When Alison Tucker was diagnosed with breast cancer she made the conscious decision to handle the ensuing uncertainty with as much positive thought and action as possible. Alison not only achieved this ideal, but also managed to capture her mindset in her new book.
It was Christmas Eve in 2016. “Alison, I’ve got bad news.”
Alison’s pathologist was at the other end of the line, confirming news no woman ever wants to hear: She had breast cancer. At the time, she was 52 years old.
“I have had annual mammograms from the age of 30”
“My eldest sister is five years older than me. She had breast cancer 25 years ago when she was in her mid-30s, says Alison. “Though our cancers ended up being unrelated, her experience made me higher risk for breast cancer, so I have had annual mammograms from the age of 30,” says Alison.
“I had a mammogram and ultrasound on the 22nd of December,” says Alison. “I was due to have my annual mammogram but felt a hard mass that felt solid and stationary. It felt different to the way that two prior (benign) lumps had felt. A biopsy followed on 23 December and I got the results the following day.” Alison had a form of breast cancer called Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. “I was due to go to Thailand on 27 December, three days later.”
- If you want to better understand cancers that affect women, then listen to Discovery Health’s Understanding Cancer podcast series episode where we’re in conversation with specialist breast surgeon, Prof Carol Benn and gynaecologist, Dr Trudy Smit.
“I suddenly didn’t know what lay ahead. I was overwhelmed with uncertainty”
Alison was advised to go on her holiday, spend the time with her family and come back a little earlier to start her treatment. “I am generally a positive person,” she says. “But while in Thailand, I had a meltdown one evening,” she says. She has, for the past seven years, run her consultancy in branding and marketing. “I had made promises to my clients. I suddenly didn’t know what lay ahead and whether I would let them down. I was overwhelmed with uncertainty.”
“Contrary to my expectations, I had a brilliant year, surprising myself”
On 23 January 2017 she had a lumpectomy, to remove the tumour through breast-conserving surgery. “I did not have to have reconstruction, she says. “I was left with a scar on the side of my right breast.”
Alison had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She had 16 sessions of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation. She was given the all-clear at the end of 2017.
“Contrary to my expectations, I had a brilliant year, surprising myself,” she says. “I didn’t feel completely normal and did experience some side effects from the treatment, but the process wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be.”
“Not only did I make new friends, but I learnt valuable life lessons too: Acceptance of the illness for what it was, the amazing impact of ongoing advances in medical science and the importance of being able to ask for – and receive – help.”
“When it came to support from Discovery Health Medical Scheme, I had a very positive experience from start to end,” she adds. “You get zillions of medical bills during a cancer journey and everything ran smoothly. When I picked up two tiny errors and called in, I felt like I was speaking to people who had been trained to talk to those going through cancer, as they had such compassion and the mistakes were corrected immediately. I also had gap cover at that stage, but I didn’t even need to use it as my medical scheme benefits covered everything. Later I changed to a higher medical aid plan and also moved my gap cover policy to Discovery.”
Alison reached her weekly Vitality goals every week (except one) during her treatment
“I’ve run a few Comrades marathons,” says Alison. “I have always been active and when I was first diagnosed, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to exercise and I wouldn’t keep up my Vitality points, but I made my weekly goals from start to end with one exception – the week of my surgery. I joined the North Beach parkrun on a Saturday morning and also ran and cycled with friends at the Durban beachfront in our “Bike and Bean” group. I adjusted my pace according to how I felt. I remember cycling on the beachfront and listening to Bob Marley’s “Three little birds” – “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be alright” with hot tears burning my cheeks as they ran down my face. That was my release.”
The treatment causes weight gain. “I put on weight during 2017 and slowly lost 15 kg afterwards by eating more consciously and making healthier choices,” she adds.
Coco, Claudia and Holly add fun to Alison’s days
“I feared losing my hair. Then when I lost it, I felt strangely liberated. Then you lose your eyebrows and eyelashes. I found that hard. A friend who lives in Australia and who had gone through breast cancer sent me all her wigs and all her turbans. I had tried to order a wig that looked like my own hair, to keep my identity. But then, I began to have fun with her wigs and gave them all names starting with “C” like Coco and Claudia. Holly was my fake fringe. I used it when I exercised and wore a cap or turban over it so that I looked reasonably like myself.”
“I would use a magnifying glass to look at my sprouting hair when it started to grow back,” she says. Much to her surprise, her hair did not grow back blonde, but brunette.
“They would add more and more jalapenos as my taste buds were dulled”
“All along, I focused on fun – even on chemo days. A friend came with me to all 16 sessions and brought me a cappuccino and toasted chicken mayo sandwich each time. As the chemo progressed, they would add more and more jalapenos as my taste buds were dulled due to the treatment. I found the experience very positive. I go back to collect my meds and still feel like I am seeing loved ones in the staff and nurses.”
In 2018 and 2019, Alison saw her oncologist for blood tests every three months and remained on tamoxifen hormone therapy. Now she sees her doctor every six months for her check-ups and is on aromatase inhibitor therapy.
Alison decides that gratitude will define her experience
Alison says her partner of 27 years believes in positive thinking and has always been a buffer against stress. “He brings wisdom and positivity into my life.” He helped me to quickly begin to think about how my approach to the illness – my thoughts and actions and even the words I used - could have a bearing on how I fared and perhaps even on my health outcomes,” she says.
Just before she started her cancer treatment, Alison decided to start a gratitude diary on Facebook to reflect on something positive every day. Some examples:
- 50th parkrun day: “Grateful that I was able to continue doing them and to have done 20 'fuelled' by chemo”
- Hair loss day: “I am now the proud owner of a wig – my Coco”
- Showing my bald head for the first time: “This one took a lot of courage.”
- So many reasons for gratitude on chemo day 46
- Alison’s last post: Radiotherapy day 43, the end of all treatment – done and dusted!
- Also see Alison’s Cancer Survivor Facebook page
“I never imagined doing this would see me end up surrounded by vast amounts love and support. And, then people began to refer others with breast cancer to me for advice on everything from demystifying the disease to explaining basic things about treatment and more. I learnt the power of gratitude, a learning that I will cherish forever and that I will draw on in no small measure in the good times and the bad,” she says.
“I never thought of myself as an author”
Early on, Alison made a decision to be as open and public about her illness as possible. Alison calls her year of treatment her “best, worst year” and these words inspired the title of her new book - "My Best Worst Year – A Breast Cancer Story" that was published in August 2020 and has been in bookstores since 14 September – in time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The book includes content relevant to people who are supporters of those with cancer, with details on what to say and not to say, how best to support them, and more.
“Overall, the book is an authentic account of my experience with insights that I hope will be relevant to others facing breast cancer,” she says. By telling her story, she underlines the importance of a positive attitude and hopes to show that a person can still lead a productive and enjoyable life even after being diagnosed with cancer. “I never thought of myself as an author, but I felt such a driving need to support women who have breast cancer. My thinking was that I could, at the very least, offer the book as a whole or in relevant chapters to people asking for support.” However, Alison was offered a contract by a major publisher.
“The book is my way of giving back and showing gratitude for the positive experience I had.”
- Loved reading Alison’s story so far? Head over to our article on her sanity-saving tips to find out her top advice for getting through cancer.