A week after celebrating my 50th birthday in 2014 and just before we were due to move house, I was diagnosed with cancer.
To a regular runner, green tea drinker and the daughter of a no-nonsense medic who was rarely allowed to be ill, the news seemed both nonsensical and a poor piece of timing.
Disease suddenly pitched me into a hospital theatre, where two surgeons took away my breasts, along with my naive belief in healthy infallibility.
I began writing. Not for me or anyone else to read but to maintain sanity. I didn’t visit my thoughts on those I loved, because my family was already in a state of heightened anxiety and impotence. My diaries were where I could scream or laugh or simply observe.
Recovery was a struggle but one I thought I was well equipped to navigate.
I was a trained trauma assessor, helping journalist colleagues deal with the impact of harrowing news events, and had just spent two years studying for an MSc in psychology, much of which focused on growth after adversity.
However, despite knowing there could be a path out of trauma, I just couldn’t find it myself. I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I was failing, falling, going under.
My hospital diaries illustrate what it’s like to go through an intense and difficult experience.
I want to show that it’s OK to have fear, bewilderment and rage when life challenges you. In fact, more than OK, it’s an important part of recovering.
In that spirit of painful honesty, I’ll also admit I’m frightened of you reading it.
Ever since my diagnosis I’ve been wary of anyone knowing. Very few people were told. I wanted to protect my family. So we turned in, rather than out.
A few television presenters were diagnosed with cancer as I was trying to manage mine and they chose to reveal it – something I was urged to do.
But when they did, it didn’t feel like the press and public were pecking at all the details; it felt more like the deification of wounded martyrs. Front pages, full disclosure, a bearing of scars to the world.
I hunkered down further.
So why publish now? Because, alongside my own diaries, I hope that the stories I share of others who have faced trauma yet found optimism – together with the science behind resilience and recovery – might help you or someone you love through a rough time.
Wednesday 7 January 2015, 7am
Things that you can’t do on Day 1 after surgery:
- Hold a cup to your lips (lifting anything is impossible).
- Move your arms.
- Wiggle up the bed (it catches your catheter).
Things you can do by Day 2:
- Move your arms.
- Get out of bed yourself by swinging your legs over the side.
- Clean your teeth and brush your hair (still taxing, though).
Thursday 8 January, 6.30am (three days after surgery)
A night full of dreams and awakenings. The dreams are full of fears, pity and cries; the awakenings full of plans, frustrations and trapped wind. The kids [Seth, eight, and Evie, six] start a new school today and I’m not even there to hold their hands, hug them, reassure them and wave them off. It’s gutting.
I called them last night and Seth said he’s ‘really, really nervous and very, very shy’.
Evie is excited, she’s fine. I can’t wait to see them bound into school, buoyed by the new friendships they’ve made and experiences they’ve had. I have pretty astounding children. [Sian’s eldest sons] Joss and Al were here all day yesterday, chatting, reading, checking their phones, eating the fruit.
Monday 12 January (seven days after surgery)
Sleeping was complicated and hot. I cried last night and the night before.
On Saturday night I was overwhelmed by being out of hospital – frightened of the results and the future.
The tears didn’t last long and [Sian’s husband] Paul was there. I can have a ‘moment’ with him, without the fear that he will think I am constantly wobbling. I’m not.
I’m strong during the day and waver at night. I got undressed in the bathroom and saw the puckered gashes that make up my chest and the tubes leaking blood coming out from under my armpits; it made me feel…grotesque.
I do not recognise myself. I feel bruised beyond repair. Brittle, contorted, punched, ugly, old, damaged, diseased, thin, bloated, alien.
Wednesday 4 February, morning
Tomorrow, it’ll be exactly a month since surgery and, today, I had my feet massaged and my breasts inflated. I cried in front of a psychologist and talked tough to a business colleague. I tell myself I am strong, yet I am vulnerable and weak.
The trouble with appearing capable is that people assume you don’t need help, so don’t offer. ‘I’m quite able to drive/lift/walk/work/do this myself,’ you say. And then, when they let you, you get upset because you’re not being ‘nurtured’.
I read too much into others’ intentions, getting irritable when an email pings into my personal inbox asking how I am, quickly followed by ‘Can I ask a favour?’
This from a family friend, who knows I’ve just had a double mastectomy and who didn’t contact me afterwards, yet now wants ‘celebrity endorsement’ for a business plan.
Another irritation – a friend comes over and spends most of the time whining about their cold. Sod your bl**** cold, I think. You poor thing, I say.
I’m healed, aren’t I? I’m lucky and I certainly look the same – clothed, at least. So why do I feel so lost and angry? Certainly more emotional and experiencing this intense sadness, which comes in unexplained, unbidden. Weaker, easier to knock off balance, confused.
Wednesday 11 February
I’m seeing a psychologist who specialises in breast cancer care. When we talk, I cry – about past traumas, my mother’s fast, undiagnosed cancer, which killed her within four months.
Giving birth to a blue, flat baby and then losing more than half my blood – being told that we almost lost our son, before almost losing my life too. She has a lot of untangling to do.
Talking to her, I realise that in our family we suppress emotion and get on with things. Pull your socks up, pick yourself up.
The morning after my mother’s death, my dad, my brothers and I had organised the funeral and taken all her clothes to the charity shop in black bin bags by midday.
I’m not used to indulging in emotion, and no one expects it of me. I’m known as being capable, strong in a crisis, psychologically literate. Not this.
Monday 16 February
Paul and I stand on a beach, looking out to sea. I can’t believe this has happened to us. Not in a self-pitying way, just slightly bewildered. ‘Does it seem odd to you? I say: “Sian Williams has had a double mastectomy.” That statement seems too incongruous to belong to me. Does it sound weird to you?’ He looks at me and seems tired, worn, resigned. It’s not weird to him because he lived it.
While I was surviving he was watching and feeling – what? Impotence? Anger? Fear? My emotions focused on getting through, small steps towards recovery, raising a cup to my lips, hiding the bottles that drained the blood from my wounds. It’s like being in a bubble where all your energy is directed back upon yourself; you’re clutching tiny victories as proof you can build back up, grow stronger.
The shock of it mentally is outside that bubble, suffered by others, looking in at you struggling to do the things that a small child could do, yet unable to help.
Thursday 19 February
Work dreams, the ones I had when I was actually working, are back. This is anxiety about my return to broadcasting tomorrow. Sweating about being in the wrong place at 12.30, half an hour before the BBC One O’Clock News. Not being able to contact the output editor, or find a jacket, or an earpiece.
Looking ghastly and irrevocably tired/old/shabby, the hair thin and flyaway brittle, the eyes yellow instead of white. Ouch. Judgment. How easy will it be to put the mask back on? Can I slip back into it naturally? The bravura that I had has been cut away and I wonder whether it will be spotted, this change in my nature.
Everything to do with the BBC seems overwhelming, as if the tasks that were once simple and innate have been lost.
Tuesday 24 February
I’m on a train to London to get my hair cut and go to a big event. Last night I told Paul I wasn’t going but I’ve agreed to turn up, talk to important people and look like a TV person. My eyes are still swollen from crying the night before and my dresses won’t fit. My partially reconstructed breasts are, rather comically, irregular.
One is more than an inch lower than the other. How to transform myself back to who I was? I’m nothing like that now. Jobs I would have jumped at, I push away. Commentate for the BBC on a big national event? I know I should. Putting on make-up and a dress won’t take me back, though; it’ll be so obvious I’m different.
Dipping my head back into the basin at a celebrity-stuffed-blonde-highlighting Kensington salon, I almost do feel like the old me – eyebrows threaded, grey hair hidden, ready to go.
Mask on, new bouncy hair, high heels, sticky false eyelashes, blistered chest, red lipstick, a dress with maximum torso coverage and I’m on the underground heading for the Guildhall for my first event since surgery: the University of Cardiff’s Annual St David’s Day Dinner. As I totter out of the station, I glance at the invitation. Wrong day. It’s the wrong bl**** day. I’m out by a full week.
I get back on the train, home to our cold, empty, unsold London house, peel off the eyelashes, jump into pyjamas, laughing at myself with my scarred, lopsided breasts, looking and feeling absurd. Sian – you are not ready for this. It’s not you. You can’t be who you were just with a slick of paint and an expensive hairstyle.
Tuesday 3 March
How can I quieten and reassure my mind so I don’t spiral into anger, irritability, ineptitude? I stay overnight at our old London home and meet Paul in the morning at the radiotherapy department of the Royal Marsden Hospital.
I’m anxious. I went for a run after I woke up, my old route around the woods, and it was tough going. I was tired, my legs didn’t want to do it but I thought I needed to get fitter, stronger, for whatever comes next. On my jog back I bumped into my ex-husband Neale, who lives around the corner. His smile and hug make me cry.
‘I’m OK,’ I kept saying. ‘Really, I’m fine…’ while tears were coursing down my cheeks. I don’t know why I suddenly felt so sad. His face, bright but full of concern, maybe. Not needing to be in control and on top of it all for him, like I am with my family, to protect them from worry. Not needing to pretend.
Thursday 5 March (two months after surgery)
Here’s the odd thing about life after trauma. You can have these positive ‘seize the day’-type thoughts one minute, and the next? You’re back to feeling weary and battle-fatigued. Wrong word perhaps, as I always rail against using ‘battle’ anywhere near ‘cancer’.
The real battle is with the mind; the real ‘fight’ is the one with your sanity. The war only gets underway when you’ve survived and crawled from the wreckage, still breathing.
You look back at the damage and think, ‘What the hell was that? Why am I still here? Why do I continue to hurt?’ The bleeding stops but the tears continue to flow, churning up old memories, reminding you of your own fragility.
Tuesday 7 April
When I was strapped to a hospital bed with tubes up my nose and greasy hair and had asked Paul whether he thought I was still sexy, he looked at me with serious intent and replied ‘always’. It wasn’t a joke to him.
Throughout this process, he’s viewed my chest with nothing more than quizzical concern. I’ve lost trust in my body – it’s betrayed me and let me down when I thought I was healthy – but he still sees it as desirable.
For a woman, nothing seems to knock your sense of confidence quite like breast cancer, nothing makes you feel more vulnerable as this obvious wound, when your femininity seems wrested from your identity. Paul doesn’t see this. He has never wavered in his affection.
My issues about how I look and whether my breasts are still part of my sexuality remain my issues, not his.
Thursday 16 April
The General Election is three weeks away and the BBC’s presenters are out in force, stamping their experience and authority all over it.
Five years ago, I was caught up in all this and knew every policy manifesto and politician’s manoeuvre as I prepared for one of the biggest nights of my TV career, the General Election of 2010. So this feels strange. It’s the first since my early 20s when I’m not required. No one has asked and I haven’t offered.
Despite all the ups and downs, I’d love to be there for this one. The BBC doesn’t know I have had cancer, so I could have asked.
I did mention to a boss that this is the first election in three decades that I haven’t covered and he looked a little panicked, probably thinking, ‘Oh no, a woman over 50 with political experience and we forgot to include her.’
He suggested, vaguely, ‘doing something’, which seemed worse, to be crowbarred into a role. I declined.
Wednesday 5 August
Exactly seven months since I had my breasts cut off.
Two days ago Paul threw me a casual glance as I was getting dressed and said encouragingly, ‘Almost healed!’ I looked down impassively.
‘Really?’ I’m ambivalent about reconstruction. It means more surgery, anaesthetic, tubes, possible tissue grafts. It’s an incredibly complex job. I’m in awe of those who do it.
I’m at University College Hospital to see the oncologist, Dr Blackman.
‘It’s about living with uncertainty,’ he says, ‘and that becomes easier. Every day that passes, your chances of the cancer returning are reduced.’
He asks me if I think about it every day and I start to well up.
‘I do, and I know I’m not entitled to have this anxiety when I look at the others in the waiting room.’
He reassures me that it’s quite usual. It’s only been seven months so it’s inevitable that it’ll be on my mind, but ‘there will come a time when you don’t think about it daily. It will be in the past, one day.’
Those I’ve spoken to and learned from along this curious path say they are all living with uncertainty.
Experiencing a major life trauma, especially if it’s unexpected, threatens your sense of self and your place in the world. It shatters your previous assumptions and it takes time and distance to rebuild.
Friday 30 October
‘This is the strangest photo shoot I’ve ever been on,’ I say as the photographer clicks away, barking orders, ‘Arms up! Arms behind!’, creating a record of what I look like before the next operation. Afterwards, Evie looks up at me. ‘Do lots of mummies get cancer?’ she asks.
‘No,’ I say, ‘but some do and everyone here is doing their very best to get rid of it for them.’
Her tiny face is open and interested, quizzical rather than concerned.
‘Will I get it?’ she asks. What to say to my six-year-old daughter? I can’t say no. I won’t say maybe. I say that by the time she’s grown up, they’ll have found a way to make sure that, even if she does get it, which is unlikely, they will get rid of it very quickly.
It doesn’t sound like the right answer and I spend all day agonising about how I could have reframed it. I want them to know that cancer isn’t always a death sentence, like it was for their granny. I want them to know that you can have cancer and still be you, even when a part of you has been taken away.
I want them to understand that hospitals are not full of fear, but packed with people who work their hardest to make you better and you can trust them, sometimes even laugh with them. That it’ll be OK.
Tuesday 3 November
Life can throw up such absurdities in serious moments. I’m on a ward after another procedure and when the surgical staff have gone, I look at my phone to send messages to family. An email pings in marked ‘urgent’. I’m being asked to sign a contract, help draft a press release and approve a photo for a job I’m starting in the New Year.
Here, now, from my hospital bed. I start writing as the machines bleep and the patients moan, barely able to type and probably not making much sense. I understand the haste to make an announcement. It’s taken ages to make up my mind and I only said yes to this new role recently. I read the email.
‘Channel 5 announces Sian Williams as the new face of its flagship evening news programme,’ it begins, before going on to use lots of words such as ‘warmth’, ‘experience’, ‘authority’ and ‘charisma’. Not sure I’ve got much of that at the moment. If they could see me now…
Even if this new role doesn’t work out, how big a deal will that be? It’s only a job. With change comes risk, and that’s all part of the uncertainty that I need to learn to live with now. Work is a small part of that.
I pack up my hospital things and get ready to go home. I feel weaker yet stronger, tired yet determined, ready to focus on a different future. Before I go, the nurse takes out both my drains with a flourish.
‘There,’ she says. ‘Not as bad as you thought, was it?’ I smile with relief and say I’d imagined this to be far worse, had been caught up in the trips and triggers of the previous experience and this was definitely not like that.
‘No,’ she replies. ‘This is the end of that chapter. And the start of a new one.’
It’s more than a year since my double mastectomy. I’ve been back to get new lumps examined and had more reconstructive surgery but I’m healthy.
From the start, I was told that my cancer was ‘breast-threatening, not life-threatening’.
That’s a very different place to many people. My aunty and one of my closest friends died early from breast cancer. My mum didn’t survive the disease, either. I consider myself extremely lucky that mine was spotted early and dealt with promptly.
One of the extraordinary people in the book, who is thriving after trauma, says she wouldn’t be here without ‘all the outstretched hands’. Neither would I. From family, to friends, to the remarkable NHS staff, recovery has been easier because they’ve been there to reach out and help pull me up.
I was going to keep all this under wraps, though. I know it sounds odd from someone who spends her working life in the public eye, but I’ve always been a private person, trying to shelter those I love from any glare caused by what I do.
Refusing to be defined by a diagnosis meant a life where no one knew what we went through or how we felt.
But the positive discoveries into resilience and growth seem too valuable not to share and that means being honest about our own experiences, too.
It’s not an easy path – it’s painful and hard-fought. You still have to deal with normality: squabbling kids, upsets at work, irritations at home. Nothing has changed – and yet everything has.
I would not wish it on anyone but, in a strange way, taking away my breasts, my self-esteem and my belief in certainty gave me something back: a fresh perspective on the way I embrace life and those I love.
And for that, I’m thankful.