‘Buy waterproof mascara – you’re going to need it’

Christine Hamill, a teacher from Belfast, has turned her initial terror at having the disease into ‘B Is for Breast Cancer: From Anxiety to Recovery and Everything in Between – A Beginner’s Guide’

Good going: Christine Hamill. Photograph: Rosiemac Photographic

Good going: Christine Hamill. Photograph: Rosiemac Photographic

 

In her A to Z of breast cancer Christine Hamill started at W. A day after she was diagnosed she was in a pharmacy in Belfast trying to work out what a cancer patient would need. “All I could come up with was waterproof mascara,” she says. “I put some in my basket and thought someone should write an alternative guide to breast cancer. Step one: buy waterproof mascara – you’re going to need it.”

Her feeling then is reflected in a line in “U is for Unreality”, a chapter of ‘B is for Breast Cancer’: “Cancer is something that happens to other people.”

In the book Hamill captures the initial blind terror and the deep sense of bewilderment and helplessness she felt after her diagnosis. There’d been a lot of crying, and she had a lot of worries – chiefly, as a lone parent, about her then 10-year-old son, Callan, and about herself, her job, how she would cope, and, during the darkest moments, the “shade of wood for her coffin”.

Hamill, who teaches English at Belfast Metropolitan College, wanted a book to help steady herself, but all she could find were overly medical works on breast cancer or personal accounts that weren’t sufficiently practical for her requirements.

“I wrote the book I needed to read,” she says. And she wrote it as she was going through her treatment.

The book is an all-you-need-to-know guide that starts with “A is for Anxiety” and runs to “Z is for ZZzzs” – as in getting some sleep – and takes in anger, bras, causes, cures, cliches, chemotherapy, consultants, fatigue, knickers, nurses, nipples, radiotherapy and more. The shortest entries are under “D is also for Death” (“But I am not going there”) and “S is for Sex” (“I’ve gone right off it.”)

Over the course of her treatment Hamill had a mastectomy and axillary-node clearance, followed by radiotherapy and hormonal therapy, which is continuing, and reconstructive surgery.

Hamill, who is originally from Dungannon, in Co Tyrone, was 45 when she was diagnosed. Now 50, she is more than five years clear. But as she also counsels in “F is for Five Years”, “there are no forevers in cancer.”

There are different types of patient, and it is clear that Hamill is a questioning one. Her catchphrase is KOA: keep on asking. Some patients want to know about causes and symptoms and side effects; some don’t. She decidedly did.

Under “I is for Internet Junkie” her advice is: “It is not healthy to sit researching cancer all day, and the chances are that a lot of what you read will be incomprehensible unless you have a medical degree.”

Hamill stresses that cancer is not a wholly negative experience. It spurred her to write this guide – which is dedicated to her late sister Olive – and, subsequently, a children’s novel with a cancer-related theme. She is now working on a third book.

She is quietly proud of her achievement and looks to the future with a guarded confidence. She remembers the day a couple of weeks ago when she got her hands on her first copy of ‘B is for Breast Cancer’. “When it came through the post I thought to myself, Well, heck, I did that, and I did it when I was sick. That’s good going.”


B is for Breast Cancer: From A nxiety to R ecovery and E verything in B etween – A B eginner’s G uide is published by Piatkus

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