If cancer’s a gift, you can have it right back

Precisely one year ago today, I had my final radiotherapy session, thus ending the hospital-based part of my treatment for breast cancer. I couldn’t let the occasion pass without writing something. Here goes.

Each to their own, but I want to say for the record that it’s beyond me how anyone can view cancer as a gift.

Everything changes when you get a cancer diagnosis. “Whatever your prognosis, whatever your hopes, whatever your personality, the second that you know that you have cancer your life changes irrevocably,” says Peter Harvey, a now retired consultant clinical psychologist whose essay on life after cancer treatment is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject.

Yes, good things happened to me as a result of having had cancer. I met some great people, made new friends. A huge amount of love, affection and support came my way. I learned a lot. I wrote. And as you’ll know if you follow my blog, I’m enjoying the benefits of the positive lifestyle changes I made as a result of my diagnosis.

I accept that I’ve experienced to some extent what’s called post-traumatic growth, ie positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. But that’s not the point. I’d really far rather not have experienced the trauma in the first place.

You do come out the other end of your cancer treatment with a certain freedom you didn’t have before. Lots of things that I would have worried about before now just don’t bother me. On other levels, though, despite trying hard not to, I still sweat the small stuff. I still get annoyed at things I know are really not worth getting annoyed over. I’m very aware now that you do only live once but, trust me, I really haven’t had a big spiritual awakening like some people who’ve had cancer (I still can’t bring myself to use the term “survivor”) claim to have had.

A friend asked me a while ago if I thought cancer had changed me. In fact she may have said damaged rather than changed. I pondered the question and said I thought it had made me sadder. I’ve thought about it a lot since and I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

I’m aware the bottom line is that I’m alive. I’m hugely grateful to the doctors who treated me and to all the other people who had a part in my care. I’m hugely grateful to the family and friends who supported me during treatment and beyond. But that doesn’t mean I’m grateful I had a disease whose treatment is, frankly, brutal and leaves you at risk of serious side-effects for the rest of your life. I’m not grateful I now have to take anti-oestrogen tablets every day for ten years or more that increase your risk of developing osteoporosis and womb cancer. And finally, I’m not grateful I had a disease that can hide undetected in your body for years and come back at any point and ultimately destroy you.

One year on from finishing what’s called “active” treatment (“…3, 2, 1 and relax. Congratulations!”), I’m well into what Peter Harvey calls “the long, slow process of putting [your cancer] in the right box in your life – not forgetting about it, not denying its importance or power, not pretending it didn’t happen”, but incorporating it “into your own life pattern and experience in such a way as to not interfere and interrupt any more than it has to”.bad pressie

The impact cancer has on you as an individual is just one part of it, though. A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect you. It has a massive impact on those around you. Wouldn’t saying it was a gift be insulting to them?

Everyone has their own way of coping. If some people do that by viewing having had cancer as a gift, fine. As for me, I’m pretty sure I’ll never feel that way. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to feel that way. At most I’ll concede that if cancer is a gift, it’s one where you know the second you open it that you’ll be taking it back pdq to exchange it for something you actually like and are happy to take possession of.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I’m cycling 100 miles for Breast Cancer Now

I’ve done it. I’ve signed up to cycle 100 miles on July 30th in aid of the UK breast cancer research charity, Breast Cancer Now.

I’d applied for a place on the “Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100” via the public ballot. I have a good few friends who’ve done this ride in the past and I really fancied giving it a go. It’s been described as “cycling’s version of the London Marathon”. I was adamant, though, that I’d only do it if I got a place in the ballot. I found out earlier this month I didn’t get one.

Therelogo were two reasons I didn’t want to do the ride for charity. First, I’m less than a year out of treatment for breast cancer – my one-year anniversary of finishing my hospital-based treatments is on February 26th (“…3, 2, 1 and relax. Congratulations!”) – and I wouldn’t want people to sponsor me because they felt sorry for me or because they somehow felt obliged to. Second, I felt it was too soon emotionally. I’ve been doing pretty well at “moving on”. The fact that this is my first blog post in two months is evidence of that. The fear that my cancer will come back one day and ultimately finish me off still lurks there in the background, but I’m managing things well at the moment and I’m in a good place on that front. There are hundreds of worthy causes out there but I knew that if I did the ride for charity, I’d have to do it for an organisation that focused on breast cancer research. That, I felt, would plunge me right back into a world that I’m working hard to move on from.

But then the other night I was flicking through the magazine the ride organisers send out with the letter telling you that you haven’t secured a place in the ballot. The magazine contains page after page of ads from charities looking for people to ride for them and raise lots of sponsorship money. I came across an ad for Breast Cancer Now and, as I read it, I realised this isn’t just about me. It’s about the nearly 11,500 women and the several dozen men who die from terminal or secondary breast cancer in the UK every year and their families and friends. It’s about the women with secondary breast cancer from around the world that I’ve met on social media who are trying to change things so they get better treatments and care and who are advocating for more research to be done so that sometime in the not too distant future, secondary breast cancer will no longer be the killer disease it is today. And it’s about the scientists who are working to understand how and why breast cancer spreads, how it can be treated and what needs to be done in order to stop it becoming resistant to treatments.

Secondary breast cancer is when the cancer that began in the breast spreads to other areas of the body and forms a tumour or tumours there. It can develop years after you were successfully treated for primary breast cancer and it happens in an estimated 30% of cases. The vast majority of deaths from breast cancer in the UK are as a result of secondary breast cancer. Some people live with it for many years, but they’re a minority. Statistics are hard to come by but it seems that as many people die within two to three years of being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer as live beyond that.

Given the stage my cancer was at when I was diagnosed, I’m at high risk of developing secondary breast cancer (Recurrence 2: So what are my chances?). At the back of my mind as I was reading through the magazine and mulling things over was something somebody said some time or another, that if you really want to do something, do it today, because tomorrow you might wake up and find you can’t. So rather than wait and apply again next year for a ballot place, I went ahead and this very morning signed up to ride for Breast Cancer Now. I’ve paid my non-refundable forty quid registration fee and I’ve undertaken to raise a minimum of £650 in sponsorship money.

Breast Cancer Now is focusing on four areas: prevention, early detection and diagnosis, treatments and secondary breast cancer. It believes that by 2030, more than 50% of those diagnosed with secondary breast cancer will survive beyond five years. Its overall aim is that by 2050 no-one will die of breast cancer. That seems to me to be a worthwhile goal.

Cycling 100 miles in a day over the route in question won’t be easy. I’m nervous already. I love cycling. I love my bike. It really helped me during treatment (Bike 8 – Car 7. Victory is mine.). However, I’ve hardly been out on it since September last year, when I did a two-day bike ride with a friend to make up for my having had to cancel a long-distance bike ride to Brussels the previous September as by then I’d started chemotherapy (Laying to rest the ghosts of mammograms past). That same friend has a guaranteed place on the Prudential Ride this year, so hopefully we’ll do it together.

I’ve done one mass bike ride before and that was about 60 miles and about thirty years ago. I’m fit; I play lots of tennis and I run 5 or 10k two or three times a week but that’s not the same as long-distance cycling. I’m hopeless at hills (running and cycling) and there are, over the course, “leg-testing climbs”. I’d better start training soon.

Wish me luck. And if you’d like to sponsor me – for whatever reason! – feel free to do so at justgiving.com/maureen-kenny.