This time of year has lots of resonance for me – advent being the season of yearning and waiting for restoration; the shortest day being the turning point for the journey back to the light; the unseasonal blossom because of a warm December showing that it doesn’t take much for new life to appear. I’ve been thinking about my expectation back in May that this would ‘all be over by Christmas’, and my understanding of what ‘over’ might mean has changed since then. The main bulk of treatment will soon be finished, with just Tamoxifen to go. But much as I have enjoyed comparing the treatment to running a race, there is no finishing line and there will be no medal. There is no doctor who will tell me I’m all right now and wave me a cheery goodbye. I have more hospital appointments lined up already for 2016 and I’ll be monitored annually for the forseeable future. That might sound gloomy but actually it’s ok. This year has been a reality check, that none of us are immune to illness or setbacks, and cancer will touch so many of our lives. I don’t think I’m any more likely for it to return than someone my age is to get it in the first place, but at the very least I will be more aware, and people will be keeping an eye on me. I’m encouraged by all the people I’ve met who’ve said to me ‘I had that 5 years ago…, 10 years ago…, 15 years ago…,’ and I hope to be one of them.
But although there’s no medal, I do feel a sense of achievement. I am coming out the other side of treatment a stronger person and a more grateful one. I don’t think I’m particularly remarkable in that. So many people have to deal with cancer themselves, or in those they love and so many have much more to deal with than I have. Throughout the last few months people have said lovely things about me and to me, and I am honestly not fishing for any more. But I do want to pay attention to what people have said. I loved this article in the Guardian recently about Victoria Pendleton, the Olympic and world champion cyclist, who in the last nine months has taken up horse-racing. She talks about the training she’s doing and how her trainer, Yogi, has said to her ‘One thing I will give you is that you have a lot of courage.’ She says: ‘Yogi has used the word ‘courageous’ a lot and I’ve never considered myself as having courage. But now that he’s given it to me I want to keep it because courage is a word that defines this challenge.’ I really like that idea of keeping words that have been given to you. I feel like I want to keep all the positive things that people have said to me this year, to own those words more, because my default is so often to feel the opposite. And I love what she goes on to say: ‘It really got me thinking that we all have access to courage. It’s free and it’s always there. It’s within us all and you can choose whether to be courageous or not. We’ve all said: ‘No, no I couldn’t do that …’ But actually you could if you just went: ‘You know what? I will … and I shall.’ Once you realise that, it’s quite wonderful. We don’t talk about courage much in our everyday conversations but I am comfortable with it now.’
As for me, I’ve realised that, bizarrely, I’ve got quite comfortable being a cancer patient. I know how to do it now, to have my days driven by hospital appointments and a treatment plan, to be seen as heroic just for getting through the day. Of course, thinking rationally, I don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to, but I have to admit it’s become my normal. Once radiotherapy is over, my New Year’s task will be to find my way back into my old life as I go back to work.
Photo: Jonny Baker