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.






Before Christ? British Columbia? No, BC stands for breast cancer.

Up until a few weeks ago, in my world BC stood for either those years before Jesus Christ was born or that beautiful province in western Canada, British Columbia.

Now it also stands for breast cancer.

I’d signed up to do a four-day, 270-mile bike ride from London to Brussels with work colleagues in September. I needed a fitness certificate from my GP and so made an appointment, for the morning of Monday 13 July. But at some point between making the appointment and actually going, something clicked in my head and I decided I’d ask him instead to check my right breast.

Things happened quickly. I was referred to a consultant breast surgeon and later that same day I had a mammogram, an ultrasound of the breast and armpit, a fine needle aspiration and a core biopsy. Before I knew it, the consultant was using words like “concerning”, “worrying” and “suspicious” and telling me that we were “at the start of a journey”. He said it in the nicest possible way but you’d have to have been pretty dumb not to work out what he was telling me. For good measure, he added, “the worst-case scenario is breast cancer”. He knew, and I knew, and a short while later, my husband knew too. We decided not to say anything to our two boys until we had more information.

I walked out of the hospital feeling I was involved in some out-of-life experience. I got into the car and turned on the radio… to hear Shania Twain busting out Man! I Feel Like a Woman. I could have cried, but I laughed and joined in. (I still need to work out whether that song is a feminist anthem or just the opposite. With lyrics like “The best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun”, I suspect it’s the latter but that’s a debate for another time!)

A couple of days later, breast cancer was indeed officially confirmed. Subsequent tests – including a bone scan, a full-body CT scan and hormone receptor tests – showed it was primary breast cancer, in that it hasn’t spread beyond the right breast and the right axillary lymph nodes. This is GREAT NEWS. Treatment will be pretty brutal, but I do consider myself lucky. I almost danced out of the clinic after the consultant said things were as “good as they could possibly be” under the circumstances and confirmed they’d be treating me/the cancer “with curative intent”. That was a “horrible clinical phrase”, he said, but I told him that to me it sounded just lovely. I swear the headache I’d had for two days disappeared as he said it.

I’ve racked my brains so many times since my diagnosis trying to work out whether I should have gone to see my GP earlier, and if so when. I can’t honestly answer the question. The fact I’d had a clear mammogram last October certainly didn’t help. I just know I’m glad I signed up for that bike ride.