Ask Alexia about what her experience of breast cancer has been like so far and you get a very honest answer. “A lot of people talk about how breast cancer has inspired them to change aspects of their life and helped them to become a better, stronger person, but for me, right now, the reality is very different. I feel really lost and like a shell of a person. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

“I used to be this fearless, outgoing person known for my crazy blond curly hair ‘go for it’ attitude, silliness and constant smile. I moved to London from San Francisco three years after my mum passed away, in order to do an MA at Durham University. Seeing me achieve my Masters was important to her and she always encouraged me to travel and see the world and, most of all, to follow my dreams. So she was the driving force behind my move to England.  After my graduation in 2009, I decided to stay in England to start a new life so I moved to London, where I built a career and eventually met my boyfriend. Those years up until I was diagnosed last May now seem like a blur, because I was always going at 90 miles per hour. But that all came to a halt when I was told I had breast cancer. It was a massive shock, and still is in some ways. I look back at the person I was and it doesn’t feel like me anymore.”

She’s still in treatment, her blond curls have gone but she looks great with her pixie cut, and her beautiful smile comes and goes hesitantly when she’s talking about her experience.

“I’ve always been fiercely independent and quite stubborn, and at the time I needed people the most, I barely reached out to anyone. The reality of my cancer and having to stay at home, for the most part, exacerbated my depression. I disconnected from almost everyone and the increased isolation came at a big cost to my mental health. Even now, a lot of my family and friends back in the States still don’t know I’ve had breast cancer.”  

The few friends that she did tell tried to support her from afar, sending her messages and care packages to help her through chemo and radiotherapy, or they were here in London, visiting Alexia when she got home after treatment and encouraging her to smile. Through everything, however, was her boyfriend who was her rock and who cooked healthy meals for her everyday, ensuring she was well nourished. Her godmother, best friend and sister came to visit from the States after surgery, but it left a big hole when they returned home and she suffered from depression and anxiety.

“Cancer completely disrupts your life and daily routine. Your new norm becomes shuttling between home and hospital appointments nearly everyday, keeping track of prescriptions and monitoring your temperature (since the 1st sign of infection is a fever). As each day passed and more time was spent seeing nurses versus my work colleagues and my daily commute shortening to Charing Cross Hospital and, occasionally, Hammersmith Hospital - the more my previous life seemed alien.

“For the first five months, I was in complete denial, even as I went through the motions of my treatment. When it came to an end, I felt abandoned, like a rubbish bag that had been left outside. Now, nearly 5 months later since my treatment finished, I just feel numb. I’ve repressed all my feelings from the last year, just like I have with my mother’s death (who also had cancer). However I don’t want to remain numb and just carry on with my life in that numb state. I want to force myself to accept what I’ve been through and deal with the emotions that it has unearthed.”

It was Alexia’s breast care specialist at Charing Cross Hospital who suggested that she visit Breast Cancer Haven to get support and help her to better manage the whole experience.

“The mindfulness and self-compassion courses I took which are designed specifically for people going through a big change in their lives, were immensely helpful. One of the important lessons I learned was that being in denial was my mind’s way of protecting me and getting me through a tough situation. It’s sometimes difficult remembering this and always having the energy to practice the coping techniques we learned, but it’s all about taking things slowly and learning to be OK with that (not beating yourself up about it).”

“At first I wasn’t able to talk to other people about my breast cancer but through my time at the Haven I’ve realised how important it is to connect with others, whether it’s by getting acupuncture to help relieve my breast pain or opening-up to the other women with cancer since they understand more than anybody else could about what it feels like. The friendships I’ve formed are very dear to me – I admire all their strength and appreciate the many tips we’ve exchanged and encouragement we’ve given each other. The Haven is a special place and a great support network, it’s given me tender love and care for my mind and my body.

“I’m extremely lucky to have a really supportive employer and manager, but the thought of returning to work was daunting, Breast Cancer Haven gave me the tools and confidence to discuss a gradual return to work which I’m currently doing and it’s going well so far.”

“People say I’ve been brave - but I don’t feel very brave. I didn’t ‘choose’ to deal with cancer on my own, away from my family - I had no choice. I don’t feel like I’ve been inspirational either. Instead, I often feel scared, anxious and confused. However I’m on the right path to figuring things out.  I’ve learned from my self-compassion course that I need to be kinder to myself and I don’t have to work it all out immediately. But in the meantime, I think about everything that is great in my life and I know that, over time, with the tools I’ve learnt, I will start to find ‘me’ again – and that’s what I’m working on now. I also hope that by sharing my times of darkness, I can help shed light for someone else going through the same thing.“