Inner Strength Project: Tracey

 

Earlier this year I introduced the Inner Strength Project, a personal project I have started working on. I’m so excited to share with you the very first beautiful volunteer… Tracey.

Everyone has a story…

and everyone has, at one time or another, overcome a challenging experience in their lives. This is exactly what the Inner Strength Project is all about, the ability to deal with the worst that life throws at you and come out the other side, stronger than ever before. From illness to infertility, mental health to bad relationships, this project aims to share the hidden strengths of many amazing people by sharing their stories and their images… to show their inner strength.

Everybody, meet Tracey.

Tracey’s story is one of overcoming illness – breast cancer and a mastectomy to be exact, something many women fear and, given that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, something that many women have, or will have, experienced at some point in their lives.

But this isn’t where Tracey’s story begins. Her story is so much more.

As a woman in her early 50s, it’s fair to say that she has many stories. The story of her two sons, Jack and Harry, who she raised as a single mother for many years. The story of a year spent in Antigua with those two young sons because, as she says, why not? The story of a woman who changed career track and became a Paramedic at the age of 50, whilst also dealing with cancer. These are just a few of Tracey’s stories that make up who she is.

When I first walked into Tracey’s small and beautifully-kept home, it was clear to see that she enjoys the simple things in life – time spent with friends, sunshine, yoga and swimming – and there were also hints of a spiritual outlook dotted around, which she later confirmed to me. Probably the liveliest, boldest influence in her home was her beautiful dog, Kirby. Tracey told me that when she was first diagnosed, Kirby was the one who got her through many tough days. He remained by her side constantly and she shared lots of cuddles and tears with him and when she received her formal diagnosis, it was lying in bed listening to him breathing that got her through that first night. It seemed only right that Kirby should be involved in our photo shoot.

Tracey’s diagnosis was completely unexpected. She told me how she was at work one day when she somehow caught her nipple on something, a completely random act that normally would have fallen from memory if it wasn’t for the pain which it caused her. She went to see her doctor and was referred for a mammogram, the results of which came back clear. It was only after an ultrasound that she was given the news that two lumps had been found.

If you read any health advice about breast cancer, the information given largely talks of finding lumps in your breasts, changes in appearance to the breasts or nipples or changes in texture to the skin on your breasts. Tracey had none of these symptoms and if it wasn’t for that random act of catching her nipple on something at work, she may not have found out until much later that she had breast cancer.

I asked Tracey what her first thoughts were when she was officially diagnosed. Of course, her thoughts went to Jack and Harry first of all, but she also spoke about how her thoughts turned to the worst possible outcome – to death. She felt, suddenly, an affinity for many of her patients she had been out to over the previous four years in the ambulance service – because in that moment, she too became a patient.

What surprised me most about Tracey’s story was how she maintained a normal working life despite being given life-changing news. The day after her biopsy, she went back to work. This might not be considered dramatic in itself, but when you consider that Tracey was a Student Paramedic, attending to patients in life-threatening emergencies, with some of them probably suffering from cancer themselves, it shows just how strong Tracey was, and is.

Tracey told me how she felt a sense of shame when she was first diagnosed – a feeling that surprised me. She explained that she felt that she was in some way to blame for “getting breast cancer” and she wondered what it was she had done for this to happen. It’s not a feeling I’ve heard people express before – people usually talk about grief or anger but not shame or guilt but, in some way, I can understand it too. As humans, we have an innate sense of needing something or someone to blame for things out of our control and so I suppose this is no different.

Tracey’s inner strength continued to show itself throughout her treatment. She made the decision have her hair cut short after her first round of chemotherapy and she told me how she felt more comfortable bald than she did wearing a wig, likening herself to looking like a drag queen when she had it on! One thing was clear though, she did not like wearing bandanas as she felt this screamed “I have cancer”.

During her treatment, Tracey was not able to work operationally within the ambulance service but she refused to relocate to the Human Resources department, preferring instead to work in the office at her local ambulance station so she could still see her friends and work colleagues. Working throughout her treatment was really important to Tracey and she also had strong feelings about her impending mastectomy. She was offered an implant but Tracey felt that she already had one foreign body inside her that she wanted out and she didn’t want to replace it with another. Instead she opted for reconstructive surgery which was performed at the same time as her mastectomy. The results were impressive and helped Tracey to feel herself.

After her surgery, Tracey returned to work and it wasn’t long after her radiotherapy that she actually started her Paramedic training course. Tracey’s all clear and passing her course happened within a short time of one another, as well as turning 50 – a memorable year for Tracey for lots of different reasons.

One of the things I really sensed about Tracey was how the whole experience had changed her and made her even stronger. She says herself how it gave her confidence, that if she could survive this she could do anything. She made a concerted effort to change her life, choosing to remove any negatives and live her life in a more positive way.

It was this positive attitude that Tracey feels contributed to her recovery and she cites the advice of a hairdresser she met while in Dubai, who said, “You control the cancer, it doesn’t control you,” as being a huge influence on her outlook during the whole experience.

As a newly registered Paramedic, Tracey told me about the first cardiac arrest she attended, to Nikki, a 47-year-old woman. Nikki survived, no doubt through Tracey’s persistence and hard work, and the two women have since become firm friends. Tracey now wears a bracelet given to her by Nikki, who refers to Tracey as her ‘guardian angel’. I feel this story is the perfect ending to what was a very difficult time for Tracey and, in my belief that everything happens for reason, it shows that Tracey was meant to survive cancer for a reason, that she had a greater purpose. I’m sure Nikki would agree with that sentiment.

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