It’s time. Time to look back with candour on the thirty odd years since my breast cancer diagnosis and time, too, to write it down the way I experienced it, warts and all. But let’s start by getting one thing straight – I have not been on some kind of ‘journey’ cancer or otherwise; nor have I been fighting some almighty battle that is somehow meant to define my strength as an individual. I have simply been getting on with life just like everyone else has to – coping with the good, the bad and the indifferent along the way and hoping to manage a few healthier years ahead. I’d like readers to enter the world of the post-breast cancer patient for just a little while and really identify with what it means, because a lot of what is written in the media is often hackneyed and not always completely honest.
When I look back at my thirty-seven-year-old self, I see the naive, ignorant (in the proper sense) and frazzled housewife I was then, with two young children in tow and a husband working away from home. Receiving a cancer diagnosis though, did not devastate my life. It only made the logistics of everyday living seem rather more complicated. The time in hospital for surgery, the radiotherapy sessions and finally the months of chemotherapy that followed created the need for a whole new way of family thinking and I am forever grateful that those around me stayed calm and supportive throughout.
Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing and I hope I’ve learned something in the intervening years that might throw some light on less considered aspects of the disease. For breast cancer is not only about the removal of a breast, it is also about the emotional loss that accompanies it and so much more that affects partners, children, close family and friends. Relationships suffer. Misunderstandings flourish. Life becomes an ocean of changing tides without the certainty of when they will occur. In short, most of us need help and advice to deal with it and there is no shame in asking for counselling if you require it.
In the early, post-treatment years, I wrote of and spoke publicly about breast cancer incessantly. For a long time I was happy to campaign for patients’ rights. I was angry. I was impassioned. I was willing to offer something back for all the assistance and support I’d received from our National Health Service but I also put my head above the parapet concerning aspects of treatment I thought could be improved. If there was any ‘fighting’ involved in my recovery it was to try and improve the system for both patients and carers alike and there was most definitely a need to have something worthwhile to focus on. Yet in retrospect that perfectionism makes me feel uncomfortable now and I have had to dig deep in order to acknowledge my arrogance at the time. A further realisation came when, after I finally stepped away from that whole cancer world, my husband gave a tangible sigh of relief. I had seemingly forgotten my own conviction that I was not the only person involved in our on-going predicament.
During these past few decades there has been one recurring and consistent angle about breast cancer that the media highlights. This involves stories of celebrities who have been diagnosed, undergone treatment and later ‘beaten’ the disease. Truthfully, I was never one of those who could ever believe they’d beaten it, not least of all because so much is dependent on the stage, the grade and the type of cancer it is when first discovered. So, although I’m not suggesting we should be without hope (for hope is an essential part of healing), but it needs to be measured with a degree of realism that can also actually help us cope. Even now at the age of sixty-five, I feel that I can never be complacent about my cancer recurring but that does not mean I’m fatalistic. In fact, it probably makes my life more ‘present’ when I’m aware the disease could re-visit at any time.
Part of my treatment involved an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries). It’s not an operation to be taken lightly, especially for a woman in her mid-thirties and I was certainly unprepared for the ongoing problems an overnight menopause created in the long term (including osteoporosis, premature aging, failing libido). So decisions made during treatment need to be informed and based on accurate assessments of what may happen in the future, otherwise, the cure can become more problematic than the cause.
One of the inevitabilities of living with cancer is the sad reality that you will know someone who dies from it. In my case that has been several of my very dear friends. We shared many confidences together, argued a lot and laughed a great deal more and I miss them still. In truth, there will always be within me, a guilt that lingers because they were not as lucky as me and perhaps this is a burden I may never fully come to terms with.
Yet cancer has, in an odd sort of way, altered my life for the good. Not that it necessarily transformed me into some sort of saint but I have been forced to confront life head-on, erasing the detritus of pettiness, partiality and discontent that often clogged it up before. My sincere hope is that one day, because of continued medical breakthroughs, I will be able to say, ‘I had breast cancer’, but for now I’m simply grateful for the healthy intervening years that have been afforded to me. My life has owned its many, many blessings and I think I’m content enough with that.
Of course, there is no right or wrong way for any individual to deal with a cancer diagnosis and how we handle life’s trials depends on a great many factors ranging from personality type to family circumstances. However, the ongoing situation with coronavirus has meant that patients are presently facing untold stress as cancer services across the board have seen unprecedented disruption. Vital screening services have been shelved, operations and treatments postponed and there is now an increased likelihood that many cases will be diagnosed at a later stage making them harder to treat. The public seems reticent about seeking advice from their GP on discovering something worrying about their health, such as abnormal bleeding or a suspicious lump. But please, if you’re reading this and are worried about something you might consider insignificant, do go and seek help. I am reminded of when I found my own lump and said to my husband that I’d wait a while to see if it grew before going to show it the doctor. I’ll always remember the look of astonishment on his face when he said – you’ve found something unusual, so go and get it seen to – tomorrow! I did as I was told.
I think he probably saved my life.