International knitwear designer promotes 'the new normal' after mastectomy

on Thursday, 07 December 2017. Tags cancer, Cancer Support, CancerCare, Designer, Halton, Kendal, Knitwear, Lancaster, Lune Valley, North Lancashire, Slynedales, Wool

CancerCare thanked for support during recovery

When knitwear designer, writer and entrepreneur, Susan Crawford, discovered she had breast cancer it came as a massive shock.  

Susan, who lives and works on her idyllic farm at Halton near Lancaster, found that her creativity was affected and the development of her business was held back for a time.

Thankfully, she has made it through her treatment and, with some additional support from CancerCare in Lancaster, Susan and her international knitwear design and publishing business, are thriving again.

Originally from Liverpool, Susan has lived at Monkley Ghyll Farm with her husband Gavin for three and a half years.

A passionate, eloquent and highly creative woman, Susan has many interesting and forward-thinking things to say on women and breast cancer surgery.

Susan was deeply distressed to find out that she had breast cancer in 2016. She had been feeling tired but put it down to stress and over-work.

“I could not believe it,” she says. “It was stage three breast cancer. I was told I had a 69mm tumour in my right breast. The cancer was also in my lymph nodes.

“I was told there and then I would need to have chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy, radiotherapy and a year-long course of Herceptin. It was mind-blowing.

“The words ‘chemotherapy’ and ‘cancer’ were terrifying to me but the speed of treatment commencing didn't give me time to dwell. Within a couple of weeks from diagnosis I began chemotherapy at Lancaster Oncology Unit. My body reacted quite strongly to the chemo but it did its job, shrinking the tumour and killing off the cancer in the lymph nodes.

“They still did a full lymph node clearance. My cancer wasn’t hormone driven, which actually I’m happy about because I didn’t want to have to spend years on medication.

“I did suffer with ‘chemo brain’ (cognitive dysfunction due to the chemotherapy). It was a struggle to recall things.

 

“As someone who runs her own business, not being able to think straight was extremely frustrating. I felt as if part of me had been taken away. I did brain training exercises and quizzes to keep my brain active but it is only in the last few weeks have I felt back to myself again.”

Susan heard about CancerCare shortly after her first chemotherapy session: “I self-referred,” she says.

“Andrea Partridge, who leads the Phoenix breast cancer support group at Cancer Care, sat me down on the sofa at CancerCare's centre and we chatted.

“I had been worrying that I wasn’t going to get better. I told Andrea about my diagnosis and she’d had the same diagnosis as me - but here she was, several years on, looking amazing and healthy. It just gave me such a lift to see someone who had come through it.

“Andrea told me about the services that were available at CancerCare and how I could continue to access the services even after my treatment was completed I therefore decided not to have counselling until it was all over so I could then make sense of what I had gone through.

“I was focused on getting through the treatment. While I was going through treatment, it was the Phoenix Group that I used the most; having that online group to ask ‘has anybody experienced this?’ So many of us go through similar things and have the same worries. I didn’t feel isolated thanks to the Phoenix Group.

“Just knowing you’re not alone is amazing. It also gave me the strength to support other people.

“I need to be able to vocalise how I am feeling, so it was great to have that group to talk to and to ask questions.”

Susan also found it helpful to document her progress using social media.

“I did share a lot of my journey on Instagram. I was already using it for my business, so it was natural to me to share my story on there. I’m a creative person and it helped me not to stagnate.

“I shared pictures of myself at all stages and talked about what I was going through. I’ve had so many wonderful comments from people who found it helpful.

“I shared why I decided to have a double mastectomy. Lots of people are scared of using the word ‘mastectomy’.

“It’s partly the fact that you have changed. Some people feel scared to leave the house and hide away.

“For a woman, it’s partly how the cancer attacks you. You lose your breasts, your hair, your eyelashes – you lose things that make you feel like a woman.

“I opted to have a double mastectomy because I wanted to move on and I didn’t want to have any more operations. If I’d kept just one breast it would have felt awkward. Asymmetry can damage your posture and all sorts of things. For me as well as being reassuring, it seemed common sense to have the double mastectomy.

“I’m sure many other women have made the same decision for these reasons.

“At the hospital it was assumed that I would want to have reconstruction but I think women should be fully informed of all the options so they can make the best possible choice.”

“Many women strive to be the way they were but I believe if you can accept the new reality, it’s much better.

“I have been relatively positive in coming to terms with the changes but I have had dark days.”

Susan says the counselling she has recently received at CancerCare has been hugely beneficial: “It has helped me to make sense of what it going on in my head.

“You can have the bleakest and darkest thoughts and that’s ok. Then you have just got to process it and learn how to deal with it.

“The NHS doesn’t have that after-care facility. It’s hugely beneficial to be able to talk.

“Cancer is a physical disease but it does things to you in so many other ways. It can bring things up that you have ignored for a long time.

“Many of us see ourselves as the external shell that we present to people. Your confidence levels can plummet when that is taken away.

“Women’s clothing is all geared to having breasts. I think the next positive move for clothing companies and the media would be to represent women who have had mastectomies – not to shy away from it.”

Another positive project that has helped Susan and some of her friends in the Phoenix Group to cope with cancer, is the ‘Knocker Jotter’.

This was the brainchild of Andrea and Sarah from the Phoenix Group who had the idea of making and selling a book featuring images and quotes from some of the group members known as ‘The Scarletts’.

Susan offered her farm as the venue for the photoshoots and the result is an inspirational book that can be used as a journal or notebook. The Knocker Jotter is now on sale at CancerCare and on the charity’s website.

“I really enjoyed being part of the Knocker Jotter project,” says Susan.

“It was a good way for me to slowly start getting involved in work again. My daughter Charlie, who is a stage manager for the Legends show in Blackpool, helped to organise three days of photoshoots.

“Gavin, my husband, is a graphic artist and he offered to do the design and layout of the book.

“Having the photos done felt natural and right. I think it’s a beautiful picture of me.

“It was an amazing few days. It was so positive. Everybody gained from it. Some people were scared at first but they all felt better for the experience.

“We’re the new normal!”

Susan wants to give something back to CancerCare so she has created a beautiful shawl pattern in four colours inspired by The Scarletts in the Knocker Jotter.

“I had not done a creative project when I was ill so this gave me the opportunity. I have created four colour-ways. The wool is from the ‘Lonk’ – the only truly indigenous Lancashire sheep – it has been here since the 13th Century. The wool is produced from our own sheep and from another farm in the Lune Valley.

“I am selling the shawl pattern and wool as a kit in a lovely hand-made bag accompanied by a copy of the Knocker Jotter. £15 from each kit sold is then being donated to CancerCare. I've already sold kits all over the world and I hope this will help to raise awareness of issues surrounding breast cancer.”

Before moving to Halton Susan and Gavin lived and worked in Southport. One of the main factors in their decision to move was that Gavin spent much of his childhood in Grange-over-Sands.

Susan has plans to develop parts of the farm into an attraction for visitors: “It’s about making it a destination,” she explains.

“We’re planning to open a little shop on the farm. It will show the provenance of the wool and the connection to the land. We’ll sell our books, yarns, knitting patterns, our own produce and some knitted items. We will also be running craft classes and exhibitions.

“When I got ill last July a lot of things had to be put on hold but now we’re back in the swing of it again.

“We write and publish all our own books and patterns and commission our 100% British breed wools from UK mills. Through our online website, we sell our patterns, yarns and books across the world. We sell a lot to America, Europe and the Scandinavian countries. Knitting is huge in the States.

“Before I became ill, the business was run by just me and Gavin. We didn’t have any employees. Once I started coming out the other side again, we took the decision that we could no longer do everything ourselves. To expand we needed to take people on.

“We have four ladies who work part time and two of them have come through the Phoenix Group from CancerCare. They help with all sorts of admin tasks and also the winding of yarns, packing, advertising and social media.”

Susan is particularly excited about her most recent book – The Vintage Shetland Project – which she was working on when she became ill. It features gorgeous knitting patterns, photographs and stories about the vintage knitwear collection from the Shetland Museum.

Susan was invited to study the knitwear by the Museum's curator and has recreated 27 knitted items from the collection.

Susan’s 400-page treasury of Shetland knitting patterns is packed with beautiful photographs, taken by Susan, and photographed on the island of Vaila off the Shetland mainland. The patterns in the book are accompanied by essays about the original garments, their makers, their wearers and the place in fashion history.

Frustratingly Susan found she had to stop work on the book until she recently felt strong enough to continue.

Susan adds: “By completing the Vintage Shetland Project I feel that I am finally putting my illness to bed.”

For more information on Susan’s work go to www.susancrawfordvintage.com

You can purchase Susan's fundraising shawl kit including a copy of the Knocker Jotter at

http://susancrawfordvintage.com/product/fubc-shawl-kit/

You can follow Susan's photographic journey on instagram.com/susancrawfordvintage

The Knocker Jotter is available from CancerCare’s online shop at www.cancercare.org.uk

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Editor’s Notes

For further information please contact Ingrid Kent, Marketing and Communications Officer, CancerCare, Slynedales, Slyne Road, Lancaster, LA2 6ST

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tel: 01524 381 820

Twitter: @CancerCareLocal

Facebook: @CancerCareCharity