How a second chance at life changed one woman’s perception of purpose.

The quickest route between Bedford and Cambridge takes just under an hour. The 30-mile journey takes the rider through scenic, but rather unmemorable towns. It wasn’t a route that Tayo, my husband, and I had taken previously. But this was probably the most consequential journey in our marriage.

Addenbroke’s hospital has served the Cambridge community for over 255 years. Today, it would welcome one more guest; me. Feeling at my most vulnerable, I was perhaps hoping that this visit would be as unmemorable as the towns on the A428 leading into Cambridge. I could only hope, as 32 weeks before, I had noticed a lump in my left breast. Tayo’s invited palpation confirmed the source of my anxiety, and thus began a new phase of my life. An invasive ductal carcinoma, IDC, represents the majority of breast cancer forms. Hardly would this present itself as a novelty to any oncologist with decent experience in the field. There are, however, four types of IDC that are less common. Mine was not among these. They had detected a more generic variant in me. The body’s lymphatic system does an amazing job. It moves about three litres of fluid throughout the body each day, maintaining fluid balance and fighting infection.

For anyone diagnosed with a cancer, hearing that the cancer cells have spread to your lymph nodes is not welcome news. Cancer cells can travel through the lymphatic system and spread to other parts of the body, attacking other organs, and reducing the chances of survival. My first biopsy indicated that some renegade cancer cells from my left breast had been found in my left lymph node. The first step in my gruelling treatment therapy was to have two surgeries to remove the lymph nodes in (or under) my left armpit, six session and eighteen weeks of chemotherapy, and finally – to eliminate any residual cancer cells – fifteen sessions of radiotherapy.

Cancer is a mean and resilient adversary.

It takes every innovative approach in medical sciences to halt its spread and impact, and give patients a fighting chance of survival and a good quality of life post-diagnosis. The consultant had walked me through what my treatment regimen would be. Sitting there listening to him reassure me on that cold morning of the 9th of December 2019, a mere three days after my initial biopsy, I summoned all my courage and Christian faith to rein in the agony in my soul and the tribulations in my head. This was a journey that no previous experience prepares you for.

As my treatment schedule was being mapped out and appointments secured, the global COVID-19 pandemic struck. With that came additional uncertainties around visiting hospitals and staying safe, as chemotherapy compromises the immune system, rendering a patient highly susceptible to opportunistic infections. My parents visited from Nigeria at the beginning of 2020 to provide emotional support during my treatment. Their stay became long-term, when the UK government imposed restrictions on travel and the pandemic got worse. For their sake and mine, we agreed that they remain in the UK with me.

In the middle of treatment, while battling my own emotions, I wondered periodically how my mother viewed the whole process. Personally, with my life in the balance, I contemplated all the conversations I had not yet had with her. All the words unsaid. My mind would also drift to my children, particularly my daughter, and think about how I wished to have more time to inspire her to become her best self. There were so many stories I still had to share with her. So many talks to shape her thinking as she blossomed into womanhood. I found myself looking to the past through my mother’s eyes, and into the future, through my daughter’s; as me, the bridge that held both. I groaned in silent prayer to God for just one gift from him. Time.

With toxic chemicals coursing through my veins, and my body rendered the weakest I had ever been, I was at my most vulnerable. I never broke down or fell into despair, probably because I had an army in the camp of Team Ibi, my loving husband, my children, parents, an aunt, friends, and members of my prayer circle. They were strapped up and ready to assemble on my case at a moment’s notice. Their expressions of sacrificial love provided me the fortitude to go through the treatment. There is no substitute for that deep-in-your-soul conviction that you are loved unconditionally by someone else. It is a salve that accelerates recovery. I am loved.

Tayo led the troops, helping me make it to the bathroom when I suffered bouts of nausea, bathing me, and ensuring that I was eating regularly. My mum and aunt marshalled the kitchen to curate bespoke meals, packed with nutrients, ensuring that we kept the prohibited foods away. My dad took on the school run, ensuring that the kids were punctual, and attended school events. My loving kids kept a regular check-in on their mum and kept me entertained with stories. All being done within our pandemic ‘bubble’ to ensure that we mitigated the risk of infection from external sources.

Most of the year 2020 was spent living in close quarters with these people. My people. And, as I neared the final session of my radiotherapy, I began to think of others going through cancer treatment or other difficult challenges, who may not have the comfort of unconditional sacrificial love around them.

I had a moment of clarity during one of my chemotherapy sessions that I could make my life more meaningful and helpful to others going through similar experiences. To an outsider, news of someone’s cancer diagnosis might seem ordinary and unmemorable, but to the patient, it infuses every aspect of their life. I searched my heart and questioned my motivations for wanting to do this. My convictions are clear that I wish to serve. My primary love language is acts of service and I am dedicating this next phase of my life to support others who are on a journey I have taken myself.

Love is a powerful elixir that can help with healing and recovery. And for those without a good prognosis, love can help with achieving peace with the news. The Blessed to Be A Blessing initiative (B2BAB) represents my moment of lift. It is an outpouring of my gratitude to those who showed me love and helped me on my journey to recovery. Even if all I achieve is helping another person feel a measure of the empathy, compassion, love, and support that I experienced, I would count that as a purpose driven life well lived. I now invest my time in relationships, especially with my mum and my daughter. May our stories be rich.

About Ibi

Ibilola Akinola is an entrepreneur, a Property Consultant and the founder and CEO of Careville, a leading care agency in the UK. She pursues her passion to help people find purpose through pain, experience healing and live a full life!

Ibilola, a breast cancer survivor, recently recovered from a cancer diagnosis and with renewed vigour, she reaches out to people to give them hope and encouragement, by sharing her own story and life journey. Her mission is to encourage people going through life-threatening situations to keep fighting and never give in to despair, but to find and cherish the hidden beauty within and around them.

She is married to a loving husband and they have two amazing children. Her message about life is simple: ‘Live it up, Live it well, Live it now, you’ve got just one chance.’

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