Living a normal life
Being a mother with young children, Briony Jenkins’ life was filled with the business of school, lunches, pickup and drop-offs, trying to settle into life in a new country, and balance her family.
It was because of her life as a mother that a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 43 hit Briony like a ton of bricks.
“My mother had had breast cancer; she was a 21-year survivor of it when she died. I’d always been aware of breast cancer and worried about losing my breasts.
“But when I was diagnosed it wasn’t losing my breasts that overwhelmed me, it was the fear that I might die and leave my children without their mum,” Briony said. “To be diagnosed with any illness with young children you don’t think it’s going to happen to you.
“I’d only been in Barbados nine months when I was diagnosed; so I was caught between do I stay here and get treatment or do I go back to the UK,” Briony recalled. “What tipped the balance for me was Dr Ian Lewis, who is the most incredible surgeon imaginable.
“He didn’t just treat the physical illness; he understands the emotional impact on me as a woman. He was the one that said, ‘You’ve got to get your head around this, you’ve got to get your mental toughness right before we dothe surgery’.”
Getting her head around the disease was difficult, and her doctor knew Briony was having a difficult time coping, especially with the thought of death looming on the horizon.
“He basically said that with breast cancer because you have to have chemo, if you’re not mentally strong enough you can fall apart,” Briony said.
“Since the treatment goes on for so long and you don’t know whether you’re going to live or die.”
“They can tell you you have a very good chance, but you talk in terms of five-year prognosis or ten-year.
“I had a three-year-old and a seven-year-old, and if you’re talking a five-year prognosis, my daughter would only be eight. I couldn’t get my head around the fact I might not see my child go to high school.”
But Dr Lewis knew it was important for Briony to tap into that inner strength for those moments when she would have difficulty coping with chemo.
“When I had chemo and it was difficult, and every time
I felt I couldn’t do it, he’d say you remember why you’re
doing the chemo?
“I’d say I’m doing it because I want to see my children grow up,” she said. “He made me
tap into those reserves at the time I think I couldn’t do it.”
Had it not been for her children, perhaps she might not have had the strength to summon the courage and determination from somewhere deep within.
“I think it would be very easy without kids to fall apart and get really depressed,” she said. “When you have children you can get really upset, but you have to feed them, you’ve got to get them dressed.
“You can collapse for an hour or two, but kids still need three meals a day and snacks. You don’t have the choice.
“People would say to me, “You’re really brave”. But a breast cancer sufferer isn’t brave. You can’t run away from your body. But I think your children give you a reason to get up in the morning and fight.”
One of the most difficult moments Briony had during her breast cancer struggle was telling her children and husband about her diagnosis.
“Telling my husband was difficult because he was overseas working and I had to tell him over the phone. It was a horrible shock for him and I don’t think I did it very well,” Briony said. “I was too direct and then he couldn’t get back.
“Actually when he came back he went to speak to Dr Lewis himself and the doctor helped him through it as well. He had his fears about me dying and leaving him with the children and he could say things to the doctor on his own that he couldn’t say to me.
“With the children I had a lump that was quite visible, it was quite high so I let them touch it . . . . So I told them I had this lump . . . it wasn’t supposed
to be there and I needed to have an operation and have it removed.
“Lucy didn’t really understand, but Charlie knew it was serious. So he asked me, ‘Are you going to die?’; and they tell you you must not say no . . . because you don’t know; so you have to find a way to reassure your child without lying. And I didn’t want to lie to my child.”
After breaking the news to the family, it was time for the surgery. Briony chose to do a bilateral mastectomy (both breasts removed), reconstruction and chemotherapy.
“I had the healthy breast removed mainly because after doing research I found the breast cancer could come back. But for me reducing the number of breast cells
meant I reduced the chance of the cancer coming back.
“In my mind losing one breast was no different from losing two,” she said. “I’d rather be alive with no breasts than dead with one.”
While it was a relief telling her family, seeing how the changes with her illness affected them was hard.
“My husband . . . . It was horrible for him and he found it hard to cope with it.”
Briony credits not only her family but a close circle of friends who would cook meals, coordinate school runs and schedule playdates for Briony during those moments when she was too ill.
“Having positive friends around you, people who will lift your spirits is essential,” Briony said. “And people who will do practical things too because you can’t do everything physically if you have children. My friends all had young children so they could see themselves in my situation.”
Even though she was away from home in Britain, Briony credits her treatment here, the interaction with the doctor, including her plastic surgeon and her friends, for helping her to get through this dark place.
“I was at the beach one day and people had gotten used to seeing me there over the year and they watched me lose my hair; and one day this woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I pray for you?’” Briony said with her eyes filling up with tears. “And I thought no I’m meant to be in Barbados.”
While she is grateful for her life, Briony knows things will never be the same again.
“I will never take my life for granted again,” she said. “I don’t assume I’ll live till I’m 60 and I don’t say that to be negative. I want to live until I’m 60, 70, 80, but I see that as a gift”.