‘The more open we can be, the less frightening cancer becomes’ - the Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven Jan McFarlane, shares her story about her fight with breast cancer

Ven Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich, Ven Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich,

Saturday, August 30, 2014
8:58 PM

The Archdeacon of Norwich has urged other cancer patients to not hide away from the disease after sharing her story about her ongoing battle with breast cancer.

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The Venerable Jan McFarlane was told in February that she had cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy as part of her treatment.

The 49-year-old, who tells her cancer story today in the final part of our Spotlight on Cancer week, spoke of her determination to beat the disease.

Rev McFarlane, who has gone through surgery, chemotherapy, and will have radiotherapy later this autumn, said she hoped to take part in a March on Cancer event in Norwich for Cancer Research UK on October 11.

She added that she opted not to wear a wig or headscarf after losing her hair as a result of the chemotherapy.

Rev McFarlane, who lives in Bracondale, said she was not frightened of death, but she had “too much living still to do.” She also praised the “magnificent” staff at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Here’s her story, in her own words:

“Some time ago there was a television advertisement for a cancer charity which began simply with a man going about his daily business.

Suddenly his world stands still. In slow motion he starts to fall and several people move in to catch him. The cancer charity promised to do the same – to support anyone diagnosed with cancer.

I thought of that advertisement on February 17 when, seemingly out of the blue, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I don’t think anyone ever forgets the moment they’re told they have cancer. The moment their world stands still. Shock, denial, anger, fear, bewilderment – all these emotions and more rage around, and the very word “cancer” has so many connotations, so many associations, that it feels so much bigger than if you are simply told that some of your cells have started to reproduce themselves too quickly and could threaten your life if they are not dealt with quickly.

Then came the difficult and emotional task of telling friends, family, and in the case of someone whose work means they are in the public eye, telling just about everyone!

Many more diagnostic tests followed to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body. Waiting for the results of the scans were the longest weeks of my life. We all know, deep down, that one day we will die. But not many of us give it much thought, assuming we will live into our 80s or 90s or beyond. To suddenly be faced with one’s mortality changes everything.

I have a strong Christian faith which means I’m not frightened of death.

I firmly believe that when I die I will go home to be with God forever.

But at 49, I am quite adamant that I don’t want to go just yet. I have too much living still to do.

And so it was with a massive sense of relief that I learned that my cancer was treatable and that I have a 75-80pc of being alive and cancer free in ten years’ time.

Surgery followed. And then chemotherapy. For most women, the word chemotherapy summons up just one picture. Hair loss. Losing your hair, your eyebrows, your eyelashes, all those indicators of femininity, on top of major surgery, leaves you wondering just exactly who you are.

I look in the mirror and a stranger peers out at me. An alien looking being, with my eyes, but otherwise an unfamiliar sight.

Chemotherapy is a cruel treatment. The list of side effects runs 
to pages, and with my particular treatment, crippling nausea and energy sapping fatigue are the two main features, together with the hair loss.

But even so, I give thanks to God daily for the clever, clever people who worked out that mustard gas could be used to kill cancer cells.

The NHS kindly provides a wig for those who will lose their hair through chemotherapy. I knew instinctively that I couldn’t face wearing a wig, nor indeed a turban or niftily tied headscarf and decided to sport the bald chemo chic look. In part it was a desire not to hide away from cancer.

If one in three of us will have to embrace cancer at some point in our lives, let’s be more open about it, and not hide it away. The more open we can be, the less frightening cancer becomes.

Reactions to my baldness have, on the whole been positive. Empathetic nods and grins from those who have walked this path before me, or know someone who has; a cheeky wink from a most attractive young man in the supermarket. (Thank you whoever you are. You made my day!)

But some glares and disapproving glances to contend with too. Sometimes going out in public feels too emotionally exhausting. From my experience, if ever you pass a bald woman in the street, give her a big friendly grin.

She may just be needing a confidence boost!

Over the next five weeks I will have one final round of chemotherapy followed by three weeks of daily radiotherapy, with the possibility of further surgery next year.

It’s hard to remember what it feels like to have hair, to feel well, carefree, and planning next year’s diary with confidence, but I dare say that this time next year, God willing, I will find it hard to remember being bald, tired and nauseous.

And if all goes according to plan I will finish my chemotherapy just in time to join in Norwich’s March on Cancer on October 11.

There is no doubt about it that being diagnosed with cancer changes your life. But embraced positively it can lead to a reordering of priorities, a new appreciation of the everyday pleasures in life, and an opportunity to reflect on how you want to spend the time that’s left to you. And of course new advances in treatment are being made day by day.

I cannot praise enough my surgeon, oncologist and all the nursing staff and radiographers at our magnificent Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Together with the unstinting support of my husband, family, friends, colleagues and the family of the church, they have made the unbearable bearable.

And I thank God for them every day.

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