The Ghost of Cancer Past

I woke up this morning in my mother’s guest room at home, a kitten biting at my bare feet, head pounding.

My first conscious thought was that I really should close my bedroom door. The second one was that today was the one-year anniversary of the actual operation.

365 (well, 366 – obviously 2020 had to be a leap year) days since life-changing surgery. A year ago, at the time I am writing this, I still had a womb. I still had ovaries. I still had cancer.

I would be lying if I said I did not feel a sense of loss. But strangely enough, it is not only the loss of my reproductive organs that I feel today. I also mourn the fact that this is the second-to-last one-year anniversary that I will have on my cancer journey. Today, and then all that is left is the 13th of January, the one-year anniversary of the final staging, the day I was told that for all intents and purposes, and as far as doctors could tell, there was no trace of cancer in my body. I was in remission.

For a year, I have clung onto these dates, the small anniversaries of each step in my cancer journey. They were frightening, I dreaded them, each one more intense than the previous one. But I also found comfort in them. I reached milestones. No matter how hard those days were, they made me realise I was moving forward. They helped me retrace my journey and let go of feelings I did not know I have.

Tomorrow, I will not be able to say ‘I had surgery less than a year ago’. I will not be able to use it as an excuse for however I am feeling.

In four weeks, I will not have any more one-year anniversaries to celebrate. It is daunting. It feels like I am losing a timeline that helped me stay anchored for the past year.

I did not expect to feel that way, I did not even expect that I would think about those anniversaries coming to an end. I am discovering more aspects of my grief every day.

Am I looking forward to being free of those dates? Will things get easier when I do not wake up each day knowing exactly what I was doing a year ago? Will I rejoice in the fact that, come mid-January, I will no longer associate each day with memories of cancer?

I will not blow a candle today. I will not celebrate the birth of my new womb-free, cancer-free body. But I will light a fire in the living room (I am not turning into an arsonist – there is a fireplace), and let it consume a year’s worth of memories and grief for the organs I no longer have.

Letting Go

I have always been obsessed with the idea of keeping it together. Finding a way to keep moving forward, even when it hurts, even when it means pretending. Focusing on things I can control, instead of delving into my issues and trying to solve them. Saving face, again and again.

Last week, for only the second time since my diagnosis, I let go. Did I forget that I was supposed to pretend? Did I not have the energy to hold back the feelings, to glue together whatever pieces of me were still whole?

The surge of feelings after my hospital appointment was both expected and unexpectedly violent. The whole experience was incredibly brutal.

First came the panic attacks the minute I set foot in the hospital. I was holding it together until then, but then I broke down. Teary, barely able to think, speaking in a whispery, soft voice that is very uncharacteristic of me, breathing hard but hardly breathing, the whole shebang. But a panic attack for me is not about letting go, it is not about losing control of your feelings. It is a sign of my body being unable to cope with a situation, and reacting physically, automatically, to what my brain cannot cope with. 

After I got home that evening, after I wrote to my friends to tell them everything was fine, after I posted here about my relief at being cancer-free, I finally let go and gave in to my feelings.

In a rare display of true emotion, only exacerbated by sheer exhaustion and the now familiar migraine that comes after panic attacks, I spent hours that night crying. I am not sure what I cried about. Relief. Fear. Anger. Acceptance. Loss. I let my feelings overcome me and tear at my carefully-crafted armour of false-strength.

And for two days, I could barely move. I was paralysed by my feelings. I felt sick, I felt useless, I struggled to even open my eyes. The only other time I can remember feeling so overcome with feelings was after the cancelled operation. I let my feelings wash over me, and take control of what happened to my body. I lay in bed, under the covers, with a pile of tissues and a box of painkillers at my side. I alternated between crying, drifting off to sleep for short, restless periods, and feeling sorry for myself. Feeling angry at myself.

Since October 2019 and the diagnosis, I had not taken a single sick day for cancer reasons that was not related to either a doctor’s appointment or the surgery. I came in the day of my diagnosis, and the day after. I came back from sick leave after surgery a week early. But last week, just like the week after they cancelled the operation in early December last year, it finally became too much. I had no energy. I had no brainpower. All I had were feelings a year in the making, an unrelenting migraine, and a week’s worth of insomnia.

So I let go. I let my feelings take over my body and my brain, and I stopped pretending, for two blessed days, that I was fine. I gave in. I knew my feelings and self-pity had an expiration date – I was travelling back to France at the weekend and needed to be back up on my feet by then.

Did it feel liberating? In a way. Because I did not go to work, I did not have to pretend to be ok. I did not have to repress my feelings and put up a brave front. I was unapologetically broken, and I was honest.

For two days, I did not make myself do anything I did not fancy. I did not eat. I drank lots of tea, I went for a couple of walks, I avoided people and listened to Christmas music. I cried for hours, in the comfort of my own bed, under the stream of the shower, in the woods at the edge of the park. I let go.

But there, at the back of my mind, were still uncomfortable feelings. Guilt, for taking days off when work was busy. For having the privilege to do so, when so many people cannot afford that. Uneasiness, for making people uncomfortable when telling them what was wrong. Anger, anger at myself for not being strong enough to keep pretending and live a normal life. Shame at not being a functional human being. Shame, shame, shame.

Two days. That is how long I allowed myself to let go for. And then I picked up the pieces of myself and put them in a suitcase and a backpack, and dragged them over the border to France.

One Year On: We Are in the Clear

If I had any energy left after my one-year follow-up appointment this afternoon, I would probably blow up some balloons and put them up in my flat.

It was hard. My eyes are raw from crying. I used about two boxes of tissues – one in the waiting room and one in the exam room.

I cried in front of the receptionist. I cried in front of the nurse who checked my height and weight. I cried in front of the doctor, and I cried in front of the cancer nurse specialist.

Follow-up appointments are rough. You can go about your life for months, but you know that everything could change in a matter of seconds, in that same room where you first got the news. The. Exact. Same. Room.

I had a new doctor again, who asked me plenty of questions about how I was diagnosed, how it came to be, what tests were done, how thick the lining of my uterus had been on the MRI scan (I have no idea). As I was battling my way through my tears, she told me it was ok to cry. It was ok to be overwhelmed, to be traumatised. She told me that I had gone through a lot for someone so young – terribly young, and she could say that because we were exactly the same age.

I do not know why that comment struck me as odd. Why of all the things she said, that is the one that stayed with me.

But it is all said and done now. A quick exam, a lot of background info, a chat about any symptoms I could have had, an inventory of the medication I am on, and I have been declared cancer-free, until my next appointment in four months.

I will have more to say in the coming days. About how they told me if things remained the same, I would be discharged after one more year, instead of four. About how my dedicated nurse was self-isolating so I was not able to speak to her, but arranged a phone catch-up in a couple of weeks to discuss my ongoing mental health problems.

For now though, I will crawl under the covers, put a good audiobook on and try and get some much needed rest. I may order a celebratory takeaway later, making up for the fact I have had maybe 4 meals in the last 6 days. I will make myself a hot chocolate and put the Christmas lights on.

In the wise words of Adore Delano – Party.

Hospital Appointments and Fearing the Unknown

I had another flashback last night. I was splashing water onto my face before bed, reviewing the pros and cons of reading the next chapter of Barack Obama’s A Promised Land to fall asleep versus listening to the audiobook – an internal debate I have had every night for the last two weeks. I closed my eyes, and when the water hit my face, I was back at the hospital, after my diagnosis, thinking cold water could help me make it feel real, hoping it would drown my tears.

There had been no warning signs, no triggers that I could have identified and nipped in the bud. I opened my eyes and gripped the sides of the sink, trying to regulate my breathing. You are ok. You are at home, this is just another evening, this is your night-time routine.

There had been no warning signs, but I am fairly sure it is related to the fact that, at the moment, hospital appointments are the only thing on my mind. I am terrified of them, I think about what could happen at my appointment next week about six times an hour. It is no wonder my brain finds random associations with everyday activities, like splashing water onto my face. Trauma is no fun.

I have been thinking about the ‘why’ of it a lot. Why am I obsessing over the simple idea of an appointment? Why can I not sleep, eat or have fun for days and weeks before each one is supposed to take place?

It is simple. I have no idea what is going to happen, and so I cannot project myself in the future. I cannot make plans for after the appointment, I cannot anticipate how I will react, what I will do.

Oh, I know what the appointment is going to entail this time. I had a similar one just three months ago. A chat with the doctor, a physical check-up, a catch-up with the nurse.

I also know that the risk of them finding something wrong is low. I know that I probably would have had symptoms if something was not quite right. I also know that the risk of recurrence is low.

The issue is that throughout my diagnosis and treatment, more than half the appointments did not have the outcome that I had expected.

There was the appointment where they broke the news to me, where I was woefully unprepared.

There was the surgery that did not happen.

There was my appointment at a menopause clinic in early January, where, because the operation had been delayed and the final staging had not happened, they were not able to provide me with a plan for hormone replacement therapy. I took a 4-hour round trip to Oxford on public transport, just two weeks after the surgery, barely standing and walking, only to be told I would need to come back at the next available appointment, two months later.

And there was the final staging appointment. The one where, on 13th January 2020, I was asked to come to Oxford again to discuss the results of the operation, and talk about further treatment. My friend had come with me and, because we had arrived a whole 30 minutes early, she went to get a coffee whilst I checked in. Less than two minutes later, I was called in by the surgeon.

I did not know what to do. I told him that my friend had just gone to get a coffee, should we wait for her? He said he thought I would be fine on my own, which I took as a good sign.

I knew that appointment could go one of two ways. Either they would confirm the original stage and grade of the cancer (which had provisionally been declared Stage 1A, Grade 2), or would tell me that they had actually found more, or different cancer cells on the tissues removed during the surgery.

I had prepared myself for both possibilities. I had told myself I was ready either way. And still, the outcome was different than anything I could have expected. I sat down opposite the surgeon, and he quickly went through the surgery, telling me it had been a success. That the cancer was confirmed as Stage IA, Grade 1. I blinked. Excuse me, Grade 1? The surgeon nodded. I interrupted him again. I had been told after the initial biopsy that the cancer would be Grade 2, what did that mean? And he confirmed that the grade had been lowered as the immense majority of cells appeared to be Grade 1 after examination of the tissues removed during surgery.

I was floored. It was excellent news. It would mean I would not need any further treatment. I would be able to have HRT. As the surgeon said, removal of my ovaries had only been indicated as they believed at the time that the cancer was Grade 2. The surgery had been more extensive than would have been strictly necessary.

It was good news, but it was once again hugely unexpected news. I had not imagined that lowering the grade of the cancer would even be an option. How was I supposed to react? I had trained my brain to deal with all the potential outcomes, but not this one. It just solidified the idea, in my already traumatised mind, that anything can happen at one of those appointments. Good news, bad news, anything at all.

The unknown is terrifying. You spend so much time preparing for any eventuality, only to end up being taken aback by something you could not have expected.

For my last check-up in August, I had taken time off work in the week leading to the appointment. I went on a very short solo holiday, coming back the night before the appointment. This ensured that I would be busy, doing things I enjoyed and keeping myself distracted up until the day of the dreaded appointment. It worked – kind of. I only had two panic attacks on the day – one in my bathroom as I was getting ready, and one at the hospital, where I completely broke down in front of the young doctor who was checking up on me (keeping my fingers crossed it will be a different one this time – I think I terrified the poor man).

This time, I will be taking a different approach, working right up until the morning of the appointment. Will that help keep my mind busy up until the last minute? Will I be too distracted? I can only try, and find something that works for me. After all, even if all goes well, there are still four more years of regular check-ups to come.

So that is what terrifies me. My brain works overtime at the moment, trying to imagine dozens of different scenarios and doing its best to anticipate what could happen. There are honestly not enough hours in the day to compute all the possible outcomes and imagine how I might react, preparing my feelings, my reactions, what I will tell people. All the while knowing that no matter how many different potential outcomes, there might be ones I have not thought about. Ones that I will not be ready to face.

Bring on Wednesday.

Talking About Cancer – Making Light of It

Today marks exactly one year since the day my operation was first scheduled. It is also six days until my next check-up at the hospital, for the dreaded one-year mark (or as close as we could get without having me go for a check-up at Christmas).

At the moment, it is impossible for me to spend any length of time during the day not thinking about cancer. It permeates everything, it colours every feeling, every decision I make. It makes me cry, it makes me sick with worry, it makes me crumble to the floor in the shower until the water goes cold, it makes me forget how to breathe in the middle of my morning walk, and fall over in the park.

Because cancer is all-consuming, it is almost impossible to push it to the back of your mind, and not think about it at all. You need to find other ways to cope. Ways to tame cancer, to make it less of a threat, make it into a subject you can discuss, something that can make you laugh as well as cry.

I have found that making light of cancer helps. Making jokes, bringing it up in an unexpected way and observing people’s reactions can be priceless. When you make fun of it, for a few seconds, it no longer is the big C, or the other C-word. It is cancer, and it is something you can bring up without fear, something you have earned the right to laugh about.

I have always loved dry humour. Saying something unexpected, sometimes a bit dark but that will bring a laugh upon someone’s lips – or a shocked gasp, depending on who my audience is.

Just this week, even though I am battling one of the darkest weeks I have had all year, I made two of my ‘cancer jokes’, and it felt amazing. They were awkward, they were uncomfortable. They were not necessarily funny – I definitely will not be quitting my day job to start a career as a comedian – but they did make me feel more in control. For a few precious seconds, it felt like cancer was mine to beat, mine to laugh at. If I can laugh about it, surely it cannot hurt me anymore.

I was on the phone with a friend at the weekend, and we were talking about how I have been having a lot of mood swings and have been feeling very tearful lately – even more so than usual. My friend was asking whether I thought it might be hormone-related, or could it be an issue with my antidepressants maybe? In a deadpan, slow voice, I interrupted her and said ‘God, I hope I’m not pregnant’. A couple of seconds of silence, and an awkward laugh followed. Sorry to have made you uncomfortable – personally, I think that has been the highlight of my week so far.

The other joke I made was during a group video call, with a lot more people than I am usually comfortable with. I had not spoken to some of them since the summer of 2019, before it all happened, but they all knew, either because they had been told by other people or they saw something on social media, or read this blog. We were talking about how long it had been since we last saw each other, and I said ‘well, it’s been a while. Last time we spoke, I still had a uterus’. Some faces looked shocked. There were a couple of laughs, a few shaking heads and one amused ‘Can’t argue with that’.

I have been using humour to cope for months now. Earlier this year, I uploaded a selfie on social media, showcasing my brand new short hair and using a caption that would have made my mum cringe: ‘Getting rid of my hair like I got rid of that cancer – #snipsnip’. I felt so powerful in that moment. Cancer was nothing more than a punchline. Snip snip, my hair. Snip snip, cancer.

I understand these comments might make people uncomfortable. Not everyone is happy to have a laugh about something so serious. But for me, it is a way of getting over it, of proving that cancer is not as threatening as it looks, of feeling like I have the upper hand for once.

I think it is also important to show people that I can laugh about it. If I can make jokes, if I can make light of a terrible situation, maybe people will start feeling comfortable around me and my issues. Maybe they can make their own jokes, and I will laugh at them – no puns though, nothing make me cringe more than a bad pun.

I have earned the right to make those jokes, and to laugh when you make one. Not everyone with cancer will see it that way, and for some people cancer will always stay off-limits. For me, making light of cancer is proof that it has not taken over my sense of humour. I can still be hysterical.

Well. Not etymologically.