Selin Esendagli, an online learning editor from London discovered she had breast cancer, aged just 23, during lockdown. She speaks to GLAMOUR’s Elle Turner about what she wishes known and the aspects of cancer that never get talked about.
“We put so much focus on ‘check yourself’ but we don’t really talk about what happens when someone does check themself and finds a lump, and it turns out to be breast cancer,” Selin Esendagli tells me over the phone from her family home in London. Now, 11 weeks into chemotherapy and feeling “a little better after a rough week”, Selin reflects on the exhausting series of events since flukily finding a lump in her breast in June.
“There was an instant switch for me, the second I was diagnosed. I got into bed that night and I was so aware of my breasts in a way that I never had been. I would sleep in positions that meant I wouldn’t have to feel they were there. I was showering in sports bras,” she confides. “I felt betrayed by my own breasts. Suddenly they were these things that had the potential to kill me. I felt like my body had been invaded.” Experiencing body dysmorphia after a cancer diagnosis isn’t uncommon, but it’s rarely mentioned. The illness is a rollercoaster ride, mentally, from start to finish.
“I found the lump and the health anxiety kicked in. Then when I found out it was cancer, I broke down in tears. The next day, I was almost immune to it – I think I’d cried myself out. For a while I was in quite a good place; I was very proactive researching and learning about my treatment options,” says Selin. “As you switch to sitting alone in a chair with your thoughts while you get chemo, that feeling of proactiveness wears off. That’s where I think extreme anxiety can start to creep in. I’d panic about every twinge in my body and I realised, slowly, the discomfort I felt mentally.”
It’s an area Selin feels is vital to talk about. “People can deal with the physical aspects of cancer, knowing that it’s temporary, but I think the mental health issues that come with it last a lot longer.”
Selin was lucky that she was able to access the help of the hospital psychologist, but admits. “I’m still not completely comfortable now, if I’m honest. I still wash myself with sponges in the shower so that I don’t have to physically feel my breasts. I think it stems from not wanting to accidentally find another lump again when I’m not prepared.”
These are the 6 important signs you need to look for when checking your breasts properly for cancer
That’s another topic she’s passionately vocal about – consciously checking for lumps, especially among millennials. “I’ve always been a major hypochondriac. I’d always stuck my fingers in my ears when people spoke about breast cancer. I didn’t think it would be something I’d need to worry about until I was well into my forties, but, obviously that isn’t the case.” She credits luck with getting her the early diagnosis that gave her better odds. “I felt an itch in my under-boob area and when I went to scratch it, I felt the lump,” she says. “I never used to check my breasts, it really was complete luck that I had an itch, in that exact spot, that morning, which freaks me out when I think about it. That’s why I really want young people to check themselves.” More than that, she wants young people displaying early signs of cancer to take it seriously and be taken seriously by medical professionals.
“The first thing my consultant said to me is, ‘you’re 23, what are you doing here?’ I felt like I had to defend the fact that I’d come to be seen.” It parallels the story of CoppaFeel’s founder, Kris Hallenga, who found a lump at the same age, was turned away and returned a year later to find out that it had spread. “When I first felt the lump, my mind went straight to breast cancer, but at the same time, I thought, I’m very young, it’s highly unlikely, it’s probably just a harmless lump, which lots of young people get,” says Selin. But, her decision to seek out a diagnosis immediately helped save her life.
Now, with her most recent scan showing the tumor has gone, Selin’s keen to share everything she’s discovered since her diagnosis.
1. Cancer in young people is not as rare as you think
“The number one thing I want people to know is that it’s not as rare as we think it is to get cancer so young. Every time I’d see a medical professional, they’d say ‘but you’re so young’ and it made me feel like a statistic, or the only twenty-something-year-old going through this, but it absolutely isn’t the case. There’s a huge community of young people out there all going through the same thing.”
2. We’re young, not invincible
“I really didn’t want to lose my independence at the start. I was very naive. I had this idea that I was going to be able to keep seeing mates, keep my own place and carry on working. My oncologist said I’d be on a ‘lighter form’ of chemo which I took to mean I’d be fine. People tried to kindly warn me it probably wouldn’t be the case, and they were right. I had to move home to be looked after, I have very little energy and I don’t have the capacity to focus on work right now. It’s tough.”
3. The truth about chemo
“I had no idea what chemotherapy really involved. I hated needles before this and now I’m completely desensitised to them because I have to inject myself at home as well. Really, it’s a lot of sitting. Sometimes my sessions are seven hours long, with nurses coming in and hooking you up to different pouches of medicine. If you choose to wear a cold cap, which I did, to try and save your hair, it can add an extra couple of hours to your session and they can be quite uncomfortable. You have to sit in one position unable to move while your head’s being frozen. When you come out you’re completely exhausted. Everyone’s plan will be different, but my sessions tend to be every week on a Monday, which means by the time I start to recover at the end of the week – normally between Friday and Sunday – it’s Monday again and it starts all over, which can be draining mentally. It’s got worse as the weeks have gone on. At the start, I’d be OK to go out and see people at the weekend if I took it easy – things like having a coffee (a round of the high street would leave me exhausted), but now I’m not up to it. But, I only have two weeks left, so I’m dragging myself to the finish line.”
4. Young people should be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies
“Younger patients are perhaps viewed as not fully able to make decisions for ourselves, which can be quite frustrating. For example, when I explained that I personally don’t want children – which can make a difference to the type of treatment you’re given – I was told, ‘you’re so young, you might change your mind. I really think you should do this.’ It was the same with deciding to go with a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. I think they’re are a lot more cautious about the decisions you make when you are younger because they worry that later down the line you’ll regret it. But, if you can deal with cancer at 23, you’re perfectly capable of making a decision about your own body and what you think will make you feel most comfortable in the future.”
5. You lose your sense of taste
“The worst side effect for me has been the loss of taste. I’ve been through everything – insomnia, fatigue, aching joints – but when you’re feeling down and rough, all you want is some comfort food. I’ve always been into plant-based nutrition. After my diagnosis, I planned to record all the healthy foods I was eating to fuel my body and my immune system. 11 weeks into chemo and I have no tastebuds whatsoever, the only thing I can stomach is dry crackers. All you’re getting is the texture, which is why I think people end up going for dry carbs, because it’s the texture you expect even if there’s no taste. The only thing I have is a medical taste in my mouth all the time from all the drugs. Food is just not something that is comforting anymore, but most people get their tastebuds back a couple of months after treatment, so I’m looking forward to that.”
6. If your workplace offers health insurance, make sure you sign up!
“I’d started a new job and only just qualified for the health care scheme a month before I found my lump. Private healthcare is not something that I would have ever been able to afford on my own. Because of that, I was able to call up and go straight to a consultant without having to go through my GP first. I didn’t have to fight in the way that others have for a diagnosis, and I was offered psychological support. But other people aren’t as lucky. I worry for people waiting to be seen on the NHS. If you’re under 30 and have a lump, the average wait time for an ultrasound is around 5 weeks. Young people are often turned away and their lumps dismissed as benign, which is why it’s so important to emphasise the fact that young people do get breast cancer as well. I know the NHS is doing their absolute best but we can’t pretend that they’re not under intense strain.
I’d also really encourage any companies out there that can afford to offer their employees health care to do it. My workplace changed their policy to make it possible to join the healthcare scheme straight away because they realised, with my timing, how important it can be.”
7. Mental health
“Mental health is always going to be something that stays with you throughout and after your cancer journey. The body dysmorphia, the anxiety. It doesn’t stop one the treatment does. You’ve got to cope with the idea that you’re being sent back off into the world. You don’t have the comfort of knowing you’re being pumped full of anti-cancer drugs every week. I spoke to a girl who said after her cancer journey, she went and spoke to her nurse and asked ‘what do I do now?’ The nurse told her to ‘go and live your life’ and she found that really overwhelming because you go from being monitored every second, to being on your own. You’re still going to naturally have the anxieties of worrying whether it will return and adjusting back into normal life. Mental health for people with cancer needs to be spoken about so much more.”
8. Cancer and COVID
“One benefit of COVID is that I do feel like I’m missing out on less than I would have done if it had been a normal year. But it’s an added level of anxiety. I’ve had to do my chemotherapy sessions alone, unless I’m able get permission ahead of time for someone to come with me. And, I have to travel to and from the hospital on the tube during the rush hour because the treatment is so long which puts me at a greater risk of catching COVID. More than just the fear of catching it because my immune system is compromised, I worry that it will interfere with my treatment and put it on hold. I get a COVID test every week and if it comes back positive, that’s potentially weeks of treatment I’d have to miss because I can’t be in the hospital if I’ve got it. I wear a ‘high risk’ badge now in that hopes that people will leave a little more space when they’re around me.”
9. Best resources
“I didn’t want to read about what would happen to me off a leaflet. I wanted to hear from people going through the same thing. The best resources I’ve found are social media accounts. Rethink Breast Cancer are fantastic. They’re changing the way that people view breast cancer and raising awareness that it’s something that young people get. It’s a great place to go to find a community of young people sharing their stories of dealing with breast cancer. My advice would be to immerse yourself in the online community as much as you can because it’s also really easy to take yourself out when you need. I also used the #breastcancer hashtag to scroll through and find accounts that I connected with, that’s how you can find individuals as well.”
10. We’re much more resilient than we think
“We are so much more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Cancer is something I felt like I’d been running from my whole life, it was always one of my biggest anxieties. Then it happened and suddenly the only thing I could do was deal with it. Actually, I dealt with a lot better than I ever thought I could. I surprised my whole family. So, however strong you think you are, you’re so much stronger when you actually have to face it.”
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