When Lara Honnor was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 31, multiple thoughts spun through her head.
Would she be around in a year’s time? Lose her hair? Was she going to die never having experienced true love?
“I’d been in love before, but that real deep love, I hadn’t found. I was sad thinking I’d die having never experienced that. Then I was thinking, ‘Who on earth’s going to want to date me when I’m bald and infertile? Game over!'” she admits. “But then I thought, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself – you’ve got the most amazing friends and family and so much love there’.”
This single memory sums up much of what the past two years have been about for Lara.
On October 9, 2014, she was – like 60,000 other people diagnosed with the disease each year in the UK (or one every 10 minutes) – launched into an emotional maelstrom.
Cancer – indeed major illnesses full-stop – may be a disease of the cells, but a hefty chunk of the battle takes place in the mind.
Cancer “presses the pause button on life”, as Lara puts it, and when the ‘play’ button is switched on again, priorities are reassessed, identities re-forged.
While it can be one hell of a rocky ride, ultimately, it’s not unusual for people to talk of positive outcomes.
New research by The Estee Lauder Companies UK & Ireland reveals that 78% of women affected by breast cancer feel their outlook on life has changed, with 72% saying there are positive aspects to going through the disease.
The findings were released to coincide with this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness (BCA) Campaign, which supports the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) – and which was founded in 1992 by the late Evelyn H. Lauder, Estee Lauder Senior Corporate Vice President, Pink Ribbon pioneer and champion of the breast cancer research cause (the campaign’s raised over 65 million US dollars so far).
More than two-thirds (68%) of the women surveyed said having cancer inspired them to want to try new experiences, while (35%) took up or rediscovered hobbies.
For Lara, who is supporting this year’s BCA Campaign, the list of positives is long.
Thanks to cancer, she got herself a puppy, discovered healthy eating, and developed “an obsession with the sea”.
“I don’t know whether it’s the minerals, the huge expanse, the calm… I definitely feel more drawn to nature now. Nature and being outside and around greenery is so healing, and I need the quiet and the calm,” she says. “And just being content with the now, and the little things, like having a cup of tea and piece of cake.”
The experience “restored her faith in human nature” too, from the “amazing NHS nurses” on the chemo ward, to the endless support and kindness from friends and loved ones.
Health psychologist Dr Megan Arroll says this ties in with the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG); positive change that can emerge following a period of significant trauma or a major life event.
“It’s been researched a great deal with regard to breast cancer. But this is by no means a new theory – the appreciation that suffering and loss can be transformative (for some people at least) is central to many ancient and contemporary religious belief systems,” Arroll explains. “This positive outcome is not a certainty and a number of factors appear to be related to whether an individual experiences growth following such a traumatic journey, including the way we cope. People that use adaptive coping mechanisms develop more PTG.”
She stresses this is not simply a case of expecting people to ‘look on the bright side’.
“It also depends on what happens during the illness. Social support, particularly that from spouses and others who’ve had breast cancer, does appear to enhance PTG – therefore if you have a partner, do let him/her support you and, if not, joining a support group might just help make sense of this inexplicable illness.”
Despite her glowing positivity, Lara is a firm believer in not sugar-coating cancer or ‘hiding’ the difficult sides – and also in the power of sharing.
Soon after receiving her shock diagnosis (she’d found a lump while showering and was told it was most likely a cyst), she began writing a blog (Get Your Tits Out!) and filming video diaries.
It started as a means of keeping family and friends updated, but quickly grew into a space where she could document exactly what she was going through with utter honesty, including the agonising chemo side-effects, the moments of raw panic – but all interspersed with humour and cheery updates too, also very real parts of her experience.
“I wanted people to know I was OK. When you hear the word ‘cancer’, you do think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die’, but I thought, ‘Do you know what? I’m going to be silly and take the mickey out of cancer’, like turning up for chemo in my sequin dress and crazy wigs,” explains Lara, now 33. “But obviously, when you’re feeling like death, you can’t be happy all the time, and that’s why I made my film too, because a lot of people would only see me when I was feeling good; I’d just be alone, indoors, when I wasn’t feeling good. I wanted people to know that one day you can be feeling amazing, and then the next, you feel awful.
“If it meant helping just one other person, I’d have been happy,” she adds. “But it ended up helping me too.”
And she doesn’t just mean the numerous friends she made online, and the strength and encouragement she gleaned from engaging with other women going through the disease (“I’m a huge believer that a problem shared is a problem cut up into lots of tiny pieces”).
The blog – which started with Lara breaking into tears as she admitted on camera her fears of dying having never experienced true love – also, with a plot more touching than an Oscar-worthy romcom, led her to love.
A school friend of Lara’s shared one of her blog posts on Facebook – and then one of her friends, Mikey, read it.
“Mikey has cystic fibrosis and is in and out of hospital, so could relate to a lot that I was writing about. He sent me a Facebook message saying, ‘I really love your blog and admire how you talk so candidly about your experiences, because I’m a guy and we’re not so open about our emotions’,” Lara recalls. “He wished me all the best and we exchanged a couple of messages.”
Communication resumed when another friend they had in common, Jojo, who Lara had met on a Facebook group for women aged under-45 with breast cancer, passed away. They arranged to go to Jojo’s funeral together, but Mikey got sick and ended up having to be admitted to hospital.
Lara sent him photos from the day, and a bond blossomed.
They started messaging daily, then talking on the phone – and then last month, they got married on the beach in Brighton, where they now live.
“We’re still in that post-wedding cloud,” says Lara, beaming. She’s still amused by the “irony” of how her cancer blog led to love, and feels incredibly “lucky”.
“As much as social media can take over your life and people say they hate Facebook, at the end of the day, Facebook brought me and Mikey together,” says Lara. “And having cancer brought us together.”