For Breast Cancer Awareness month, we sat down with Alice-May Purkiss, a truly inspiring babe, who knows first hand the importance of checking your boobs.
(You can read our self-check guide here)
Following her breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 26, Alice has grabbed life by the boobs and done some truly amazing things. Not only is she a CoppaFeel! trustee, but she is an author, runner, open water swimmer and much more.
She blogged her whole experience and even self-published a book, sharing her cancer story online, with family, friends and a new-found community.
We caught up with Alice-May to find out a little about her journey with breast cancer, her writing career and her upcoming charity trek through the Himalayas.
Hey Alice, we are on a mission to encourage girls to check their boobs, so how did you first find a lump?
I found the lump in my right breast during one of my routine monthly boob self-examinations. I’d had benign lumps in my boobs before, so I didn’t think much of it, but I went and got it checked out anyway.
What happened next?
I was diagnosed on 7th July 2015. On the 3rd August, I had a mastectomy to remove all of the breast tissue on my right side. I then had 6 sessions of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy. My “active” treatment finished at the end of March 2016, but had to have quite a lot of follow up surgeries. I had my last surgery in April 2018, so that’s kind of when I consider that I finished all of my treatment.
You describe yourself as “trying to find the funny side” of your diagnosis. How did you manage to do this?
Just because you’ve got cancer, life doesn’t stop being funny. Yeah, there are a lot of really not funny bits too, but finding laughter and lightness in amongst all the dark and difficult stuff makes it easier to live through the experience. I think a big part of trying to find the funny side of getting a diagnosis is accepting that it’s not all going to be easy – and then relishing the moments where the light gets in.
How has writing helped you through your journey?
I’m very much a person who figures things out when I write them down, so writing about my experience was an essential part of my experience. I’ve also met a lot of people going through similar experiences through my blog, book and social media accounts so being part of a community has helped too.
What advice would you give to someone who is embarrassed or scared to talk about their boobs?
There’s absolutely nothing to feel embarrassed or scared about when it comes to checking your boobs. The term “self-care” is bandied around a lot, but getting to know your body and checking your boobs on a regular basis is as essential as brushing your teeth or clipping your toenails. You know your body better than anyone else and you’re the only person who can recognise if something isn’t right. Checking your boobs isn’t about looking for cancer, it’s just about getting to know what’s normal for you so you can go to see your GP if something is unusual.
How has your experience with cancer changed you as a person?
There’s no part of my life that cancer left untouched. It changed my work, my relationships, my perspective, my feelings about my body – everything. But not all for the worse. I’ve seen and done things I never would have been able to do had I not got my breast cancer diagnosis. I’m still the same person with the same set of values, I’m just probably a bit more ‘seize the day’, a bit more stubborn and a bit more bold than I was before I had treatment.
What does your mastectomy tattoo mean to you?
My mastectomy tattoo totally transformed the way I feel about my reconstructed breast. From the day I said yes to having the surgery, I knew I wanted to get a mastectomy tattoo. In April I was finally in a position to get it. The feather represents my experience as a writer which has only flourished since my diagnosis, and the words underneath say “to live would be an awfully big adventure” – a phrase from Hook that I try to remember every time things in this weird and wonderful life after cancer feel difficult.
What’s your best experience working with CoppaFeel! ?
There is so much I love about working with CoppaFeel! In my role as a Boobette, I went to Jersey in September last year and spoke to over 2000 young people to encourage them to get into the healthy habit of checking their boobs on a regular basis. To be honest, just being a tiny cog in a machine made up of such a phenomenal team is the best thing about being part of the charity. It’s run by a bunch of exceptional people and I am in awe of all that they continue to achieve every day. CoppaFeel! genuinely saves lives and I am so proud to have even a small part of that.
How would you recommend finding a support community during your cancer journey?
Social media is an exceptional tool. The cancer community, particularly on Instagram, is a brilliant way to find people who are going through similar experiences, who get what you’re thinking and feeling. There are tonnes of charities that offer support – make the most of what’s available to you and never be afraid to ask for help or support.
Tell us a little about your trek!
On 25th October, I’m off to India to trek through the Himalayas to raise essential funds for CoppaFeel! We’ll be trekking through the mountains for four days, for up to nine hours every day. I decided to do it because CoppaFeel! means so much to me and because they helped me make sense of my life after cancer, so least I could do was put myself through a challenge like this to help them raise money. I’ve been training by going on long walks around Kent with my husband.
My body isn’t quite the same as it was before I got diagnosed. I get very tired very quickly and I have a few other long term effects from cancer treatment – so I know that this is going to be a massive challenge. But it’s not chemo, so it’s not going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done!
If anyone wants to support, they can do so by sponsoring me. Every penny will go towards helping CoppaFeel! keep saving lives.
What 5 songs give you a lift and empower you if you’re feeling down?
THIS IS A GREAT QUESTION! It’s hard to pick just five songs!
- Lay Low – Crystal Fighters
- Good As Hell – Lizzo
- Somebody Loves You – Betty Who
- Though the Roses – Future Islands
- You Make My Dreams Come True – Hall & Oates
Thanks so much Alice, anything else you wanna tell us?
Unsurprisingly, the thing I really want to tell you, is CHECK YOUR BOOBS. Check out coppafeel.org for the signs and symptoms and sign up for our text reminders so you get a monthly nudge to feel your funbags and get to know what’s normal for you.
I wrote a book about my experience of breast cancer and how it can impact your mental health called Life, Lemons and Melons – it’s funnier than it sounds – and it’s available to buy on Amazon or via my blog.
Support CoppaFeel! with a t-shirt! All profits go straight to charity…