Category: Reflective

Thanks for the mammaries

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Two years have passed since my first and last mammogram, where I found out that left to their devices, it was extremely likely my breasts were going to kill me. I’ve discovered anniversaries are a time for reflection, assessment and, in my case, getting into a right royal strop.

This came about because I was pondering how, if at all, to mark the occasion. Briony my (alternative-but-as-efficacious-as-any-traditional) medicine woman counselled that I should make an effort to acknowledge the date. This got me thinking how it was a shame any such celebration would be led by me, and wouldn’t it be nice if someone were to remember to reach out at a time of year which is so full of significance for me.

Ted is not an unkind person, but commemorations are not his strong point. So I had come to not expect it of him but what about my friends and family? None of them are exactly bathed in glory! No-one else cares. Poor fucking me. To my shame, before I knew it I’d worked myself into a Catherine wheel of resentment, and no-one was safe from my hot sparks of self pity.

Once I’d burnt out from being furious, I tried to work out ‘what the fuck brought that on?’ and as is my wont came up with a theory of sorts.

When I was going through the shit properly, it was the isolation that slayed me. I used to rail against the fact that not only was I awake at 2am contemplating my future, and the possibility of those I love living a life without me in it, I was also the only person doing that. Of course I was loved, supported and cared for, but I was alone. Anyone who has given birth knows what that’s like. And in fairness, having attended a birth, I also know what it’s like to want to help, and not be able to, plus I know about being scared to get a cup of tea in case I miss something, but really wanting that tea anyway.

Still my little pity party was a knock off of the original resentment towards the inevitable aloneness. Once I worked through that odd episode I turned my attention to marking the occasion and settled on a dawn walk alone to the Byron lighthouse, lunch with my best buddy, and dinner out with Ted where we could drink champagne to celebrate.

And then I realised, the cancerversary had actually come and gone. My massive ego was totally happy to chastise loved ones for forgetting, while not even remembering myself. Buddha was right, this was so perfect I tilted my head to the sky and laughed.

Still I will carry out my plans, but on 12 August (operation day) instead of diagnosis day, because there are so many reasons to celebrate. I am better now. I have sifted through the detritus and found the jewels. “What hurts you blesses you.” said Rumi “Darkness is your candle.” The experience turned on the lights to my spirit and I’ve enjoyed a rich (yet non-religious) appreciation of the sacrosanct ever since. I’ve woken up, and have learned to receive, to move, to forgive and perhaps most critically to not give a single bead of sweat over to the small stuff. Clearly I still lapse into martyr mode, slovenliness and, as this post testifies, dis-grace, but the not giving a fuck thing? That I have nailed, my friends.

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Saturday morning post-walk breakfast, one of my week’s highlights.

People who followed this blog have asked me why the writing stopped dead in its tracks. It’s because writing about cancer helped me through it, but once the treatment had finished, I needed to distance myself from it all. Everyone who encounters tragedy is in danger of letting it define them, and to continue writing here could have seen me fall foul of that.

But you know what they say about babies and bathwater, and one of the many treasures of cancer and this blog was it caused me to take the dust sheet off a craft I’d forgotten how much I loved AND was good at. The words helped me so and I’m finally ready to use them again in my new blog, Magic in Motion. In it I will explore how moving physically has transformed my identity from a hill avoider to a seeker of stairs.

So thanks for everything, littlec.org, but it’s time to move on up.

I’m better now.

Good grief

To recover, I’m learning, you need to tread a line between being defined by trauma, and ignoring it entirely. I incline towards the latter, preferring to keep on keeping on. At a consultation with an alternate medic, my attention was yanked back to the centre, when in a Good Will Hunting style scene, she held my gaze and said “What happened to you was dreadful.” And I responded blithely “Yes, it was rather”. And then she said “It really was, Sam” and three more probings in I was a puddle on the floor. Later, though, I felt lighter, better and more energetic than I had in an age.

I think that even when you end up at a point where you can say “Yes, this happened, but here I am.” you can still end up at the bottom of the slough of despond, where I’ve resided a couple of times of late. And in fairness I’ve been very much not there a majority of the time, but who wants to read a blog about rainbows and lollipops? Quite.

I’ve thought a lot about whether to share one particular grief as I’m concerned I’ll upset some of you but hey, this isn’t a pain-free situation so here goes.

On my recent trip to Europe (that scores a 9/10 overall btw) a surprising number of people didn’t bring it up for ages, if at all. I had expected to have covered it off in initial conversations and was confounded, confused and upset when it wasn’t. Others, meantime, had an opening gambit along the lines of “What a shit year you’ve had!” It wasn’t even the people far removed who stayed silent. Meanwhile one near stranger, a distant Italian relative of JP’s, acknowledged me by way of a squeeze of the arm and a certain look. I was so grateful for this. It wasn’t as if I wanted to deliver an oratory each time I saw someone for the first time in years, but some sort of recognition of what I’ve been through would have been nice and in many cases I didn’t get it.

Those of you who are parents, imagine seeing a relative for the first time since becoming a parent and not being asked ‘how are you finding it?’ or ‘how’s the baby doing?’ Closest analogy? That.

Now I know this wasn’t done in spite or with intention to hurt. I know you can rationalise not talking about it in a way that fits the English cultural preference to maintain a stiff upper lip. I know it is not an easy conversation and I know, because many did eventually pipe up, that it takes a while to scope out the situation and gather the courage to breech it. But while it didn’t get mentioned, I felt this very real fact of my life was ignored. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. I wish wish wish it did, and that I had the luxury of pretending nothing had happened.

But the lesson overall has been that expectations can bite you on the arse. Perhaps I’ll get that into my head once and for all, eh?

Another slump came just recently. I have a series of index cards with the date on the corner and each day I’ll write a couple of sentences about the day. Here are a couple of examples:

14 Dec
2012: Theo is all smiles! He is gurgling too and does the odd laugh. E and I went to Saya’s birthday party which was low key and lovely.

And

26 April
2013: Buggy chassis broke on way back from GP. Carried Theo home and he spewed down my back. At home, girls were massively whiney. “Living the dream”.

I’ve completed this small, daily action every day for 18 months and while I may skip a day here or there, I’m disciplined about it.

17 July 2013 says “Routine mammo – my first – turned scary with instant biopsy. In shock for day.”

And then the cards go blank for the next ten days.

Seeing those blank cards, I was so clearly reminded of the horror of that time. Boarding the medical train. Feeling the dignity of good health seep away. Talking with strangers, feeling dehumanised. Tests, needles, decisions, wondering what the fuck was going on. All against the backdrop of the possibility of leaving the kids motherless – a pain that usually dares not speak its name.

This is Major Tom to ground control… I’m stepping through the door.

Nothing can match the intensity of that initial plummet into ill health, the total loss of innocence which is so transformative you become a stranger in your own land, because how can the people you love know? They can fear for you, but they’re not you.

And the one person who might have been able to help perished two decades ago and wow, that was shit wasn’t it? How about another poke around in that ol’ wound? Am I going to be another chapter, one with a fatal ending? Are the girls?

There were hours within the days at the end of July where I focused on one particular worry, and other hours where I felt like I’d been hit by a nail bomb of worries, all simultaneously causing pain and shouting for my attention.

These worries, are for the most part, a distant memory. Many have been eliminated by the drastic surgery I was able to opt for. Things are different now, as they are for everyone a year on.

A card from last week: Took girls to ballet. At a quiet point, E reported “Mum, the greenie, it’s come out look!” At another A said “But what are they trying to say?!” Not likely to be culture vultures it seems. Met the boys after for ice cream. Theo ate all mine. It’s official, we are now a five ice cream family.

It’s a sin

Pride

Oh my. This has taken quite a beating. There’s the blindingly obvious loss of femininity that underpins this whole experience. Of course there is. I’ve not explored that topic in depth in this blog as it feels too lazy, although clearly I reserve the right to clutch at the low hanging fruit at a future date. But the loss of fitness? That is something I’ve harped on about as it really hurt me in every which way. It took a great big pair of bollocks to go back to yoga post operatively not once, but twice, and to have to return to the beginner’s class, too, when I had been going to the advanced ones was its own form of humiliation. But ironically, I was incredibly proud of myself for fronting up to those classes, especially when the gremlins were saying “Why bother?” I knew it’d be hard and confronting, but still went anyway. There’s pride right there.

Envy

I’ve noticed people feel awkward sharing their woes with me and if they do it’s often prefaced by ‘it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through’ but I can honestly say I’ve very rarely wanted to respond with a ‘you’re right, that is nothing, I wish that’s all I had to worry about.’ I don’t envy other’s health, rather I am nostalgic for mine. I’ve been envious of all the natural cleavages I’ve seen this summer but again, don’t begrudge others. I just hope they appreciate them.

Lust

In my experience, the human libido is a remarkably robust thing. And because I know my brothers and in laws are reading, I’m going to leave that there.

Wrath

Yeah, been there done that, I was mad as a cut snake for a long time. Once I’d adjusted to my reality, this dissipated. I’ve come to believe anger is fuelled by resistance to reality. Perhaps all those years of mum saying “Life’s not fair.” have helped as has the fact I am a pragmatist and optimist. I feel flashes of anger now but they can be seen off by a good sleep and/or a good laugh. Life’s not fair. But it’s still good.

Sloth

I was suffering with inertia before my diagnosis, however cancer saw that on its merry way. I’ve gone a bit manic, if anything. There isn’t a moment to lose! Which means I’ve become quite good at saying no, even when it’s uncomfortable. Hello boundaries! Where have you been all my life?

Greed & gluttony

I thought I was a relatively healthy person before my diagnosis, and in the wake of it I’ve found it confronting to consider where lifestyle changes ought to be made. Should I become a vegan? Eat only organic food? Give up alcohol and caffeine? I don’t want to do any of these things. Enter intermittent fasting, which is supposed to have long term health benefits. Here’s what Dr. Google says:

Between 2008 and 2013 there have been a number of research studies suggesting fasting can have significant beneficial effects with people trying to beat cancer, halting cancer progression, improving survival, reducing the side-effects of drugs and radiotherapy and even causing tumours to disappear.

Those are quite some claims, huh? So for the last two months, one day a week I eat 500 calories of protein-rich food, and then for the rest of the week I return to my normal diet. It’s not a highlight of the week, but it’s entirely doable, and ticks the Lifestyle change box. Ted does it with me, bless his heart, although he spends the day moping around like a teenager. Here are some other facts about fasting:

Average number of arguments per week: 3 Percentage of arguments that occur on fast day: 250% Kilograms lost collectively: 5

How long this will go on for? Who knows, although publicly declaring you’ve lost weight is a big call. You know when they say pride comes, right?

Let them eat cake

Talking so openly (brazenly?) about cancer has, I very much hope, made it a bit easier for others with it to feel understood and those without it to understand what it’s like. So I’m going to talk a bit about the way my relationships and interactions have changed in the last six months.

As you can imagine, I find it hard when I’m treated very differently because of my illness. I am still me and want to be recognised  as such although often I feel as if I’m observed exclusively through the prism of cancer. While it’s a part of my reality, I do not want to marinade in there 24/7, thanks. I remain interested in other topics, even if they’re trivial, hell, especially if they’re trivial. So rather than discussing my treatment, how I’m feeling and all that, let’s talk about the Ashes, the weather, The Bachelor or the kids. Let’s, please.

I do understand that no-one wants to let you down and that there is a lot of fear about speaking out of turn. A lot. Which is not surprising, as it’s an inherently difficult situation. But while I don’t want to bang on about it, an acknowledgement of my reality is something I always appreciate. My favourite response to my news was from my friend Hels who was on holiday when it all kicked off. She called and said “Bloody hell woman! I turn my back and what happens? Couldn’t you make what goes on when I’m gone a bit less dramatic?” I could hear she was a bit nervous still, but I was so grateful to be treated ‘normally’ when life was about as abnormal as could be. Making light of it was, for me, infinitely preferable to saying nothing. If you know what’s going on, and I know you know and you know I know you know please do us both a favour and mention the elephant in the room. “I don’t know what to say” is a totally acceptable start. I remember mum finding the deniars ultra hurtful, especially those she thought were good friends.

At the other end of the spectrum, news like this can make others incredibly chatty. I’ve been on the receiving end of more opinions and speculation than ever before, apart from perhaps when I was pregnant. Have you tried intravenous Vitamin C/the alkaline diet/green juice? Again, I understand why – it’s a big deal and a major talking point but in the early days, particularly, these kinds of conversations would shake me up some. Afterwards I’d imagine the other person going about their day, deciding what’s for dinner perhaps, while the decisions I was stuck with were not so trivial (nor did the ‘what’s for dinner’ style decisions abate any, I might add). At the time, I didn’t want to be ‘fixed’ or encouraged but this seemed to be the nature of talk that came my way. I wanted to be allowed to be sad, angry and in shock. I heard lots of ‘I’m sure you’ll be ok’ and ‘be strong’ but it’s hard to listen to pseudo-positivity without feeling as if you’re being misunderstood. Mind you, I appreciated this far more than comments like ‘isn’t radiotherapy carcinogenic?’ or ‘you look terrible but it isn’t surprising.’

I used to love conversations and being the centre of attention, then I lost my appetite for all that. I found myself in many a conversational dead end because talking, really, can only take you so far. Also it’s hard to hear when your ears are ringing from the reverberating shock. I think in days gone by when communities were closer, interaction was less verbal and more physical. Perhaps your friend would let themselves in to your home and make a cup of tea and simply sit beside you. (Alan Bennett used to do this with Alec Guinness, after Guinness was widowed). Near silence, respect and presence really fit the bill in truly solemn times but our current ‘get well soon’ culture denies that some times are just hard on a (sometimes extremely) protracted basis and there’s an impatience for things to return to normal (i.e. a non-threatening reality). An impatience I shared at times.

I came across this graph which illustrates the cancer patient’s emotional journey and it is a fairly accurate reflection of how I’ve felt, with the red ‘x’ indicating roughly where I reckon I am now.

 Google Chrome

Nowadays I am able to reflect with a full heart on how incredibly lucky I’ve been to be on the receiving end of numerous gestures which speak volumes. Helen’s husband Joe made me a mix CD to listen to en route to radiotherapy treatment. Looking at the track list, I lost it when I saw Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up on there. One friend set up a virtual bedside vigil on the night of my operation and played along via Facebook chat while I was ripped to my non-existent tits on opiates. Back home, friends and neighbours including Marissa, Amy and Michelle dropped around meals. This was always deeply appreciated because it was a true solution to the aforementioned small problems that coexist with the big.

Also, food is love.

Meredith baked me a cake a week throughout my six weeks of treatment. Ginger fluff cake one week, lemon and rosemary the next, followed by Armenian nut cake, coffee & walnut and chocolate & Earl Grey. She’d leave it at the front door and text me with its name and ingredients. This was genuinely healing, not to mention practically useful as it’d end up in the kids’ lunchboxes. This says in a very clear but not obtrusive way ‘I love you and am thinking of you.’ Sue sent me a quote a day – I came to expect and appreciate the cakes and the quotes… which were little pin pricks of light and stability amongst the dark days.

I also liked it when friends kind of forced themselves on me. So instead of ‘let me know if there’s anything you need’ they’d say ‘We’re going to the beach. Would your girls like to join us?’ I think I did reject this at first – this whole receiving thing has been a massive learning curve for me – but they were gently persistent and I got the message that they were determined to offer practical help.

In fact of all 2013’s lessons, perhaps the most emphatic has been how wonderful people around me are. Even when tongues are tied and faux-pas committed, the love and support I’ve received has been … well, you know. Thank you all for bearing with me and lightening the load by reading my warts and all account of this bitch of a disease. And take my hand, old toad, as we face the 2014 road. While it’s fine to hope for warmer climes it is perhaps more realistic to recognise that bang ups and hang ups may happen but because I had the little c and wrote about it, and you read what I wrote, both of us may be that bit more adept at dancing in any rain we may encounter.

Faithless

Having been in a monogamous relationship since my early 20s, and having maintained a number of close friendships for longer than that, I’m fortunate to have trust and loyalty woven into the fabric of my life. Trustworthy relationships give you confidence and optimism and a strong sense of who you are.

So when my own body let me down so spectacularly, my response to its treachery was dramatic. Given it’s only five months since I was diagnosed, I haven’t really had time to process these emotions but I’ve found myself pondering it a great deal in the post-radiotherapy shake down.

As is always the way, I suppose, I didn’t see this betrayal coming. In fact in times gone by, if I read a trashmag article like ‘Tana Ramsay’s heartbreak’ or whatever I’d think “How’re they going to come back from that? Thank God that’s not me!” then shudder before turning the page (you know that feeling, right?!)

When I look back on the early posts of this blog, it’s easy to see the naiveté and denial therein. Back then, I really struggled to reconcile the way I saw myself with the reality of my situation. In fact, let’s face it, this is an ongoing struggle for me.

But it’s little wonder the news was met with (metaphorical) fast head shaking. I hardly drank alcohol. Hadn’t smoked for ten years. Practiced yoga every day. Ate well. Loved my family, my friends, my work, my life. I was one of the healthiest people I knew. What’s a person like me doing with cancer?

People keep telling me that I need to be kind to myself. I’m not entirely sure what this means, although I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean the kind of self talk I’ve subjected myself to lately.

“SO you want to start exercising again, huh? Get the ‘yoga glow’? You could, but what’s the point? You looked after yourself before and look what happened. So have a drink! And some chips and chocolate. Fuck it all. Why bother?”

Now treatment is over, I can start exercising again. There’s nothing stopping me…except me. When the gremlin speaks up, I try and talk it down. Ah, but if I hadn’t lived healthily, maybe I’d have had a more aggressive cancer? Who’s to say my lifestyle didn’t, in fact, make my position less grave?

In the meantime the little bastard is doing a pretty good job of stopping me from starting. But you and I both know I will get over myself. I’ll be nervous as hell before going into the yoga class, but I’ll go in. I’ll wince as I open my arms, feel the tightness that may never go away as I stretch my irradiated left side. My eyes will water when I try and reach my toes. My mind will race through the meditation. That night I will sleep deeply and the next day I will wake up sore and I’ll go back and little by little I will limber up once more.

But – it’s a big but – will I ever really trust my body again?

Numbers game

My mate Mike is the smartest guy in the room. An expert on stats, he described a phenomenon whereby people identify with numbers in a way that is convenient to them. For example if you hear that 80% of people earn more than $x per year, and you earn more than $x you’re likely to think “That sounds about right.” Whereas if you learn less than $x you’re more likely to think “It’s got to be more than 20%, surely?”

Similarly on people’s wedding day, neither the bride nor groom believe theirs is going to be one of the 33% of marriages that end in Splitsville.

I make this point because I think we believe we can defy stats. I know I did. I thought I could avoid what’s turned out to be my genetic destiny through my behaviour. For the last decade, I’ve felt healthy and looked after myself. Before my diagnosis, the likelihood of developing breast cancer seemed fairly remote, in spite of mum dying from it. I understood my chances to be about 1 in 8 (versus 1 in 12 for the general population) but conveniently I identified with the seven, and never the eighth.

Until mid-2013, I’d done a pretty good job of avoiding life’s slings and arrows. About 1 in 200 mothers my age have a baby with Downs’ Syndrome – not me. A surprising number of my demographic have addictions, to alcohol or maybe prescription medication – again, not me. I’d never even stayed the night in a hospital. I perceived the avoidance of suffering as a right. It was my modus operandi, my default, and I bet I’m not the only one. I was disgusted by my diagnosis. Cancer had no business making itself at home in my body, no business at all. I felt unlucky, but stopped short of saying “Why me?” because a primary school biology lesson could explain that one.

Now I’m one of the Others, things look and feel v-e-e-e-ry different (note: not worse). While I feel brutalised by life and betrayed by my body, and my ‘you never know’-o-meter is far more sensitive, my sense of appreciation, my love for others and my appetite for risk has never been keener.

As well as introducing you to extremes on the emotional spectrum, cancer is a catalyst for more fundamental life shifts. This isn’t always welcome, although arguably things turn out they way they ‘should’ have prior to the life-changing news

If friendships are dodgy or work isn’t working, or your heart’s not at home, the diagnosis exposes this almost instantly. I was fortunate to have foundations that proved solid, but for many cancer is, I think, more stressful because it puts you in these confronting positions. I reckon this quote does a nice job of explaining the way adversity brings out the truth.

It exposes the most raw, vulnerable and honest version of us. It can be unsettling, though, to look that deep into our soul and see who we really are. But it’s also profound. In fact, I think it’s necessary, because it’s where find our real voice. So we’d better come to peace with that version of us; and learn to respect and trust it.

Even if you’ve avoided severe adversity to date, life will send a wave your way and there are three things you can do when it does:

You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave.

Every time I’ve struggled, it’s because I was running from the wave, railing and thrashing against my reality. My keenness not to suffer forms part of my suffering – textbook entitled-Westerner response, I’m guessing. I tell myself to surrender, but still have dreadful days where I get all Verucca Salt-like.

Most of the time, though, I do try and go deep.

It’s hard down here. Sometimes I worry that I’m going crackers. I think of oddities, like Eleanor’s drawings. Why aren’t I in them, darling? Because you’re always at the doctors. I think of everything I have, the amount there is to lose. It helps me keep hold of my breath, even though I’m turning blue.

In just five treatments time, I will gather a last surge of energy and push up from the seabed. And I will breathe again.

Foreigner

War is said to present a man with his life’s biggest challenge. The female equivalent is, so they say, childbirth. Both are experiences that tilt your world on its axis and afterwards, you never see things in quite the same way. I’d argue that sitting across from a medical professional who’s saying the words ‘you’ and ‘cancer’ is similarly defining.

Each of these things will put a distance between you and people who’ve not been through it. One of the most challenging elements of cancer for me is no-one knows quite what to do with you, nor do you know what to do with yourself. Interactions are either emotionally heightened or avoided. You’ve got the ultimate trump card, whether you want it or not. If I say “How are you?” and the person’s having a tough time, they don’t feel entitled to say. So they respond “Not great, but…it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through.” And there we are, in the conversational cul-de-sac until I let them off the hook with a platitude or two.

To be fair for every clunky conversation, there have been a number of amazing and soul-searching discussions and I’ve definitely received more love and hugs – both real and virtual – than I would have done without the diagnosis. Another silver lining.

And as well as distancing you from those who’ve not been there, the axis-tilting forges alliance with those who have. Before children, and cancer, the closest experience I’d had of this was during a truly dreadful year in recruitment.  “It’s like the trenches.” said my friend Chris (aka Tex) of our time working together “You don’t know if you weren’t there.” It was during the dot com crash and it’s true that in that crucible, filled as it was with tears of pressure and laughter, a remarkable team spirit arose and although I’ve got very little in common with Tex – he’s a gun-owning, card carrying Republican – I trust him entirely.

In the last week, three friends have set foot in the landscape that’s my reality, but a hitherto foreign place for them. They’ve not actually Gone There, but each has a fresh appreciation of my current world.

First up was Faye who, after our night on the town came with me to an appointment with my cosmetic surgeon. From my perspective, it was a routine check up whereby the doctor and I talked through some decisions I need to make prior to my next surgery, after which she checked my reconstruction to see how it was holding up to the radiotherapy.

Afterwards, Faye and I sat on a bench and she said in a humbled, and slightly shaky voice “Sambo, I… I get it. I mean, I don’t obviously because I’m not you but… wow. That stuff. It’s hard core. You’re amazing.” And of course, the little cup of grief I hold on to so carefully got spilled and we had a cry together. Soldiering on, I forget that grief is social.  For that culture to bloom all that’s needed is for someone I love to show concern face to face.

That afternoon, a friend whose daughter is at preschool with Eleanor texted to say she’d had a mammogram which resulted in a biopsy. She’d get the results in two days. I missed her when I phoned but saw her husband at the school the next day. We exchanged a mime:

Him: My God! How full on is this?
Me: I know, right? Right?

Then the verbal exchange which I, with the interesting experience of having the shoe wedged on the other foot, fumbled my way through. Can I take Zoe, is there anything you need, just give me a call and all that.

Then back home I found a card from Laura who shared an incredibly sweet and reassuring sentiment. She explained that thanks to a nasty exchange at the hands of her dentist:

…it totally hit me, for the first time really, despite my avid following of your blog…what it is that you have been enduring these last few months. I am so sorry it took my own feelings of helplessness to get there, but I did. It’s not to say I haven’t been paying attention, but suddenly I really thought about all the sucking up and being brave you’ve had to do and it humbled me and made me so very proud of you.

The next day my heart was full of empathy for my friend stuck in the hideous no man’s land of results-waiting. That afternoon I saw her in the supermarket and gave her a hug.

“Are you well?”

“Yes! It’s all fine. It was nothing.”

“Thank God! That’s brilliant. I’m so glad.”

And I was, genuinely, so, so glad. But back in the car, when I started to cry, I honestly don’t know how those tears might have looked under a microscope.

Tears of happiness, magnified.
Tears of happiness, magnified.
tears of sadness, magnified
Tears of sadness, magnified.

The real secret

There’s an old (about to be paraphrased) story about a woman who buys a monkey’s paw from a dusty old emporium and is told it will make her wish come true. She wishes for a million dollars and goes home to find a man with a suitcase of money… which turns out to be compensation for the fact her son has been accidentally paralysed at work.

I’ve thought about this a great deal of late. What if The Secret isn’t actually ‘ask, believe, receive’ but rather ‘ask, believe, receive…at a price.’

There are a few things in my life that wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the little c. Silver linings, blessings in disguise, call them what you will but while you wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone,  I think a tally at the end of this bastard’s banquet will reveal a net gain. 

New boobs Earlier this year, I bemoaned the unevenness of my breasts and flirted with the notion of having them cosmetically altered. I even researched what it’d cost and decided it wasn’t worth $10,000. Now, I have paid that princely sum and more to a cosmetic surgeon and am on my way to having perfectly symmetrical breast-shaped objects. True, there’s no nipple on one side and I’ve lost all sensation within them but on the plus side, I will never have to wear a bra again. All because the real ones tried to kill me.

A writing opportunity At a similar time I remember feeling extremely frustrated about wanting to write or blog about something truly meaningful. I wondered about becoming a mummy blogger. I’m sure I could have churned out a number of witty pieces about becoming a professional arse wiper, losing your identity and your shit, but the notion just didn’t excite me. Lots of head racking later, the universe whacked me around the head with a doozy of a muse. And here I am.

I’m less hefty Also at a similar time (I must have spent months whining) I was annoyed that I couldn’t squeeze into pre-baby clothes and so embarked on regular exercise, which kind of helped but only marginally and only slowly. Then those stubborn post-partum kilos flew off during the what I like to call the “waking at 2am and fearing for your life” diet. Fact: people with cancer do lose weight. Anxiety will do that to a person.

An increased appetite for risk I’ve got a severe case of the “fuck its” these days. That bit of money under the mattress, let’s invest it (once we’ve paid for the new boobs of course). Faye, you’ve been saying for ages we should chuff off to Surfer’s Paradise for a night out. Shall we do it? Let’s do it! Because, well, YOLO, right? Please trust me on this: Y really, really, really OLO.

Reasons to be cheerful The broader, low level, lingering depression I talked about in this post has all but gone now. Instead of plunging me into a ‘proper’ depression the cancer diagnosis flung the windows open and all the whiny, fusty air flew out to make way for my new reality. I was shocked, scared and anxious, but not depressed. There was shit to do! Still is.

But when it’s all over, which it will be soon, I will regard life with a renewed sense of gratitude.

I will sleep at 2am.

I will make packed lunches with a smile.*

Each and every God-given day, I will celebrate the fact that I’m here.

I am here!

*except for this morning. This morning having to do that made me batshit cranky.

20/20 vision

In the months prior to diagnosis I had a brush with depression. Some other weird stuff happened and in hindsight, it’s tempting and more than a little convenient to see that as the gathering storm.

But at the time, I couldn’t make any sense of my uneasiness with the world. With three healthy and happy kids, a loving relationship, an amazing business and job, money and means, feeling down seemed ridiculously self-indulgent. I was the picture of “the worried well.” Ennui, defined as “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction” is a word that both describes the emotion and speaks volumes of how pretentious and up my own arse I felt I was. I had no right to feel distressed.

The doctor put it down to hormone fluctuations from ending breastfeeding, tiredness from having a baby blah blah BUT she also diagnosed me with low iron. Supplements saw me ping back to life. It was brilliant. I felt so much better but things still weren’t all that. No proper reason presented itself and eventually, I chalked it down to a bog standard mid-life crisis. I was highly preoccupied by the fact 20 years had passed since starting University and that mum was 20 years older than me (59) when she died.  With 20 years passing in the blink of an eye, I found myself having serious conversations with the universe which seemed to be casting a spotlight on all my choices and asking “Is this really what you want?” I distinctly remember having a panic attack when I realised that over a decade of packed-lunch making stretched out before me. Add a dash of Oh My God I’m Going to be 40 in February to the mix and there was, it seemed, a satisfactory recipe for melancholy.

Then came Angelina Jolie’s news and I found myself riding a fresh wave of grief over my mother. At last, something proper to hang my misery on, although I can’t honestly say for certain that’s what was going on. Still, I felt a genuine and urgent need to know about the woman my mother was and so wrote long letters to her three oldest friends, asking them to share their impressions of her with me. I also had teary conversations with bemused friends asking them to swear they’d continue a relationship with my kids if anything happened to me and that once they’d grown up, they’d let them know what sort of person I was.

Heavy, right?

Slowly and surely I was circling in on the life-altering moment, but that I may already have cancer was not even on my radar. Angelina got me thinking about gene testing, not about having a mammogram. This seems incredibly naive and irresponsible to me in hindsight and nowadays if any woman I’m conversing with lets slip that they have a family history I seize them by the forearm and hiss “Get screened!” But in my past world of denial I had always assumed that if I were to be struck down with cancer, it’d happen in my 50s, like mum was and what’s more I also secretly thought I wouldn’t succumb to it, because my lifestyle is a good deal healthier than mum’s was. So when I returned to the GP to ask about gene testing I got talked through the process to discover it started with, you guessed it, a mammogram.

One evening the week before the mammo I was briefly but extremely unwell, with a headache, nausea and an inability to control my temperature which saw me shivering violently even though I was wrapped in blankets with a hot water bottle. Whenever Ted checked on me I’d growl at him to fuck off. It was frightening. After a few hours, the symptoms subsided and I fell asleep.

The next day, we had lunch at a friend’s. I thought I was fine but Hels repeatedly asked if I was okay. I described the funny turn and the mid life crisis, the heartfelt letters and the impending mammogram.

I’ve since wondered whether the episode was a warning sign. This and all the other palaver may or may not explain how come when I had the mammogram and resultant biopsy, I actually felt calm. The specialist who took the sample was not one for sugar-coating, describing how what he saw was ‘very consistent with cancer’ so by the time I saw the GP for the results a few days later, I was totally ready to hear them and would describe myself as confronted, but not surprised. 

Two weeks later, my breasts were gone.

I was not glad to get that result, but I was glad the angst and emotion I had suffered finally found a very reasonable target. Take THAT, ennui. 

How lucky I am that now, rather than staring at my navel or my crows feet or my cellulite, I will approach 40 without caution or misery but with profound, unrestrained and well-earned joy.

Freak out

Making major health decisions is a tricky business. Particularly when you are hell bent on pushing up against experts and challenging norms. The choice to have radiotherapy was perhaps the hardest of all, and as the start date looms, I’m finding I need to really work to keep my nerve. The pamphleture is not helpful here. When describing the process it states that after you are set up on the machine “The medical staff leave the bunker and survey you via camera.” The bunker? Surveillance? Hell’s bells. I’m expecting tears in my ears again.

Recently I’ve found myself party to a number of claims which, pre diagnosis, would have washed over me. Low magnesium causes cancer. Vegans don’t get cancer (*looks skyward* is that right, Steve Jobs?).  Stress causes cancer. Let me tell you why I got cancer. My mother, the person who, ya know, made me and all, had a gene that instructed her tits to kill her. And I inherited that gene. I’ve not been tested, but I know it’s true. It’s a total non-mystery. Perhaps it’s the case that genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger. Having three young kids is quite stressful. But what sort of mentalist goes around wishing their greatest source of joy didn’t exist? Exactly.

Hot on the heels of the ‘why you get it’ claims are the ‘how to fix it’ claims. The most unpalatable I’ve seen is via a Facebook photo with a message that ‘traditional cancer treatments don’t work/are carcinogens and are perpetuated because it suits Big Pharma’. This kind of stuff is SO EASY to say and consume if you’ve not got it. If you have, it’s emotional TNT. I’m pretty open about this experience, but that shit sticks in my craw, my friend.  You’ll probably remember sprouted bread‘s claim that oxygen therapy “kills cancer cells and stuff like that.” Wound me up no end.

I am all for questioning conventional wisdom, but in the words of Tim Minchin:

“Alternative Medicine”…
“Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?
Medicine.”

It’s complex, though, because no sooner do I get all stabby about it than I seek it out.  Oxygen therapy is an alternative (or more accurately, complimentary) treatment that is backed up by successful scholarly reviews which prove it expedites the healing of damaged skin and tissue, hence its use amongst professional athletes. Even reviews that apply gushing testimony like ‘it’s a cure waiting for a disease’ dismiss the cancer claim, or hedge their bets with the ‘not enough evidence’ argument.

On the verge of booking up a series of sessions in the oxygen tank (and dropping more than $1,000 in the process) I tried to find out more as to when it is best administered to prevent the common side effect of radiotherapy on women with implants, namely capsular contracture (basically too much scar tissue). I was going to do the treatment on the same days as the radiotherapy, but then read that’s not advisable. Some reports say to do it before. Others after. Others say because it can take months for the scar tissue to build up, you should wait till the damage starts to show itself, then have the oxygen therapy. I was confused, confounded and with radiotherapy starting on 4 November, running out of time to decide. I told my psych “I feel very alone trying to work all this out. I wish someone would take my case on and tell me the best thing to do.”

He pounced on this. “Like a mother figure?” “YES!” I cried. Cue furious note-taking.  But on reflection if mum were here we’d probably be arguing about what to do. Arguing was our specialty. I’d doubtless be moaning about her muddying the waters.

As it is I’ve chosen to hedge my bets and do a series of oxygen treatments before and some soon after radiotherapy finishes. Embarrassingly, I’ve chosen this strategy based on a totally random doctor’s recommendation. He’s called Boris and probably got his doctorate online. I can’t find any of the ‘UK protocols’ he cites. So maybe I’m nuts. But it’s obvious by now that no-one actually knows what’s best, let alone when’s best, so I’ll just empty my wallet and cross my fingers.

Once I had made an uneasy peace with that decision I started to feel less daunted about the radiotherapy itself. I also enjoyed the first session in the oxygen tank, where I read a book and had a doze and arrived home to have Ted tell me my skin looked revived. Did it? Who knows. My usual 4pm dip in energy didn’t happen, but that was probably because of the nap rather than the oxygen.

photo 1

So I was feeling pretty okay up until this afternoon, when I got a phone call from the radiotherapist to tell me that to effectively administer the radiotherapy, I’m going to have to have my right foob deflated. To the accompaniment, I imagine, of a descending penny whistle. I’ve had to get a rush appointment at the plastic surgeon to have this done. Ain’t that a hole in the bowl?

Over the weeks to come, I’ll be reconfronted by the awfulness of everything. A reddening, flaking tortoise shell of an implant on the treated left side and a fuck-knows what on the other. My clothes won’t fit.

As I type I realise the break I’ve had was just that, a break. I have to absorb all the oxygen I can and then I’ll have to go deep to get through this.

And now I have to stop, because … you can guess the rest.