There are four stages to my treatment for breast cancer – chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and hormone therapy. I have done the first which also seems to be the worst* from what people tell me and tomorrow I will have a mastectomy and reconstruction. I have tried to stay with one stage at a time because I find there’s a thin line between being prepared for what’s next, and overthinking and catastrophising about what lies ahead. So having finished chemo I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks thinking about surgery, and it’s been really helpful to talk to women who have done this before me. I’ve been aware this week that this is my last few days with my right breast which is a strange thought.
I would never describe cancer as a gift, but there are gifts and opportunities to be found in its destructive wake. I have really enjoyed spending more time with my family, in deepening old friendships and forging new ones. I have loved time to reflect and to write and miss that when I’m not able to. I’m been so touched and uplifted with the love and support that people have shown me in different ways, whether up close or at a distance. I’ve learned a lot about myself and have seen both the best and worst bits of my character up close. It’s interesting to find out how much you can endure, and sobering to realise that you can still be a bitch even when you have cancer.
I kept working while I was having chemotherapy, doing one week in three at work. It’s been good to stay connected and to need to be focused outwards, and my workplace and work colleagues have been incredibly supportive. But inevitably work brings its own stresses and from time to time I have asked myself whether it was the right decision to keep working. And then I have realized that asking if that was the right thing to do is the wrong question. There is no right answer to how to deal with cancer. So much is unknown and we just have to make the best decisions we can with the information we have, and then adapt as things become clearer. Which seems to me a good way of dealing with life in general. There are many things I hope I can leave behind in this season, and the need to always get things right is one of them.
When you look at me now it’s pretty obvious what’s happening to me; the bald head and lack of eyebrows is a bit of a giveaway and so I do get lots of kindness and love from others. I know of several friends who are going through hidden sorrows and anxieties and I’m reminded of the Edward Hirsch poem that I wrote about after my dad died:
‘Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.’
I want to remember this over the next few weeks while I get lots of attention, to hold in the light those who are carrying their cement without anyone noticing.
(*if you know differently then don’t tell me. I’m happy to be blissfully ignorant until I find out otherwise.)