A Year After Diagnosis: What Cancer Taught Me
September 2016 marked a year since I heard the words “it’s breast cancer.” It was my first cancerversary and a 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, having passed this milestone, 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:
As my mom would say, people are great all the same. And 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.
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. When you’re ready, investigate groups like Breast Cancer Care, The Haven and the wonderful Younger Breast Cancer Network on Facebook for practical information and emotional support.
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, mostly with family and friends. 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. Sadly, I was the exception, mine bringing to mind a chubbier, less sinister Myra Hindley but hopefully you’ll do better.
Chemo is grim, 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 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.