BODY PROUD: Christine Raab
In November 2014 you were diagnosed with breast cancer. How did that happen?
More or less by chance. My husband found a lump in my breast. My first thought was that it’s only a cyst, it will go away by itself. I got an appointment very quickly with my doctor. During the examination I saw from her face that it could be something she hadn’t expected. She was also worried by the ultrasound results and so then I had to have a mammography. It was the first time that I cried. It took a week before I got the results of the mammography. But the waiting didn’t worry me. I thought, as long as nothing is confirmed, my daily life can continue as before.
And then what happened?
After the mammography they did a biopsy to find out exactly what the situation was. Another few days passed until the lab results came. That was the moment when they told me at the breast centre at the hospital that it was breast cancer. I sat there and said “no, it can’t be true” - and I cried. The doctor said we should start with chemotherapy immediately.
The diagnosis must have been a shock for you.
When I heard “chemotherapy” I immediately saw the typical images in my head. Your hair falls out and you look sort of ill. But I didn’t think of the fact that I had cancer and in theory I could die, instead I thought about everything else related to it. The diagnosis was followed by more examinations to see if metastases had formed anywhere. Because of my age they advised me to get counselling from a fertility clinic because the treatment can mean that you can’t get pregnant naturally any longer.
At the time you worked as a freelance make-up artist. Being diagnosed with breast cancer must have changed things completely.
Yes, it did. At the time I was also working in the job I had originally trained for, as a nursery school teacher, but on a freelance basis. I gave children swimming lessons and organised childcare for events. I had a lot of doctors’ appointments at that time that I had to fit into a full timetable. I gave up the swimming lessons and childcare for a while and hired someone in my place.
How did people around you react?
I told the parents of the children taking swimming lessons personally. It wasn’t easy to talk openly about the diagnosis. Somehow it makes it so real. Of course, they were all shocked. After I told the parents, I made a video to tell people about being diagnosed with breast cancer. I uploaded the video to YouTube and shared it on Facebook so I didn’t have to tell everyone I knew everything all over again.
When did you start chemotherapy?
Chemo was due to start on 2 January 2015. The lymph nodes on my right side were removed in the weeks before Christmas because they were also affected. They also inserted a portacath which was needed for the chemotherapy. At the same time I was going for treatment at the fertility clinic. Shortly before Christmas all the preparations were completed and between Christmas and New Year I was able to recover with my family. Chemotherapy started at the beginning of the year, as planned. I got a dose every three weeks, a total of six times.
How did you feel during chemotherapy?
During chemo my husband and I organised photo shoots with friends because I still wanted to keep up with things. But I also went to the town festival or to a concert. Whenever I noticed that things were getting too much for me, I slowed down. Of course, I always had my husband or friends with me who looked out for me. That’s really important! If I hadn’t done anything during that time...
When did you notice that a lymphoedema had developed?
Sometime after the chemotherapy I noticed while driving that my right arm was really swollen. In the clinic I’d met patients who told me about their lymphoedemas. Of course I went straight to my doctor’s surgery. She soon established that it was a lymphoedema and they gave me a prescription for a lymph drainage.
You now wear a compression sleeve. Can you explain how it works?
At first, when your arm is swollen, they use gauze bandages. The bandages are wrapped tightly in a special way so that the pressure forces the lymph away. The compression sleeve works on the same principle. When your arm is relatively thin again from bandaging, the medical supply store fits you with a compression sleeve.
What happens if you don’t wear the compression sleeve?
It’s not too bad if I don’t wear the sleeve for one or even two days. But it always depends on how bad the lymphoedema is and on the situation. In summer your body tends to store lymph. In winter it’s different. Basically everything that constricts is not good for your arm because it prevents the lymph from circulating. You need to be careful with bras, heavy shoulder bags and such like. That’s why personally I find it’s better to always wear the sleeve because I don’t have to watch out for so many things.
Is there anything where the sleeve limits what you can do?
Not really. It means I can live a normal life. Without it the lymphoedema would be pretty painful. And in the long term the special bandaging method is not an alternative. You can compare it to having your arm in plaster. You can scarcely move your arm and bandaging the arm tightly is painful. I couldn’t deal with that. My daily life is much simpler with the compression sleeve.
You deal with people a lot in your job. Are people curious?
Of course children ask what I’ve got on my arm. So I explain to them as best I can what a compression sleeve is. I get a lot of questions at make-up jobs as well. Depending on the situation I explain about the lymphoedema and how it came about. Initially a lot of people are a bit shocked because they didn’t really want to broach such a serious subject. But I don’t mind.
As a make-up artist you work a lot with the idea of beauty. Has your relationship to beauty changed?
During the first week of chemo I deliberately didn’t look in the mirror. During the second week I felt better and I started to use make-up again. That helped to make me feel better. You look in the mirror and you don’t look so ill at all. And the fact that my hair fell out wasn’t too bad. I was able to simply replace eyebrows and eyelashes. You can suggest to your brain: I look good, I feel good. I made videos of this and uploaded them to YouTube.
Do you see yourself a little bit as a role model for others who are going through a similar experience?
I find it quite difficult to see myself as a role model, but I do think that essentially I am. I get messages from people affected by cancer who ask me questions. They say that my videos have helped them to deal with the illness or that they felt motivated.
Is the subject of breast cancer over and done with for you?
At the moment I’m having anti-hormone treatment because my tumour was hormone-sensitive. That means I get an injection once a month. I also have to take a tablet once a day to prevent a tumour forming in my body. The tablet contains hormone-like agents that attach themselves to receptors in cells to inhibit the body’s own oestrogen. Because of my age the plan is to stop the injections in June and a year later to stop the tablets - as long as all goes well. Because at some point my husband and I would like a child. After that I will have to take the tablets again.
Do you have some sort of philosophy of life?
No, I don’t have a special philosophy for living. I think you should always make the best of things. A situation doesn’t get better if I think it’s a pain - no matter how much of a pain it may be. Apart from that I’ve got a quote that I really like. “You are really rich if you have more dreams in your soul than reality can ever destroy.”
How would you complete the following sentence: “I am proud of my body because...”
...it carries me through life just as it is. And because it’s gone through so much, chemotherapy for example. That’s why I’m taking part in the campaign. I believe it’s important to show people how cool their bodies are, they can perform and accomplish so much but we scarcely acknowledge it.
What advice would you give to other women with similar medical problems?
It’s quite simple: No matter how bad the situation, you just have to make the best of it!