Almost seventeen years later, it almost seems like something that happened to another person.
From the start I avoided support groups and labelling myself with clichés as someone “suffering from” or “battling with” cancer. It might have seemed like denial except that I was the kind of person who coped by being as fully informed as possible about my breast cancer. I read about diagnosis and treatment options, searched my past for reasons why (frequent periods? late child-bearing? being on a high-dose birth control pill for from the age of 18 to 26? recent stress and marital disharmony?) and got answers from books and from my breast specialist as to the percentage chances of surviving or not. The only group I eventually went along to before starting chemotherapy was ‘Look good, Feel good’ and that was for the free goodies.
I’ve been lucky. My lump was discovered by chance almost, by a thorough gynaecologist who I was seeing about other things. The cancer was large and chaotic, but there was no lymph node involvement. My daughters were young – just in their first years at primary school. At first I said to myself I just want to see them through their teenage years; now that they are in their twenties and fully grown, I wish for more – to see them settled and happy in their adult lives, and maybe grandchildren – and it does seems now I might live my quota of years and survive as long as my grandparents.
What is important to me
I don’t think that the experience of breast cancer has made me a better person; but I did learn what was important to me. It was not the dreamed of trip to Italy and Europe or the big house and car – and it was some years before I felt confident enough of a future for it to feel okay spending money on nice clothes. Nor did I want to change the externals of the way I lived my life – I still wanted to live where I was living, work at my job, stay in my marriage and bring up my girls. But I realised that what mattered was the person I was and the goodness in my relationships with the people in my life – family, friends and colleagues – things like warmth, friendship , fellowship, tenderness, gentleness, and bringing some light and sparkle into the world; at the same time just being myself, doing the things I love, and not trying too hard; that it’s the qualities that we each bring into our own small lives that matter in a big way.
So I do reach out to other individual women I come across who are going through breast cancer, but most of the time now it’s not a part of my history I think about or identify with; just once a year, disrobing for my annual mammogram, I realise with a moment of not-quite-panic that my life could change for the worse in an instant.
When I think about my breast cancer I think of the landmarks along the way. The 10 year point seemed especially significant, as that was when my life insurance went back to standard rates since, although it isn’t strictly true, the assumption is that your survival odds are back to normal. Other things that remain particularly memorable are the amazing warmth and support I felt from some friends and family and how it gave me a buoyancy that helped me cope in the early days; and the huge difficulty some had coping or dealing with me during the nine months or so of treatment. The world divided very clearly into those who added and those who detracted from my well-being. I also learnt another meaning of the word “invalid” as I felt in-valid as a functioning human being during the lengthy and difficult period of chemo. But that didn’t last for ever, as, in the words of one of my favourite sayings “Everything changes, nothing remains the same”. They are words which can be tinged with optimism or with pessimism, but mostly I think are about acceptance of what comes and goes in our lives.