World Mental Health Day Oct 7, 2021
World Mental Health Day - Jo’s story
As Head of Communications for Avon, my job is all about telling stories. On this World Mental Health Day, which falls in the heart of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m sharing my story about the impact this disease had on my mental as well as physical health and how I learned to cope.
Back in 2016 I was living my best life – based in New York City, leading communications for Gap – when life threw me a gigantic curve ball. I found a lump on my right breast.
I was used to checking myself, so I knew I need to go to the doctor, but life was really busy and I ended up cancelling the appointment. It was summer, I had a big crazy job, lots of travel plans (remember those times) and I convinced myself it was probably nothing.
Finally in October, which ironically is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I did go to the doctor who said it was suspicious. After an ultrasound and biopsy a week later, I was told I had cancer and a pretty aggressive one at that. I was floored. My life turned upside down in a minute.
Now the physical side of battling cancer is absolutely awful and debilitating and painful at times, but there are a series of decisions to make and steps to take – it’s the impact on your mental health that’s harder to figure out. Physically I knew I wanted to throw everything at it. I had a double mastectomy and seriously strong chemo – the kind so poisonous that the nurse has to be gowned up like a spaceman to administer it.
Mentally it was another matter. You see I was alone in New York – I was single and had left my son in the UK with his father (that’s a whole other story) – work was my life and Gap was my family. Now I’m an ENTJ with off the scale J so of course I came up with a plan to get through this. A series of coping mechanisms which I think can apply to any personal crisis or tough time.
1. Get the facts, weigh up your options and make the right choice for you. Everyone has an opinion – they don’t all matter.
2. Find your people. Your cheer leaders and energy givers. Surround yourself with people who support you and believe in you.
3. Do what you love. Throwing yourself into something distracts you and energises you. For me it was working – something I was good at and could control in a time when everything else was out of control.
4. Seek joy. At my lowest, I thought I was going to die. Everyone has low points and I still do today, when I get scared that the cancer is going to come back. To cope I set goals, plan things to look forward to and that I love doing – simple pleasures that make me happy, a new (expensive) handbag, a Hendrick’s & Tonic at the end of a tough day or dancing to loud music like no one is watching.
5. Know when to ask for help. After my penultimate chemo session, I got out of bed and fell on the floor. I was still (somewhat foolishly) working and my body was done. I needed help, so I called my mum and she flew in to look after me.
Through the worst period of my life, I learned how strong I could be and what was really important. My family and the very best friends. Balance – the best job in the world had become my world and it was time for a change. I needed to come home. And that’s what led me to Avon.
Every day we need to take care of our mental health, maybe even more right now as we navigate new ways of living and working. I hope that with my story I’ve shared some ways to cope. If you need help, reach out to your person. And if you don’t, be that person for someone else.
“You’re not broken, you’re just a little bit bent.”