'˜Just knowing you are not alone is amazing and it gave me strength'
When knitwear designer, writer and entrepreneur, Susan Crawford, discovered she had breast cancer it came as a massive shock.
Susan, who lives and works on her idyllic farm at Halton near Lancaster, found that her creativity was affected and the development of her business was held back for a time.
Thankfully, she has made it through her treatment and, with some additional support from CancerCare in Lancaster, Susan and her international knitwear design and publishing business, are thriving again.
Originally from Liverpool, Susan has lived at Monkley Ghyll Farm with her husband Gavin for three and a half years.
Susan was deeply distressed to find out that she had breast cancer in 2016. She had been feeling tired but put it down to stress and over-work.
“I could not believe it,” she says. “It was stage three breast cancer. I was told I had a 69mm tumour in my right breast. The cancer was also in my lymph nodes.
“I was told there and then I would need to have chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy, radiotherapy and a year-long course of Herceptin. It was mind-blowing.
“The words ‘chemotherapy’ and ‘cancer’ were terrifying to me but the speed of treatment commencing didn’t give me time to dwell. Within a couple of weeks from diagnosis I began chemotherapy at Lancaster Oncology Unit. My body reacted quite strongly to the chemo but it did its job, shrinking the tumour and killing off the cancer in the lymph nodes.
“They still did a full lymph node clearance. My cancer wasn’t hormone driven, which actually I’m happy about because I didn’t want to have to spend years on medication.
“I did suffer with ‘chemo brain’ (cognitive dysfunction due to the chemotherapy). It was a struggle to recall things.
“As someone who runs her own business, not being able to think straight was extremely frustrating. I felt as if part of me had been taken away. I did brain training exercises and quizzes to keep my brain active but it is only in the last few weeks have I felt back to myself again.”
Susan heard about CancerCare shortly after her first chemotherapy session: “I self-referred,” she says.
“Andrea Partridge, who leads the Phoenix breast cancer support group at Cancer Care, sat me down on the sofa at CancerCare’s centre and we chatted.
“I had been worrying that I wasn’t going to get better. I told Andrea about my diagnosis and she’d had the same diagnosis as me - but here she was, several years on, looking amazing and healthy. It just gave me such a lift to see someone who had come through it.
“Just knowing you’re not alone is amazing. It also gave me the strength to support other people. I need to be able to vocalise how I am feeling, so it was great to have that group to talk to and to ask questions.”
Susan also found it helpful to document her progress using social media.
“I did share a lot of my journey on Instagram. I was already using it for my business, so it was natural to me to share my story on there. I’m a creative person and it helped me not to stagnate.
“I shared pictures of myself at all stages and talked about what I was going through. I’ve had so many wonderful comments from people who found it helpful.
“I shared why I decided to have a double mastectomy. Lots of people are scared of using the word ‘mastectomy’.
“It’s partly the fact that you have changed. Some people feel scared to leave the house and hide away. For a woman, it’s partly how the cancer attacks you.
You lose your breasts, your hair, your eyelashes – you lose things that make you feel like a woman.
“I opted to have a double mastectomy because I wanted to move on and I didn’t want to have any more operations. If I’d kept just one breast it would have felt awkward. Asymmetry can damage your posture and all sorts of things. For me as well as being reassuring, it seemed common sense to have the double mastectomy.”
Susan says the counselling she has recently received at CancerCare has been hugely beneficial: “It has helped me to make sense of what it going on in my head.
“You can have the bleakest and darkest thoughts and that’s ok. Then you have just got to process it and learn how to deal with it.”
Another positive project that has helped Susan and some of her friends in the Phoenix Group to cope with cancer, is the ‘Knocker Jotter’.
This was the brainchild of Andrea and Sarah from the Phoenix Group who had the idea of making and selling a book featuring images and quotes from some of the group members known as ‘The Scarletts’. Susan offered her farm as the venue for the photoshoots and the result is an inspirational book that can be used as a journal or notebook. The Knocker Jotter is now on sale at CancerCare and on the charity’s website.
“I really enjoyed being part of the Knocker Jotter project,” says Susan.
“Having the photos done felt natural and right. I think it’s a beautiful picture of me.”
Susan wants to give something back to CancerCare so she has created a beautiful shawl pattern in four colours inspired by The Scarletts in the Knocker Jotter.
“I am selling the shawl pattern and wool as a kit in a lovely hand-made bag accompanied by a copy of the Knocker Jotter. £15 from each kit sold is then being donated to CancerCare.
“I hope this will help to raise awareness of issues surrounding breast cancer.”