Today, it was cancer treatment day, yes I have cancer, yes it’s spread to my spine, and no, I don’t know how long I have left. Today I woke up to the news that the much-loved and inspirational actress, Lynda Bellingham, had died yesterday from cancer, and I must admit it hit me very hard indeed. I got through the day, buoyed up by dozens of lovely messages of support and hope from my Facebook tribe, and back home I gave myself a stern talking too about letting myself have a wobble over the whole cancer malarkey. I should know better than anyone that life is far too short to waste even a few hours being down in the dumps about things that I can’t change, and to understand that all we can do is to accept that things are what they are and that’s it. Then I remembered this piece I wrote a few months ago, after another cancer treatment day, for the fabulous Beauty Despite Cancer Website – well worth a visit to see their wonderful range of beauty products. It cheered me up and gave me the kick I needed… so I thought it might be worth sharing here with you.
I Had Cancer on Saturday and it was Good
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer just over two years ago, at first it felt like a death sentence. I looked at my three children, I looked at the man I loved and at my whole circle of extended family and fabulous friends and I was so sad to know, with almost absolute certainty, that I was going to die and leave them bereaved.
I’ve since learnt that that is a very normal reaction. Cancer is such a powerful word in our society, just saying it, is enough to strike fear in the hearts of most of us.
I had nearly a year of intensive and deeply unpleasant treatment that sometimes took me to the very edge of sanity. There were times when I really wanted to walk away from treatment because I didn’t feel I could do it anymore. I didn’t think it was worth it. I had cancer, for goodness sake, I was going to die, so what was the point of putting myself through all the awful surgery, chemo and radiation, not to mention the humiliation of having to submit to countless half-naked examinations and procedures?
Every time I hit a moment like that, eventually common-sense would step back in and take over. If I was going to die, I needed my children to know that I had loved them enough to do absolutely everything to stay with them for as long as possible, and that meant sticking with treatment. By now, I knew a lot more about cancer treatment and that I had a very good chance of long-term survival. However, I never really believed that I’d be one of the lucky ones.
Ten long months later and the worst of the active treatment was over. I was alive, but bruised, battered and broken and even now, a year later, I can’t walk more than a few yards without getting terrible joint pain, muscle ache and breathlessness.
I was so pleased to be through treatment and any aches and pains seemed like a small price to pay for having the gift of a longer life. The oncologists were fairly confident that I was cancer-free and I knew I should be celebrating, but I was too tired and still, deep down, I didn’t quite believe I’d get away scot-free. Friends and family wanted to celebrate, but I just couldn’t party.
It’s quite a lonely experience, feeling like that. You feel that you’re being a party-pooper if you talk about your deepest fears to the people who love you most, the ones who are so thrilled you’re “better”, who want to shout it from every rooftop that you’re recovered and that the nightmare cancer months have finally finished. They expect you to move on in a way that you can’t, they want you to live the life you used to have, but that’s not possible anymore. It’s hard enough for you to accept how much cancer has changed you; not just physically but on a profoundly emotional level too. That life belonged to somebody else – the person you used to be. You have to find a new way of being you now, a slower, more pensive version that suits the older, uglier, mutilated more achy version of your previous self.
For me, though, everything changed two weeks after the cancer treatment ended. They’d run some tests to try and work out why I was breathless, and instead, they accidentally discovered that my cancer had spread to my spine. I had serious cancer, the incurable type, the one that prevents you from daring to hope you might make it onto the long-term survival statistic spreadsheet.
Everything changing turned out to be very good for me. I think I had known all along that the cancer wasn’t done or dusted, and I was relieved that I knew the reality of what I was up against, rather than the uncertainty of a niggling doubt that not all is as good as everyone else, the oncologists included, seemed to think it is.
As I walked out of the hospital into glorious sunshine, for loads of reasons, I knew I was lucky –
- To live in an age where treatments for cancer are available, and more treatments are being developed all the time
- To live in a country with the NHS, where good quality treatment is a basic right
- That they found it so accidentally early, when it was small and therefore more manageable
- To live on the doorstep of one of the most famous and innovative specialist cancer hospitals in the world – The Royal Marsden in Sutton
- That I get up in every morning and know what it feels like to be grateful to be alive
- That I am being offered on-going treatment that seems to be working very well and keeping me alive
- That I’m surrounded by people who love me and fill my life with warmth, fun and laughter
- That my life is so full I barely have time to remember I’ve got cancer
- That cancer gave me the motivation to follow a dream – I am now a published author
OK, so I’m less lucky to have needle-phobia so badly that it’s a major ordeal every three weeks when I go for my on-going treatment of an infusion of strong drugs into my bloodstream. That’s the day I remember I have cancer. It brings me down low a bit and it’s not a day I look forward to, but it’s a small price to pay for the other 20 days when I don’t have cancer, or if I do I barely notice.
This weekend, I had cancer on Saturday. They don’t normally open on Saturdays, but they decided they had to over Christmas to reschedule people in around the bank holidays. Then they stayed open week by week, because they simply have to. More people are living longer on the sort of treatment I’m having, so they have far more patients than they used to have – 15 years ago I would have died by now. There are also more treatments on offer, so that makes them busier too.
I love it there on Saturdays. It’s pretty good any day, but Saturday’s at the Marsden are special. It’s a really calm atmosphere, the corridor and the restaurant are empty, there’s no hustle or bustle, and in the Medical Day Unit, the staff who are always friendly and kind, just seem to have even more time to stop and chat. They even make us coffee in their staff kitchen, bless them.
So, I had cancer on Saturday, and it really was rather good.
Here’s me from this morning, Monday 20th October, an absolutely lousy photo, but if you can’t look pants when you have cancer for the day, when are you allowed to, eh?!
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