February 15th, 2017
| Survivor: Breast Cancer
Next month, it will be one year since I heard the words “It’s breast cancer.” I’m calling it my first cancerversary and see it as a pretty good excuse to eat cake.
Eight chemotherapy treatments, one operation, 20 rounds of radiotherapy and around 65 hospital appointments later, I’m in reflective mood but oh so ready for the next chapter. I’ve moved on from reliving the heady early days of diagnosis to trying to make sense of what has happened. Cancer changed me in many ways and taught me a lot. While I won’t go so far as to say my diagnosis has been a blessing – that would be a step too far – I am thankful for what I’ve learned and the new perspective it’s given me.
And as I approach my cancerversary, what would I tell the woman who’s facing the same journey that I’ve just taken? I’d give her a hug, make her a cup of tea (she might go off it completely during chemo) and share what the last year has taught me:
People Are Great All The Same
This is an old Irish saying my mother would always tell me. And it's true-- they are. They really are. There’s nothing like cancer to remind you of the essential kindness of people. Accept all offers of dinner, prayers, hugs. They will sustain you through the tougher days and nights ahead.
Fighting Cancer Takes a Village
Cancer is a team effort and, just like raising a child, it takes a village. There’s little point in trying to tackle this hurdle alone. Peer support is invaluable – while my breast care nurse was great, I yearned to talk to someone who was in a similar situation. I've also found that your "village" doesn't have to just be people you know personally. When you’re ready, investigate groups like IHadCancer, Breast Cancer Care, The Haven and the wonderful Younger Breast Cancer Network for practical information and emotional support.
Your Emotional Maturity Will Grow a Lot
Cancer is a loaded word and one that is difficult for some people to deal with. You may find that some friends distance themselves from you. It hurts but it’s okay. You’ve got a whole tribe around you. Remember?
You will cry. A lot. But you’ll also laugh. When I was diagnosed, someone advised me to just write off the next year. I wasn’t prepared to do that and determined to take the rough and the smooth. And now when I look back, there were plenty of great moments. Pockets of joy came unexpectedly: an impromptu cuddle with my little girl, coffee with friends, a parcel in the post. Even sitting in the chemo unit looking into the gardens on a sunny day wasn’t all that bad.
Hair Loss Is Not Inevitable
Many people, including me, have had impressive results with scalp cooling, which reduces blood flow to the hair follicles. It’s akin to a torture device but worth trying.
If you do lose your hair, chances are you’ll look great in a wig. While this didn't work for me -- my attempts brought to mind a chubbier, less sinister Myra Hindley-- hopefully you’ll do better.
Chemo Is Just As Grim As You've Heard
No doubt about it, but you can do it. My oncologist warned me it would drain the color out of me, which was a pretty accurate prediction. There wasn’t a day that passed without me feeling grateful for the host of anti-sickness tablets I consumed each day.
Listen To Your Body
This became my mantra after hearing it from my wise medical team many times. I took it as carte blanche to lie on the couch in front of Real Housewives of Wherever, eat a third Tunnock’s Tea Cake (the crystal meth of the biscuit world) and absolve myself from housework. You too should do this. Except,maybe take it easy on the biscuits which I now regret as I struggle to zip up my jeans.
The Fear Is Real
And even worse in the dead of night when you may feel lonely, scared and panicked. Don’t be afraid to wake up someone who loves you to help talk you down. Things will look brighter in the morning, I promise.
You Can Do This
And in a year’s time, I hope you will be right where I am now: a little battered and bruised but hopefully wiser, braver and with a quiet inner strength that will remind you every day of what you have achieved.
Any of us who have experienced cancer will be all too aware of what it can take from us: our confidence, our sense of wellbeing, our fertility. On the bad days, I’ll reflect on this, lament my bad luck and probably indulge in another biscuit. And yet, on the brighter days, I can appreciate what I’ve gained: greater clarity on friendships and relationships, increased compassion for others, and a new appreciation for just being alive. And that’s good enough for me.
What have you learned since your cancer diagnosis? Share in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of Alexandru Zdrobău.
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