Penny Brohn UK

Help change life with cancer. For good

Joanna’s story

Joanna Espiner

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 49. There wasn’t a single part of me that considered that there could be a problem, not even when I received a letter asking me to come back for further tests. I felt fine, hadn’t been ill for years and I hadn’t come across anything suspicious. After an uncomfortable biopsy I was told they found a lump. Having previously thought there was nothing to be alarmed about, this all was quite a shock to me.

I'd heard about Penny Brohn UK through work and my breast cancer nurse also recommended I come here to work through some of the questions I had about my lifestyle and why I had cancer. I called Penny Brohn UK just after my operation was booked in. They suggested I attend the Living Well course to get an understanding of the Bristol Whole Life Approach and what they do here.

I came here just after my first operation, I travelled by bus. It was a real eye-opener. I'd been living a one-track lifestyle of work and stress. I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing to relax, I wasn’t eating properly, I wasn’t exercising or sleeping well. I had a chat with the facilitator, Sabine, about my concerns about work and lifestyle, she said to me: “I have a hunch that you should get back to your creative side.” Although I worked in a creative field, it was as a manager, nothing in my role involved me being creative in a hands-on way. Sabine recommended I read The Artist’s Way. As I went through chemo I read the book and slowly started to do creative things, rediscovering books about art from my bookshelf, spending time exploring watercolours and calligraphy.

Once I finished my round of chemo, I then had a course of radiotherapy and Sabine recommended I attend the Approach course. I waited until all my treatment was done as I'd noticed that people had said it all hits you when the treatment stops. You get a lot of support when you’re going through it and then all of a sudden nothing.

The Approach course was brilliant, I don’t know what I would have done without it.

As part of the course I had a 1:1 with Penny Brohn’s Medical Director, Dr. Zollman. I mainly spoke about my fears about working and fitting in looking after myself. Her main message to me was: “You need to play. Play with exercise, don’t feel you have to do a fixed regime, mix it up. Play with music, play with writing.” She recommended further books for me to read and mapped out an action plan. I still have that on my wall and often refer to it.

Eight months after attending the Approach course I hit a low. Nothing had emerged about what I wanted to do work-wise. I attended the Treatment Support Clinic, hearing other people’s stories showed me that how I was feeling was normal. Three months after that I attended the Creative Retreat and it was on one of my long walks that I started to see a bit more of a plan.

I had a feeling that I wanted to work with young people, creatively somehow. So I sent out numerous emails to holiday clubs, schools and youth clubs asking for work experience. A few did get back to me and they worked out well although often they came to an end due to funding. One day I received a call from someone asking me if I would consider running a wellbeing day for older people, working with clay. I have a degree in Ceramics and had a lot of experience with clay, although I hadn’t touched it for a long time.

Something about the way we spoke on the telephone made me believe that I should give it a go. The day went so well that the person raised further money to run more of these wellbeing days. I now run clay and creative workshops for any age or setting, including workshops at Penny Brohn UK and I share a studio with an artist friend. It gives me great joy to see the confidence someone gets from creating a piece and an even better feeling is seeing someone sign up to further courses because they have the drive to continue on their creative path.

Since my diagnosis, operation and treatment I have a new creative career which I love. My husband left his job and now also has a new career. We're in a completely different financial state of being, but we’ve never been happier. I couldn’t have done this without Penny Brohn UK. They gave me the tools I need to fall back on, should I feel overwhelmed or stressed I pick up the indicators a lot earlier and know how to deal with it before it takes over. Penny Brohn and the Bristol Whole Life Approach gave me that awareness.

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