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.






Just putting this out there

I recently came across the results of a survey about how women feel in the aftermath of their breast cancer treatment. Of those that responded:

  • 48% reported feeling low or depressed
  • 60% said they needed support to manage worries about recurrence
  • 39% felt isolated by the ongoing side effects of treatment
  • 61% felt those around them expect them to move on before they were ready.

I don’t know how scientific the survey was but, based on my own experience and the experiences of many of the women I’ve spoken to or come across, I’m surprised some of the figures aren’t higher.

Just putting this out there on this lovely sunny Spring morning.

How did I “get” breast cancer?

I’m sure everyone who’s told they have breast cancer wonders how they “got” it. I’m no exception.

The strongest risk factor – other than being female – is increasing age. Not much I can do about that. Did I drink too much over the years? Probably, but it was fun, and didn’t we/don’t we all? Did I smoke? Yes, but that really was a million years ago. I think I’d stopped by the time I was 24. Being overweight, especially after the menopause? Definitely put on a few kilos these past few years.

mars barsCould I have eaten more healthily? Come on, I grew up in Glasgow* – and, anyway, it’s not clear how much diet is a factor in breast cancer. Indeed until recently, the same went for smoking.

In my favour, I’ve always been physically active and played loads of sport. But is that really all I’ve got on the positive side of the balance sheet?

Well, no. Exposure to oestrogen and progesterone can also affect your breast cancer risk. Again in my favour, I’ve never taken HRT and I breastfed both children for long enough for it to matter (any time over a year in total apparently makes a difference). The fact I had children at all helps too, but against me is the fact that I was over 30 when I had them. Also not great is the fact I took the pill for years. However, the increased risk with the pill, as with HRT, reduces when you stop taking it. Breast cancer can be genetic, of course, but even having two aunts and one cousin who’ve had it doesn’t put me in the high-risk category on that front.

More research is needed, but some studies have suggested a link between breast cancer and exposure to certain everyday chemicalsstress-management1If that proves to be the case, then we’re all doomed.

Despite all the scare stories, no link has been found between stress and breast (or indeed bowel, lung or prostate) cancer. A lot of people I know will be relieved to hear that.

Given all of the above, it seems to me it’s really not surprising so many of us do get breast cancer.

But while I’ve wondered how I got it, I’ve never really seriously wondered why I got it or collapsed in a heap complaining that life’s not fair. why-me-300x187That said, I am right-handed and I love playing tennis and the cancer is in the right breast and the right axillary lymph nodes. Lots of women continue to have problems in terms of shoulder, arm and hand strength and mobility long after they’ve had the same type of surgery that is currently planned for me. There’s also a life-long risk of developing lymphoedema. I can’t help but wish the “problem” were on the left side.

*Deep-fried Mars Bars – as seen in the first photo – are apparently a Glasgow delicacy. Just for the record, I have never seen one, never mind eaten one. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of them until I was in my early 30s and living in New York when a colleague thrust a front-page New York Times article under my nose in which they featured and demanded I tell him how they tasted!