It had been then – when her two children were still at primary school – that Audrey had her first brush with cancer. It didn’t show itself as a lump, but as her nursing thesis had been on breast cancer awareness and even then she’d already helped a friend through the illness, she knew the signs.

“Because of my nursing I was breast aware and when I developed an unusual pain in my left breast, which didn’t seem to coincide with my menstrual cycle, I knew it could be a sign, if one of the rarer ones.” Eventually Audrey had a lumpectomy followed by radiotherapy. “Having it again has really taken me back to that first time,” she says. “I’ve revisited a lot of emotions. It takes you back to the scary times. To the fear. No-one can really 
tell me if my risk has
changed at all and that’s because women like me never used to survive so it’s all new. But that’s the great thing. I just have to take it as it comes.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone in her position, Audrey saw her new diagnosis as a way of helping others. She began writing a blog, detailing her physical and emotional ups and downs post-surgery. It has become, she laughs, a must-read among some of her friends and supporters of the charity.

“It has been hugely cathartic,” she says. “And hopefully it helps others. My kids don’t really read it, I think it would be too hard for them,”

Some of those, she says, involve the men and women who appear in the charity’s film for its new campaign One Day. The campaign aims to get people to choose a day in the year which means something special to them, and then to raise the £2200 it costs for a day’s work at the Breakthrough research unit at the Western.

“The film we made... well bits of it still catch me out,” she says, her voice catching.

“The thing is it’s reality. People are talking about their own situations. The hardest thing for me was the launch . . . 
watching it with my colleagues and knowing I would have to say something about it after without a wobble in my voice. But that’s where I am at the moment,”

Another plus to being with BBC was that she knew the oncology staff at the 
Western General, and in particular her surgeon, the renowned Professor Mike Dixon, pictured below. “He was on the panel when I was interviewed for this job so I know him well, but he’s seen rather too much of me this last year,” she smiles.

After her initial surgery Audrey returned to work – and she admits it was perhaps too soon. “I had a really nasty chest infection earlier in the year because I wasn’t giving myself enough time to recover. I remember when I worked as a nurse someone telling me it took at least a year to really recover from an operation. I didn’t believe them then. Now I do.

“We have an event every year where we inscribe new names on our Supporters Wall at the research unit, for anyone who’s raised £1000 for us. It’s a really amazing day but it’s incredibly emotional. Last year I had to speak at the event but I knew I couldn’t speak to any of the participants or families before hand or I wouldn’t be able to...” her eyes start to swim with tears. “I knew I would just cry.” She stops, blinks, and apologises. “We live in a society where people go and run 30 marathons in a day to raise money, they do amazing things, but even though I’m the sort of person who loves a challenge, I had to accept that I needed time to convalesce. To take care of myself.”

Which is why, after her breast reconstruction surgery – which involved taking fat from her thighs and injecting it into her left breast, which she says made her look like she’d been run over by a truck after the operation – she took a well-deserved break. She only returned to work last week.

“I think when I took on this job with Breakthrough, while having had cancer, was useful in a sense, it wasn’t where my head was at that time. This time I’ve had a whole mix of emotions and my time off from work has really helped me process them. But it’s great to be back at work. It feels like I’m getting my life back again.”

Of course, Audrey knows that even though she’s back at her desk, cancer for her isn’t over. “My GP said to me that going back to work after having cancer is, for most people, a diversion. For me it’s not that. I’m still having to make sure I don’t make myself too vulnerable. And of course I’ve got to look after myself. Mike says I might need a couple of top-up operations, but after going through it once and knowing what it involves, I’m really not sure I want to do it again. I’ll just have to wait and see.

“I do have to have yearly mammograms though from now on. Apparently the cancer is not aggressive, so even if something were to develop in between tests, it would still be caught in time. But it means every mammogram will be a scary time. Anyone who’s ever had a diagnosis of cancer knows it can come back.”

Donations urgently needed to maintain research centre

EACH day 12 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Scotland. Each day, three families will lose someone special to them as a result of the disease.

Breakthrough funds Scotland’s only dedicated breast cancer research unit is at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh – which costs £2200 each to day to run.

To continue funding the unit to find new and better treatments for breast cancer, Breakthrough has just launched a new campaign “One Day” which aims to have 365 people sign up to choosing a day with particular meaning, and then raising £2200, to fund one day of research.

But the new fundraising venture runs alongside its awareness campaign with the slogan: “Show your breasts some TLC – Touch, Look, Check.”

Excerpts from Audrey’s Blog

• May 11, 2011

Last day at work before operation. It’s like that day before you go on holiday, wondering if you can get it all done, but without the good bit to look forward to.

• MAY 13

Yesterday I was admitted into the day unit at 7.30 fasted and ready to go for treatment for breast cancer for the second time in my life. What a fabulous team they are at the Western Breast Cancer unit in Edinburgh. From the famous Professor Dixon there from dawn till dusk making everyone in his care feel special to the nurse who risked the wrath of the catering staff to find gluten-free bread to make me toast. I felt informed, safe, supported and cherished throughout and then got home to my own bed at night. Result. And tea and toast never tasted so good.

• JULY 28

One of my friends has also been diagnosed again with breast cancer. She faces extensive treatment. I am having difficulty finding words, but I know I am so angry for her. It’s just not fair. There isn’t a pill that can take that away. Just the love and support of those around you can make it easier to bear. I feel guilty I have got off more lightly than her.

• NOVEMBER 2

As ONE of my colleagues donned a pink morph suit to join with the local bus company in going pink for us, I remarked: “What have we come to: you wearing a pink morph suit and me talking about my boobs all the time.” His response was it would be worse the other way round. When I stopped laughing, I had to agree. Thank goodness for laughter and a great team of people willing to go so many extra miles.

• DECEMBER 6

This year was supposed to be quite different. A celebration of big birthdays and new horizons and instead it’s been a bit of a marathon overall. And not just for me, but for all those whose I am close to. So sorry guys I know it’s not over yet as I plan the enforced “boob job” next year.

• MARCH 29, 2012

Yesterday I switched off my work e-mails until June! The advice to take a few days off before I have surgery next week ringing in my ears. The pre-op at the beginning of the week made it all seem very real. For 17 years I felt very aware of the impact of treatment and this last year I have had to wear a prosthesis.

And frankly I hate it. So a good outcome for me is simply be not having to wear it. Anything else will be a bonus.

• JUNE 30

Back at work. I started the week in London, visited Glasgow twice and now I’m back in Edinburgh. Phew! I am feeling quite relieved my stamina has held up. It’s not all been easy and I am done each evening; tearfully tired would be the expression that comes to mind, but I recover.

• To read Audrey’s blog, visit www.audreybirt.blogspot.com and for information on cancer go to www.breakthrough.org.uk/scotland