Cole Larkin was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31, joining the ranks of the 55,000 people who get diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK.
That was seven years ago. Cole has since been successfully treated, and she is now a dedicated volunteer ‘Boobette’ for the charity CoppaFeel, a charity which aims to give everyone the best possible chance of surviving breast cancer by educating people on the importance of knowing the signs, and more importantly, knowing your own body.
The initial reaction to her diagnosis was that of fear, Cole lost an Uncle to cancer when he was only in his 30s and was aware that most cancer stories she had heard ended in death. She was shocked that she could be diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age, breast cancer is more commonly found in older women. She also felt stupid for not checking herself, even going so far as to blame herself for her diagnosis.
Fear is clearly a natural response to a cancer diagnosis; 11,400 people die from breast cancer in the UK every year. The good news is that survival rates have been increasing with time, and early intervention significantly improves the chances of survival. That is why the work of charities such as CoppaFeel are so important.
It is clear from the offset that Cole’s experience has not diminished her sense of humour. She is quick to talk about being lead singer in her cover band ‘One of these kids’, as a more interesting pastime to that of her career in insurance. Her humour also extends to the physical scars left from her cancer, describing the scar left from her lumpectomy as her ‘ice-cream scoop’. Though she notes that her relationship with the dark tan across her chest that remains from her radiotherapy treatment has its ups and downs.
Friends and family are a huge part of any cancer diagnosis, and Cole makes it clear that the support of friends and family was hugely important. She notes that she had friends who stood up to the challenge, and those that ran away from it, and it was not possible to predict with any accuracy who would fall into which category.
Many people may only think of the physical impacts of cancer, but Cole points out that it can change your personality too. She describes becoming feistier and more outgoing, and at one stage she even says that her diagnosis was one of the best things that ever happened to her. The experience she says has made her a lot less selfish, made her feel more empowered and confident, and has allowed her to better focus on her priorities and meet some amazing people along the way.
One of the most difficult aspects of her breast cancer story is a surprising one. Cole makes it clear that finally getting the good news can be one of the strangest parts to deal with:
‘Once you get given the all clear, everything for everybody else just goes back to normal. And they just expect that you are the same person, and the same normal that you were before. But you feel like a completely different person, with different wants and desires. That is quite strange.’
Due to breast cancer being more common in older women, it was sometimes difficult to find support designed for younger women. Cole recounts how there was one point where a reproductive specialist was sent away, as she was the only patient in the group young enough to be concerned. During a lot of her treatment, she was surrounded by women much older than herself. Finding CoppaFeel made her realise that she wasn’t alone in being a young woman in her position, and it gave her a support network that made her feel less alone.
Joining CoppaFeel certainly changed things for Cole, and you can tell from her voice that she is proud of the charity that she is a part of. She now speaks to thousands of people every year, and is proud to say that there are women she has spoken to who found the courage to visit their doctor about their concerns, and had a breast cancer diagnosis, but caught it early.
A big part of CoppaFeel’s mission is to get women, and men, to get familiar with their own bodies, to find what is ‘normal’ for each individual. There is a stigma attached to these things, Cole recounts how embarrassed she was initially to go and speak to a male doctor about such issues. But she reminds us that doctors are professionals, and there is no need to feel embarrassment. She points out that knowing your own body, and knowing what is normal for you, is actually empowering when seeking medical care. It is also likely to get you taken more seriously.
For those going through what she has gone through, Cole advises to talk about it as much as possible. She said that even when you don’t really know what to say, often it feels better to just say something. It is also important to remember that all treatment eventually comes to an end, even when it feels like it is dragging on forever. Equally, friends and family don’t mind if you cry or get upset. She also points out that it is a time to become a little selfish, and to reassess what is going on in your life.
“It’s a time to stop and think about your priorities, are all the things you are doing making you happy?”
CoppaFeel has a text reminder service, which provides monthly texts to remind you to check for signs of breast cancer. You can sign up on their website, or by texting BOOBS to 70300.