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Real Life: Bosom Buddies

Undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Sheila Kissane-Marshall sought to ‘find pockets of happiness among the pain’, journaling her experiences on her website Bosom Buddies. She’s since devised a 12-week rehabilitation course, offering positivity and hope to fellow cancer survivors

The day that Sheila Kissane-Marshall received her devastating breast cancer diagnosis, she immediately began Googling her condition. It was the worst thing she could have done. “I found so much scary content on the cancer sites; it was all doom and gloom and ‘we’re going to die’,” she explains. “I looked up mastectomy and was faced with frightening images of scarring, then I checked survival rates and just broke down. I told my consultant and he warned ‘Don’t ever Google those things again; have your treatment, eat well, sleep well, be positive and follow my advice’.”

Though shocked by what she’d found, the experience made Sheila wonder why there wasn’t more positive information online for cancer patients. “I just thought there has to be a place which has a more light-hearted take. I’m not saying it isn’t serious – of course it is – but it doesn’t need to be so in your face awful.”

Heeding her consultant’s words Sheila began to harness the power of positive thinking, journaling her feelings, and finding five or six things to be grateful for each day. “I’d seek out pockets of happiness among the pain, so if I saw a butterfly in the garden, I’d walk round with it as it fluttered around,” she explains.

Sheila Kissane-Marshall - Founder of website Bosom Buddies. Picture: Keith Heppell (16515124)
Sheila Kissane-Marshall - Founder of website Bosom Buddies. Picture: Keith Heppell (16515124)

Essentially this is how Bosom Buddies – Sheila’s uplifting website, which provides lifestyle support for people affected by cancer – was born, as she endeavoured to share with others the things that had helped on her cancer journey, from good nutrition and gentle exercise to mindfulness and positivity. So when she cooked up a healthy one-pot wonder, such as her butternut squash and lentil curry, which is full of turmeric – known for its anti-inflammatory properties (ideal during cancer treatment) – she’d pop the recipe online. And when she discovered a mindfulness course that helped with the soaring levels of anxiety cancer patients suffer, she shared details.

It was through one of these courses that her monthly Walking Support Group - which sees cancer survivors stroll through Grantchester Meadows, swapping stories - came to fruition. “As the course finished, a lot of the women felt sad they wouldn’t see each other again, so I mentioned that I walk my dog in the meadow, and invited anyone to join me. I was amazed that on my first walk every single person turned up!” she smiles. “There’s definitely something about walking that allows people to become incredibly honest. We’re always laughing, or crying!”

A high-flying civil engineer at the top of her field - married to Robert Marshall (Vice Chairman of Marshall Cambridge) - Sheila was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, fortuitously picked up on a health check. At the time the couples’ baby boy Isaac was just 18 months old and daughter Daisy was two.

Sheila Kissane-Marshall - Founder of website Bosom Buddies. Picture: Keith Heppell (16515126)
Sheila Kissane-Marshall - Founder of website Bosom Buddies. Picture: Keith Heppell (16515126)

Re-living the diagnosis in painful detail, Sheila says: “It was beyond devastating. I went to the loo and was physically sick and I remember screaming and crying, and when I came back into the consultation room Robert said ‘You know that wall isn’t soundproof?’ and everyone in the waiting room must have heard me. I was just in complete and utter shock and kept saying ‘but I’ve got two babies’.”

Sheila was told she would need six rounds of chemotherapy, plus targeted therapy (Herceptin) and a mastectomy. She was so terrified of not making it through chemo, she insisted on having photographs taken with her children on her first day of treatment. “It was a really beautiful sunny day and I put on a pretty dress and took the kids out in the garden, to have some nice photos taken. It sounds really morbid but I wanted the children to remember me happy.”

Despite her positive outlook, the chemotherapy was incredibly gruelling.

“It destroys the fastest growing cells in your body, affecting your gastro nasal tract. So it would strip that raw to the point where I couldn’t speak or eat for days. I could hardly swallow saliva and the doctors would give me liquid morphine for the pain. It was horrendous.”

After six months of chemo, Sheila had a mastectomy and reconstruction on her left side, followed by an intensive course of radiotherapy. She finished her treatment in January 2018, and thankfully her lymph nodes were cancer-free, indicating it had been caught early. However the treatment had taken its toll on her body.

Help came in the form of a 12-week rehabilitation course with a cancer qualified instructor at Nuffield Health Cambridge (where she’d undergone her treatment), organised by Oncology Manager Lorraine Sizer. “When they first called I thought they were mad. I was utterly broken; my hands and feet were still bleeding from the treatment and I could barely walk. But the instructor was brilliant, got me walking on the treadmill and listened to me moaning,” she recalls. “The first four weeks were slow, then she upped the pace, and by 12 weeks I could do a kettlebell workout or run 5k. It was amazing.”

Inspired by how transformative the sessions had been, coupled with mindfulness and good nutrition, Sheila approached Nuffield about running a 12-week course for a group of breast cancer survivors, wrapping up these holistic components. She even offered to fund the personal trainer herself. The Nuffield agreed – and with the help of Fitness Manager, Olivia Tyler, the first Living Well course took place spring 2018. The feedback from participants was astounding, with Be Mindful, the provider who had offered free places on their online mindfulness course, reporting a 55 per cent reduction in anxiety and a 41 per cent reduction in stress and depression.

“It was an incredible result and the ladies were thrilled,” enthuses Sheila. “Though what proved most important for them was to be with 12 other women who’d been on a similar journey, so they could talk about their fears, about who’s on what tablets, who has sore joints and what made them better. They could finally be in a ‘normal’ group.”

A second Living Well course started in Cambridge this September, but Sheila is passionate that the rehabilitation programme needs to be rolled out nationwide. “You can’t finish a cancer journey and be expected to pick up your life and get on with it. How is that possible?” she questions. “After treatment stops, you go through a post traumatic shock experience, re-living parts of your journey and trying to process what has happened. The fear of reoccurrence is huge and you have to really work hard on the mindfulness to not ruminate about what might happen. That’s when you’re most vulnerable and need support. Everyone deserves to have access to rehabilitation after cancer.”

Sheila has worked tirelessly over the past year applying for funding to try to make this dream a reality, but to no avail. However Nuffield Health is currently looking at the possibility of running the course throughout its UK centres.

Thanks to ‘living well’, Sheila has achieved 100 per cent return to mobility, and is busy coaching entrepreneurs at The Judge Business School, overseeing a hotel renovation project, and racing round after Isaac and Daisy, who’ve just started school. And she continues to journal on Bosom Buddies creating a place of acceptance, understanding and encouragement. If you get a minute, pop by – it’s a truly life-affirming place to be.

Find out more about Bosom Buddies at bosom-buddies.co.uk

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