What It Feels Like…to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

By Judith Clumpas, Auckland.

Ask yourself this – if you knew this was your last normal week, would you have lived it differently? Everything changes in an instant with a cancer diagnosis.

I was shaking so hard that I slopped almost an entire mug of tea across the floor. I didn’t realise that the shakes were caused in part by the anaesthetic for the biopsy I’d just had.

I had nobody with me; a result of the nonchalance with which I’d obediently returned to the clinic after receiving an “all clear” for my annual mammogram the week before.

The summons had come as a request to pop back and retake a slide that “wasn’t very clear at the edges”, so I’d incorporated popping back into a nice morning out shopping.

When the ultrasound showed up a suspected tumour, the clinic immediately sprang to action and took a biopsy. Denial.

The classic response – I’ve been told they actually had someone run out of the clinic door before, and refuse to come back. I was in denial too – I had plans, this isn’t my life, this doesn’t happen to me, I get to carry on with my life… stop being mean to me…. stop saying that stuff; you’ve made a mistake.

My thoughts went straight to my children. I had lost a close friend to lymphoma just 3 months earlier, and I had direct first hand experience of what her children were going through. Not in my life plan; nor hers.

That week, before they took the tumour out, I was permanently on edge. Friends took me out to the theatre, but I couldn’t enjoy the show, had to leave halfway through, there was a deafening voice in my head “Ive got cancer, I’ve got cancer”.

I couldn’t bear the fact that there was a tumour sitting there inside my body. I gained a new respect for people with inoperable cancers. I just wanted it out, NOW.

Surgery was large – a double mastectomy left me with multiple scars and a feeling that I’d been run over by a train. I was filled with dread. I couldn’t shake it for months. I didn’t know if the lead weight I felt in my chest was real or an emotional burden.

We tried to continue to do normal things – took the kids on the already booked ski trip to the US, where I managed to ski like a penguin – no poles! I enjoyed the anonymity and the big puffa jacket. Nobody I met there looked at me with cancer sympathy in their eyes – I could act normal.

When we returned home I couldn’t face going out in our neighbourhood – too many people didn’t know, and demanded the whole story, or did know and their eyes went straight to my chest.

I wasn’t ashamed, but I wanted to hide under a rock and never come out. We went away again and stayed on an island for a month. Friends came and made salads, took the kids surfing and allowed me to waft about in a kaftan and read. I read a lot. I read Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality and laughed out loud at the line “friends said they prayed for me, and I thanked them asked them if they had also sacrificed a goat”.

I asked myself if I would have lived my life differently if I thought it might be shorter. I was happy to realise that I didn’t have regrets. I realised that religion is 100% man made and is used to soften the blows of reality, and I realised that false comfort is no comfort at all, and that I would rather face reality.

It was a long and interesting and journey involving a lot of reading, and an acceptance of mortality and a joy in living. What’s that Woody Allen film when he’s convinced he has a brain tumour and is going to die, and the doctor gives him an all clear? He runs out into the street in great joy and suddenly realises he’s going to die anyway, someday, of something. I’m a bit like that, but not sad. I’m glad I realised – really realised.

I don’t feel unlucky any more, I feel lucky that I’ve had such a massive reality check. Life is for living – living purposefully, with joy, love and to enrich those around you. My husband and my children have been a huge part of my emotional recovery, and they enrich my life every day.

Nobody knows what is around the corner, so putting things off til “sometime” is not in my life plan. I eat well, don’t put off exercising every single day, whether it’s yoga, a run, a swim or cycling to school with my son, I get a decent night’s sleep, take opportunities with both hands, and make time for the people I care about and who care about me.

Hopefully it’s made me a better person, a nicer person. Life’s good! Savour it!


If you have a friend diagnosed with cancer, and you don’t know what to do…. don’t stay away. They don’t know what to do either, and inside they are probably screaming. Bring food, do the laundry, do the shopping, bring books, magazines, DVDs, body lotion, scented candles….take them to the clinic, out to the country and the coast, take their kids to the park or the movies.

Most importantly bring yourself, as nobody should go through cancer alone. My friends were incredible in so many different ways, and I would like to thank them all from the bottom of my heart. You know who you are. 

I am now three years clear.