Community Lifestyle Long Reads

Writing through the C-word: things I know for sure

Dr. Nicole Andrews was a founder member of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity and one of the original contributors to Say it Louder, which became Make it Plain. In July 2020 Nicole was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and lost her battle with the illness on March 21, 2022. Nicole was a warrior and this site would not exist without her. We have opened the Nicole Andrews Community Library to honor her legacy. Nicole did her Ph.D. on helping the NHS to discuss overweight and obesity with Black women. When she died she was working on a project with Birmingham City Council and Lewisham. She was dedicated to researching how to improve the health of Black communities and it is no small irony that she died from a form of cancer that is three times more likely to kill Black women. To mark the one-year anniversary of her cancer diagnosis Nicole wrote a Facebook post sharing how she was feeling and what she had learned after a year of treatment. On the first anniversary of her death, we are publishing her final written piece.

For anyone that knows me, you’d know that I don’t usually post anything remotely personal, in fact, I hardly post at all. But I do have something I would like to share, I think that doing this would be almost therapeutic for me and hopefully useful to someone. I’m a bit nervous about posting this, but here goes… 

This Tuesday, July 13, 2021, will be the first anniversary of the day that I was diagnosed with stage 3, grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer. The day that everything changed. 

“The day that everything changed” 

The type of cancer that I was diagnosed with is particularly aggressive and can be more difficult to treat than other breast cancers. Googling my diagnosis while still sitting in the hospital car park after getting the news was probably the worst thing I could have done, and remains one of the worst moments of my life. How I managed to drive to my mom’s house from the hospital, I will never know.  But nevertheless, I am still here and I don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.  

Over this past year, I have had 6 rounds of intravenous IV chemotherapy, surgery, and 20 rounds of radiotherapy and I am currently on round 4 (of 8 rounds) of tablet chemotherapy. Technically, I have been cancer-free since January after my surgery, the rest of the treatments are to prevent the cancer from returning.  

This year has given me space to really assess my life and how I will live the rest of it. In the vein of Oprah, there are now some things that I know for sure and I hope you don’t mind if I share them. 

1. Health is your first wealth  

We hear this quote a lot but do we really take the time to think about what it truly means? Without your health, all other things lose importance. Nothing else matters. But what does it mean to have health? We all know what images of “health” look like and who we think is “healthy.” I hope that by sharing my diagnosis I encourage you all to be more aware of your bodies (and signs and symptoms):

  • Check for lumps, bumps, moles, and dimples
  • Note any strange discharge, bleeding, and vomiting
  • Note unexplained weight changes, headaches, and pain

If you notice any of the above, please, please seek medical attention.

However, health is not simply the absence of disease but is the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Many of us spend hours working out or balancing macros, but how much time do you spend on your emotional fitness? How often do you stretch your heart muscles to make them strong enough to love in all the ways that you want to? When was the last time that you flexed your soul strings to connect with those feelings that bring you joy and fulfillment?  

I know for sure that making a real investment in all aspects of your health takes time and conscious effort and the dividends are always worth it.  

2. Life is a choice, you have to choose it

There is an abundance of things in life that we can decide on, but choosing life is easily the most important yet one that is left unchecked. Making the decision to live in ways that give your life meaning and purpose is so powerful. And, whatever that meaning, and purpose is, you have to go and get it. It will not come to you. I’ve learned that meaning and purpose do not have to be massive, and they will morph day by day, year by year. Today, it can be as simple as going for a walk and enjoying the time spent outside, another time it could be to finish all the writing tasks that you have started (yes, that is me).  

I think the basis of this is that you cannot give up on yourself. Even when others do. If you give up, no one else can do you for you. When life is gone, it’s gone. All the positive thinking in the world does not negate your action. Get up, show up, get it done, or at least give it a go. Circumstances do not make your character, they reveal it. Learning about your own character, and indeed that of those around you gives a true insight into the world you have created for yourself and what you need to do to make it a better place. 

I know for sure that cancer, depression, and anxiety will not stop me from living a fulfilled, purposeful, and meaningful life in all ways that matter to me. 

3. Circles of strength are priceless

I have always thought I understood the real value of family and friends. And then cancer and Covid came along and taught me the real meaning of love that is so deep that its vibrations can be felt even when you are apart. The cancer treatments that completely deplete your immune system. The risk of Covid that can ravage the body quickly and easily make me severely unwell and stop my treatment. Have meant that I spent a lot of time isolated from others. But the never-ending love from my beautiful family has meant that even when this process has been particularly difficult for all of us, I have always known they are there for me. Even if they can’t be with me to hold my hand in appointments, to rub my back when I am struggling with chemo side effects, or to soothe me when nightmares plague my sleep, I always know that they are only a phone call away and for that, I am always comforted. I hope they know that I love them and that I appreciate them more than they could ever know.  

“I hope they know that I love them and that I appreciate them more than they could ever know”

And, to my fabulous friends, old and new, and my work colleagues, I remain humbled by your support during this time. Random food parcels of cooked dinners, socially distanced lunches, and afternoon walks in the park. Unexpected bunches of flowers and boxes of gift goodies for me and the children, birthday parties on my driveway, door knocks and zoom calls to check in on me and my family. Deliveries of health stuff, fresh fruit and vegetables, and all the time spent trying to raise me up when my soul has felt flattened by the weight of this situation. Even though I am awful at keeping up with people, I am truly thankful for every text, email, WhatsApp, and Facebook message. Honestly, I will remember and be forever grateful for every single one of you. Every act of kindness has been etched on my heart forever.  

I know for sure that my family, friends, and work colleagues are people who I will always cherish. 

4. As you organize for your life, you should organize for your death

As difficult as it may seem, I really do think one of the kindest things we can do for our loved ones is to prepare for our death. Most of us will never know when we will leave, but our departure is guaranteed at some point. Once diagnosed with cancer, the thoughts of death become very clear, which caused, and still does cause, a lot of distress, especially when these thoughts come at night. However, what has made these thoughts more bearable is that I have “fixed my business” ready for my exit. I have been told to “stop being morbid,” “think positive” and “don’t think about it and be positive” but pretending the inevitable is not going to come isn’t very helpful to me. 

Rather than being positive, I’d much rather be practical. Rainbows, waterfalls, and affirmations are nice, but I feel much better knowing how my children will be cared for and what I am leaving for them as they enter adulthood if I must leave this realm earlier than I had planned.  

So, a message to you all: get your s**t together! If you haven’t already, get some life insurance and critical illness coverage. I am so grateful that I had the foresight to take out my policies about 8 years ago as you can’t take out these policies once you are unwell. Get all your papers together, all the pensions that you may have paid into, bank accounts, savings, and investments that you have. Make sure that you locate them and keep the details together so that your loved ones don’t have to be searching for them, make it as easy as possible for them. 

“So a message to you all: get your s**t together!”

I know for sure that taking control of what may happen after you are gone is strangely comforting, and I recommend it. 

5. The NHS must be saved

As someone who studies, lectures, and researches health, systems, and policies, I am very well-versed in the dynamics of the NHS, especially with regard to gender and ethnicity. However, I can proclaim with my whole heart that the care I have received from the NHS has been the gold standard from the day of diagnosis up until this moment (except for one blip but I’m over it, lol). The Breast Care team at Birmingham City Hospital and the Radiology and Oncology teams at the QE Hospital Birmingham have been outstanding and I have nothing but praise for the care that I have received. I know that I could not have paid for better care. The support that I have also received from Macmillan has also been invaluable. Whilst I have made a monthly donation to Macmillan for the past 15 years, I never ever thought that I would be using their services to support me through a phase like this. 

Thinking of how things may be for me if I could not access this treatment often reduces me to breathlessness. The contributions of my family and our wider communities to the establishment and continued work of the NHS means that it is our duty to protect it. 

I know for sure that we cannot allow the continued dismantling of the NHS. 

And, so here endeth the lessons.  

This past year and until I finish treatment is about survival. In speaking to others who have experienced cancer, I’ve been told that the next chapter in this journey, “living in the aftermath” is no easy walk either. But as Michael Rosen writes in one of my youngest son’s favorite books: 

“We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it” 

It’s from “We’re going on a bear hunt” in case you didn’t recognize it 

I’m trying to prepare mentally for this next stage and in the vein of being proactive, I’m doing two Race for Lifes: a 5k run and a 10k walk in October. 

Please do consider sponsoring me!  The page is still open here

And lastly, for those of you who are of the praying persuasion, please do keep my three beautiful children in your prayers.  

To the Most High each day, 

I pray that the sun shines brightly for them and trees give them shade when they tire. 

I pray that the wind blows at their back and that the sounds of the breeze soothes them gently. 

I pray that the rain washes away doubt and fear, watering their souls so that they are renewed. 

I pray that the changing seasons bring new opportunities for them to experience all the beauty of this world.  

I pray that each night brings peaceful rest and visits from angels and ancestors that will guide their steps on this path of life.  

I pray that they will rise each morning, ready to face each day knowing how amazing they are.  

I pray that they will always know how much I love them and that I will be with them in all ways. Always.  


If you have made it this far, thank you for reading. To keep myself remotely sane, I’ve been a bit of a busybody, contributing to a Radio 4 short documentary Back to School; taking part in research projects; and I’ve been keeping a write-up of my experiences on this journey. Maybe one day I’ll share it! 

Peace out x 


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