Susannah's story

How did you hear about Penny Brohn UK?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2017and at that point, everything was a little bit bonkers and I was anxious. I was very worried about what I was eating and what I was doing and my lifestyle in general. I thought, what have I done to get this? And then, what can I do to make sure that I’m okay? I got quite panicked about it all and so I was talking to a lot of different people.

A graphic saying 'Susannah's story' with a picture of Susannah

The medical staff at the hospital said there’s nothing you can really do and you just need to carry on as you are. So I cracked on with chemotherapy first, and then a neighbour said that she knew someone who had been to Penny Brohn UK. My mum and another friend mentioned Penny Brohn UK too so I decided to make contact and just find out what was offered. At the time, the residential courses were going on, and I was excited to be able to speak to professionals such as nutrition experts and doctors.

I was having chemo and we live in Birmingham, so it wasn’t the case that I could just pop in, it was going to be a bit of a mission! Between the chemo finishing and my surgery, which was a month after, me and my husband came down for a course – even just thinking about it makes me feel quite emotional. We drove into the car park and I instantly felt so at peace. It had this amazing feeling that it’s very difficult to describe, but I thought, everything’s going to be okay now.

Can you tell me a little about yourself and your life?

I’m from the Lake District, but I live in Birmingham and I work for a voluntary service organisation who support the voluntary sector in the city. It’s me and my husband, and we’ve got a dog. We actually got married a month before I got my diagnosis, so that was a bit affronting when you’ve just got married! We do lots of travelling and we visit my family in the Lake District a lot. We don’t know whether we would have had children, but we couldn’t because of my treatment. We feel very lucky we have the life that we do, and we make sure that we fill it with lots of things and people because we’ve got that time.

What was it like around the time of your diagnosis?

My diagnosis was a real shock – it was a bit out of the blue. I found the lump myself, literally the month after the wedding. The medical team were very proactive and things happened relatively quickly. I remember I sat in the chair in the chemo ward and it was then that I suddenly realised why I was there and that I was going to have chemo. I was one of the younger people in there and I struggled a bit emotionally dealing with that, but we were really lucky because my husband had stopped work and so he was around all the time, which was amazing. It was brilliant to have someone with me all the time – there were lots of little bumps in the road, including getting sepsis, but by early January it was finished.

What was it like for your husband?

My husband has previously had some health anxiety, so when I got cancer it was really hard for him. But he just wanted to be able to do whatever he could to try and make it okay. I’m sure it was rubbish for me, but I don’t really remember huge amounts about it because you do tend to block a lot of it out. But I know that for someone who’s supporting someone with cancer, I think it’s almost worse because you’re completely powerless and you’re just watching it all happen and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Tell me a bit about your experience on the Penny Brohn UK retreats?

Although I was really keen to go to Penny Brohn UK, I was a little concerned that I was going to be surrounded by people with difficult diagnoses and might make me more paranoid about my own situation. However, everyone was in a very positive mindset, the courses were a really good pace, you learnt a lot but it wasn’t overwhelming. Everybody else on the course was really supportive, we could sit and chat when we were eating our food.

The food was amazing – not only was it really tasty and nutritious, but I felt so happy that I could eat something and know that it would be good for me. That was so reassuring because food is such a massive thing for me, I love food, so I could just eat it and not worry – and we got ideas for what we could make ourselves. I particularly loved the garden, even though it was January, and I remember I slept really well when we were there. It was calm and peaceful. Matt got a lot from it as well – it meant that he understood so much more about what I was going through and it was really helpful for him to be able to support me better.

How are you doing now?

My physical health is absolutely fine, as far as I know. My oncologist reminds me that we can never say that it’s not going to come back, but at the moment, everything looks really good. I think mentally, I still struggle with it and occasionally I will have a resurgence of fear. I haven’t changed huge amounts about my life, but I’ve definitely changed my diet quite a bit. If Penny Brohn UK was around the corner, I’d be visiting all the time. It’s very odd to feel that it’s a place that I still feel very positively about, even though it was a really dark time in my life. It still has that kind of sunshine around it which is quite amazing, really testament to how it is there.

What impact do you think Penny Brohn UK had on your life and your cancer journey?

Penny Brohn UK made it all less terrifying for me, it normalised it a bit as well. You can be led to believe that if you get cancer, there is no hope. Going to Penny Brohn UK made me realise that you can get cancer and live well with it. That slight change in the narrative in my head was really helpful. The impact of doing something for yourself is amazing – so much of when you have cancer is people doing things to you. It gave my brain a break, and Matt some space too. I have learnt so much and my life now is centred around the whole life approach that I learnt.