Emily’s story – Dear Boobs letters helping to heal
When Emily Searle was having neo adjuvant It was at this time she began writing a journal; essentially letters to herself that she could read back on those really rough days when she needed to hear that good days would return.
“I just let it flow; a stream of consciousness. I could hardly hold the pen and I couldn’t see properly but just wrote whatever came. I didn’t judge it, didn’t censor myself and didn’t share it with anyone. Some letters did have a positive effect and still do when I read them, and now when I have bad days, I can put it into perspective to what it was like in those first three months.”
Before surgery Emily wrote again – this time a ‘Dear Boobs’ letter. When she found out her friend had written a similar letter while she was also going through breast cancer, she decided to compile stories from other women into a Dear Boobs book.
“I was looking forward to getting on with the surgery, but a week before, I was struggling. Looking at my saggy ‘post-breastfeeding’ boobs I wondered why I was sad about losing them but then kept thinking they weren’t going to be there next week. I sat with my journal and wrote ‘Dear Boobs’ and the words flowed. After that it felt easier; I felt ready for surgery.
“I talked with my friend about how the writing was really beneficial when we didn’t expect it to be. I realised that if I had read other Dear Boobs letters, it would have helped me to progress through that next stage.
“The idea for the book is also about body image because I continue to meet women who daren’t touch their scars; their whole self-esteem has hit rock bottom. I find that really tragic because this is what you’re working with now. Writing, or reading, a Dear Boobs letter might help women have a conversation about what is happening, or has happened, and use that narrative therapy to heal a bit more in whatever way they need to.”
A long, hard year
Emily’s experience began in July last year. She felt a lump but as she was still breast feeding, thought lumpy breasts were fairly normal and didn’t think much of it. She figured the doctor would say it was nothing, but things escalated quickly. Five lumps were found, including in the lymph nodes – the diagnosis was stage three, and aggressive.
“We went away for the weekend as planned for my son’s 3rd birthday and didn’t tell anyone the news. We wanted to spend time being present with the kids because things were really going to change a lot; I was going to be very sick before I got well again.
“Everything began to fall into place when we had a treatment plan; my oncologist told me to write off the next year. I had been running childbirth classes for couples and business was ramping up, but now I had to ramp everything down again. I was also involved in lots of voluntary work which had to stop.”
Chemo started in early August and Emily says of all her treatment, it was the chemo drugs that she initially found most difficult to accept.
“I realised I couldn’t do chemo if I couldn’t welcome it. To me it’s about making choices and feeling like I had all the information and then deciding myself. I had to welcome chemo and accept what it was.
“My husband Tim was an amazing support. Sometimes it feels like it’s easier for the ‘sick’ person as they have an excuse to disconnect from everything, whereas the supporters have to adjust, as well as make ‘normal’ life continue. He was literally doing his full-time job and another two full-time jobs – me and the children.”
Six months’ treatment helped to reduce the tumours and Emily prepared for surgery – she chose to have a double mastectomy, with immediate reconstruction, after finding out she carried the BRCA2 gene. She then had radiotherapy treatment for five weeks which finished a few months ago.
“Now I’m navigating my way around a whole new normal. It’s changed everything really. I work with my body with what it gave me and we get through it together. That’s my main challenge – to be ok with what is.”
Dear Boobs gathers momentum
News of the Dear Boobs project reached 38,000 people when Emily launched it on Facebook in June and she has now gathered over 50 stories. With funding support she hopes to get 1,000 books onto waiting room tables throughout New Zealand, as well as clinics overseas which international contributors have nominated. A website will share the remainder of the stories.
“I expect women will laugh, perhaps cry, but mostly grasp their own experience better, and ultimately feel the hope and healing power of being part of a sisterhood that understands just how it is.”