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.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The best laid schemes… and you really are “a lang time deid”

Spoiler alert: The following post has melancholy overload.

Being Scottish, I’m probably one of the few people alive who knows the ending to the saying by the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns that starts “The best laid schemes of mice and men”.

It’s “gang aft agley”, which means basically “often go tits up”. Now perhaps that’s too loose a translation – especially in the context of this blog – but you get the gist.

That’s exactly how I felt when I awoke this morning feeling like death warmed up. In truth, I’d spent half the night awake, sweating, sneezing, coughing and spluttering and when daylight finally came I realised I’d have to cancel all the lovely plans I’d made for the day. It was December 19th, a year to the day after my massive breast cancer operation (right-side mastectomy, lymph node clearance and immediate reconstruction – Saturday’s op – a daunting prospect but a key step on the road to wellness).

Maybe I’m destined to spend every Dec 19th in bed, I thought.

It’s been an interesting few weeks. Among other things, I’d had the first of the annual mammograms and ultrasounds that I’m to have for the next five years (What does follow-up look like?). These were clear. I was determined to make this anniversary a celebration.

So what had I lined up for today?

First of all, I’d booked an early session of physiotherapy so as to get the day off to a great start. There’s still some stiffness in the underarm area and the physio sessions – that I’m still having monthly – really make a massive difference. That was to be followed by a walk on Wimbledon Common with the woman I met during treatment who’s now a great friend. Then I’d arranged a tennis match in the afternoon, after which I had plans to cook a nice family meal for husband Andy and our two boys Jamie and Finlay.

I cancelled the physio, the walk and the tennis before doping myself up with paracetamol and ibuprofen and going back to sleep. I woke up a few hours later, realised I felt considerably better, and thought I’m damned if I’m going to spend today of all days in bed feeling sorry for myself.

20151219_234219
Photo 1: Post-op, December 19th 2015

So I got up, showered and headed off to make the most of the rest of the day. It was a strange day and I have to admit I spent a lot of it just reflecting on the 18 months that had passed since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015. It being the day it was, I tried to focus on how far I’d come in the year since my operation. Pretty damn far, I can tell you. From Photo 1 and this Post-op progress report No 1: Biting off more than I can chew to Photo 2 and this Post-op progress report No 6: If this is as good as it gets, I’ll take it.

mo-parkrun-edit-2
Photo 2: Now, every possible Saturday morning

Even more specifically, I knew it was really important that I made myself focus on the fact that the pain I’ve had in my hips on and off for a couple of months is down to nothing more serious than early arthritis in my lower back (it’s all relative, folks). I thought I’d convinced myself that it couldn’t possibly be that the cancer had spread to my bones. However, when I get confirmation following a bone scan that indeed it hadn’t – and that it’s “only” early arthritis and totally unrelated to the fact I’ve had cancer or to any ongoing treatment – the first thing I do when I get back home is pay the deposit on the accommodation for the skiing holiday I’m going on with friends at the end of January. It’s really only then that I realise I’d been holding off from doing that. That fear of recurrence clearly has a very strong hold. Then I wonder whether there will ever be a time I book a holiday without wondering whether I’ll still be healthy by the time the holiday comes. Then I realise it’s ok to feel like that and that I needn’t beat myself up about it.

Driving back home from the shops today – feeling pretty ropey again but also rather smug for having completed successfully various pre-Christmas tasks I’d expected to be doing later in the week – I happened to catch the classic song Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think on the radio.

As I listened, I reflected on how this song was the much more life-affirming version of the fatalistic Glasgow phrase “You’re a lang time deid”*. I realised that while I may not have made a bucket list as such, that’s precisely the reason I’m trying to run faster every time I do my local 5k Parkrun on Tooting Common on Saturday mornings; that’s the reason I’m working three days a week – which I love – instead of the four I did before my diagnosis; that’s the reason we spent twice as much on our summer holiday as we usually do; and that’s the reason I’m planning on taking my 80-year-old mum off to somewhere sunny in January for a few days. At the other end of the scale, that’s the reason I now eat asparagus whenever I bloody well feel like it – even if it’s been flown in or shipped from Peru – instead of limiting myself to the four short weeks this most wonderful vegetable is in season here in Britain! I could go on, and on, and on.

Anyway, it turns out it more or less rained all afternoon today so the tennis match I’d been due to play would have been cancelled anyway. Also, it’s the holidays and it’s nearly Christmas and the last place our 16- and 18-year-old boys are going to be spending their evenings is round the dinner table with their mum and dad, so the family meal was out too.

You know what? The big lesson in all of this is that it really is later than you think and you really are a long time dead. In the end, it was a good day.

*I googled this and it turns out it is in fact the second half of an old Scottish saying: “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead”. Not a bad sentiment at all… and much more positive than it first appeared.