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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If planning a holiday is a clear sign of recovery…

The point at which you can look forward to and plan a holiday after you’ve finished cancer treatment is regarded as a clear sign of recovery. I must be doing OK as I am in fact planning – and very much looking forward to – not one but several trips.

The reason planning ahead is seen as such a positive step is that for all the months you’ve been undergoing treatment, your time horizon has been limited to the next treatment or appointment. It really is very difficult to see further than that. In fact sometimes – immediately after surgery, for instance – you’re taking things a day, never mind weeks, at a time. I need to refer here to a really thoughtful essay entitled After the Treatment Finishes – Then What? by Peter Harvey, a now retired UK consultant clinical psychologist. For people who’ve finished treatment, he says, planning too far ahead brings its own worries and fears and to switch suddenly to planning for events months in the future is a step too far. That was indeed the case with me for a while but I seem to have “moved on” on that front – at least enough to plan some holidays.

So Andy and I are off to Madrid Madrid-26512soon for a few days, to spend some time with some really good friends of 30 – yes, 30! – years, whom we met when we lived there in the 1980s. Then we’re off to Croatia with the boys for two weeks at the end of July.

I’ve also booked flights for that annual long weekend/short week of skiing that I go on with friends every January (Stopping the downward spiral). Flights are very reasonable when you book them ten months in advance (!), but this trip was hard to book. I guess that’s partly because I was still in that “scared to plan” period when the flights became available a month ago. Also, it was on my mind that I had to cancel this year’s trip because I was in the middle of treatment (I love Glasgow, but it’s not Geneva).  And next January really is a long way off. Planning for something next month or even in the summer is very different from planning for something next year. Not only that, by the time that trip comes round I’ll have had my first mammogram since my diagnosis. That’s due in December, a year after my surgery. Anyway, the trip’s booked, as are the other two. There will be uncertainty and worry along the way but for the moment it seems I’m firmly on that road to recovery.