New Year, New Challenges

There are similarities in the way I rang in the new year those last two years. Same group of friends (minus a few members), same no-drinking policy, same hope for a better year ahead. Minor differences – this time we were in France and had a seemingly unlimited supply of face masks and hand sanitizer. We played games, ate too much and had a chilled, fun-filled evening.

But instead of the fireworks of 2020, 2021 started with a panic attack and hot, burning tears.

I had felt them coming. I had had a few scary moments throughout the evening, moments where I lost touch with reality and slipped into my own mind. Moments when, unable to cope with two many conversations around me (and there were still only six of us), I retreated back into myself, into the mind that used to be my refuge, but has since become booby-trapped with dangerous thoughts.

After a year spent mostly in isolation, I had no idea how I would react to being around people constantly. Over the last three weeks, as I got reacquainted with my family and friends, it proved a challenge.

How do you talk to people who know of your vulnerability, but have not experienced it, witnessed it first-hand? How do you broach an entire year of physical and mental struggles with people who have only known you at your best, healthy self?

As usual, I pretended everything was fine. Most people are comfortable with that, that is what they are expecting. Most of my friends did not ask any follow-up questions. I managed to see both my parents and only mention the word ‘cancer’ a handful of times at most. They were not interested, they were avoiding the subject. It probably made them more comfortable to ignore the issue, so I pretended to do the same.

My mental health struggles, I was not able to hide as well. I felt down at times, which my friends noticed. I realised that confrontation, arguments and aggressive debates automatically sent me into a panic spiral. I cannot deal with conflict anymore – and in a family setting, conflict is sure to arise at some point, particularly if my brothers get started on politics. I guess I needed to experience it to learn of my new limits. I was given plenty of opportunities to test them, and I did not disappoint. Or rather, I did.

Big personalities make me feel small and inadequate. I used to be like that, and now I feel invisible. I no longer have the strength to battle for what I think, so I disappear in group conversations.

I do not want to disappear, but I also constantly feel like I am not enough. Like I am a hindrance, rather than a help. Like I am imposing myself on others, just by being there, by taking up space, quietly, without contributing much. I feel like I am a bother, like people do not want or need me around.

I struggle to make decisions. Weirdly enough, it does not affect me much at work, in a setting where I know I have to make calls as part of my job. But choosing between five different types of tea, what room I want to sleep in, or deciding what music we should listen to, all of that sends me into a panic.

It all culminated at New Year’s. Too many people around, too many different things to pay attention to, too many small decisions – where do you want to sit, what do you want to drink, which conversation do you want to listen to, too many things to look at and people to smile at. I could not keep the pretense long enough and I crumbled.

There were so many thoughts in my head at midnight. How everyone was hoping for a better year, even if quietly and without much confidence it would happen. I find it difficult to hope, to think about the future, which is what New Year is about. Closing the door on a terrible year, and leaping into a new, unknown one. To me, that sounds terrifying. 365 more days, and any one of them could bring terrible news and things.

Seeing people around me being happy is hard – it reminds me of how much I have changed, how I used to be one of them. It draws me into a downward spiral – I feel guilty about being down, about not being able to enjoy a few hours with my friends when I have the opportunity. My guilt transforms into shame, into self-hatred. Panic and tears settle in.

When it finally happened, just after midnight, it was not pretty. I withdrew into a dark room and let my tears flow, my breathing returning to normal after a good twenty minutes. It was my first panic attack of 2021, but I already know it will not be the last.

Last year, my only New Year resolution was to beat cancer. It was a worrying time, but the goal was clear, and could be achieved with medical procedures and treatment. This year, I do not have any resolutions, but I have challenges I want to reach and win. Feeling more confident. Achieving things and enjoying small victories. Letting go of the guilt. Allowing myself to shine and be myself, proudly and unapologetically. Having fun, saying goodbye to doubts and worries, and not being afraid to be happy.

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.

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.

Talking About Cancer – Who to Tell

Talking about cancer is scary. It is scary for the patients, but also for their families and friends. Who to tell, how to break the news, what to say, how much of the truth to share. What tone to take, whether making light of cancer is acceptable, how to ask someone with cancer how they are doing. When to speak up, and when to listen. Those are all questions I do not necessarily have answers to, but I will write a series of posts on here about my experience of talking about cancer at various moments of my own journey. And I will start at the beginning, the first question – who to tell.

There are so many different stages to a cancer diagnosis, and what worked for me at a certain point of my journey no longer applied a couple of months later. Sometimes talking will be harder, sometimes it will come naturally. Sometimes I will initiate it, sometimes I will be happy for someone else to bring it up. What worked for me will not necessarily work for someone else, and I am not pretending that the choices I make are the right ones. But they were right for me at the time.

Between the moment I was diagnosed and when the surgery was deemed a success, I tried to keep the news restricted to a close circle. A number of friends, people at work on a need-to-know basis. My immediate family. I deliberately kept it quiet, for reasons that I do not fully understand even today. Did I feel like it made it less real? Did I feel like I was stronger, if some people still saw me as a healthy individual, with no threat looming over my head? Did it simply make me feel better, to be able to have cancer-free conversations with people who did not know? Was I denying the truth, was I protecting other people? Was I protecting myself from being looked upon with pity, with sympathy? Was I avoiding other people’s stories, and personal struggles with cancer? In case you are wondering, the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’. But I know there are many more reasons, which I hope to one day understand.

I told people I felt safe with. People with whom I felt like I could be vulnerable, which does not come easy to me. My mum, because despite the fact we are not close by any means, she remains my mum. She may not know much about my life, but she remains the person who knew me best for years. My friends, some of whom I have known for over ten years, some of whom I met only a couple of years ago. People I know will have my back, no matter what, but people who are also strong enough to take the news. I told people who, whether I had known them for a long time or not, knew the current me. People I was still close with – I have older friends who I did not tell because we had not been in touch for a few months or years, and I did not want them to think of me only as Lauriane, the cancer patient. But I was also careful to only tell people who I thought would not resent me for forcing these news on them, for making them a part of something they had not asked for, and did not deserve. There is a real fear about it being too much. About the fact that when you tell someone, your cancer becomes part of their lives. I worried about how the news might affect some of them emotionally, personally. It is a burden that I would not wish on anyone, but I also could not keep it to myself entirely.

I told people who asked about why I suddenly looked so sad all the time. People who commented on the fact I had not worn make-up for days, people who noticed something was wrong, and cared enough to ask questions. They probably were not expecting the answer I gave them, but I could not lie to them. I told people who were genuinely interested in hearing about me.

At work, I told my manager, and my closest friends. And then I extended it to people in my team, people who would be affected, one way or another, by my numerous appointments and absence following surgery. I was careful, very careful about who I spoke to. At work especially, I did not want to look vulnerable.

It was hard to navigate situations where some people knew, and some did not. It made things awkward, both for me and for them. I remember an evening, four days after my initial diagnosis. It was one of my friends’ birthday, and his girlfriend had organised a surprise party at a nearby pub. They knew, along with another couple of friends there, but I was not close with the rest of the friends they had invited. I debated for a while whether I should go or not. I did not feel like going, but I had wondered if maybe it would help me banish cancer from my mind, think about something else for a while (spoiler alert – it did not). I decided to go, and it was one of the most awkward experiences of my life. Pretending everything was fine, in front of people who knew and others who did not. Having secret conversations in a corner of the bar. Being asked how I was doing in a carefree way, and lying, with tears in my eyes, in front of people who were watching me carefully.

This continued over the next few months, until the operation and until the final staging. I was choosing who to tell and who to lie to. I told people that they were free to discuss my situation with other people, but still kept a list of who knew and who did not. I kept that list for months, adding names to it, making my diagnosis more real with each new entry.

It felt very much like every single conversation I had with someone who knew had to be about cancer. I struggled to talk to them about anything else, because cancer was pretty much the only thing on my mind. When I spoke to people who were not in the know, it felt refreshing. I finally allowed myself to talk about something else, and I did not feel guilty. Yes, I was hiding a part of my life, but it made sense. I was keeping things separate. There were people I could talk about cancer with, and people with whom I had to push cancer at the back of my mind, and talk about something else.

After treatment, as the months went by and my new reality set in, that I had been a cancer patient but was now in remission, I started being more open about it. It was no longer such an immediate threat, so I felt like I could talk about it more openly. It did not hurt as much, I no longer cried every time I told someone new. I started mentioning ‘the health issues I had last year’, or ‘when I was on sick leave for a while’. To some people, I told the whole truth. To others, I just said I had been unwell. There was no pressure anymore.

It finally felt like I could have normal conversations with people who knew about my cancer. Yes, they knew, and I could slip something in here and there, but we could also discuss other things as well. We could discuss them, which made me feel great. It was no longer all about me. I was no longer as selfish, only able to talk about myself and my own problems.

When I decided to start writing this blog, and posting about it on social media, it was a very conscious decision. It took a while for me to go from ‘writing for myself’ to ‘writing so other people can read it’. I only did it once I felt ready for people to know.

But in a way, a blog is safe. Only people who really, genuinely want to know about me and my struggles will click on the links, will subscribe to know when a new post comes out. It does not feel like I am pushing my story onto others, like it would if I was simply lying this all out on social media. I know the people who will read this are interested, and it helps me be honest. It makes me feel I am talking to people who want to know, rather than forcing them to listen to me.

In real life, I struggle with what to say to people I have just met. In a way, Covid has helped, as I have not met as many new people this year as I usually would. I will sometimes mention a hospital appointment, the fact that I was not able to go home last Christmas. I have not told people directly for months now. Will I ever be able to?

I worry about future relationships. About meeting someone and having to disclose this information. When do I do it? When do I reveal the truth? It is not something I can hide, as it will affect me my whole life. When do I tell them I cannot have children, when do I tell them I am still living in limbo for the next four years, whilst I am still in remission?

I know there are people who I will need to tell in the future. People who will be affected by my experience. Will I come out and tell them directly? Will I just add them on social media and let them discover the truth for themselves? Will I bring it up in the middle of a conversation, or will I sit them down to talk about it? Will I let it slip by accident, or will it be deliberate?

I guess only time will tell.

If I Be Weak

This is how the chorus of one of my favourite songs goes: ‘If you be weak / Then I’ll be strong / When the night is long’. Later on comes the counterpart: ‘If I be weak / Won’t you be strong / When the night is long.’*

I used to listen to that song a lot, back in my late teens and early twenties. I listened to it with the arrogance of youth. I did not understand how someone could be both strong and weak at the same time. In my head, I was and would always strive to be strong, to be the one comforting everyone else. I was able to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I liked to pretend that the second chorus, that question about whether someone else would be there if I broke down, did not exist.

I had very old-fashioned ideas about what strength was. For me, strength had always meant not showing vulnerability, being reliable, being able to prove myself, rising to the challenges thrown my way without ever admitting how much effort it took. I spent years and years trying to prove I could do everything by myself. Being strong meant doing everything, and doing it well. I am highly competitive, and I have always strived to be the best at everything I did – giving up things that I enjoyed but had no natural talent for because I would not ‘win’, be it against myself or someone else.

I have spent the last thirteen months (happy thirteen-month anniversary to me – officially my third-longest relationship ever!) constantly oscillating between wanting to show how strong I am, how I am keeping it all together, and wanting to break down, to admit that I am weak and need other people to help me stand. It is a real balancing act. I want people to see me as someone strong, secure, reliable. But I also want them to see the cracks and acknowledge they exist, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Some people acknowledge this weakness. It is the only thing they see. I had that revelation just a couple of weeks ago, when I received a letter from the GP advising me to call and schedule an appointment to receive the flu vaccine. I had received another one a couple of weeks earlier and ignored it – not on purpose. I simply forgot about it, because of how ludicrous it felt. After all, I am 28. I have never struggled with the flu – I get it every couple of years, spend a couple of days in bed with a fever, and have aches and a bad cough for a week. And that is it. Why would I need to have the flu vaccine? Surely other, weaker people could benefit from it more.

And then it hit me. Doctors see me as a person who is at higher risk. In their eyes, I am one of those weaker individuals. I need to be protected, to avoid adding to the numbers of hospitalisations over the winter months. I am not a normal 28-year-old anymore. I am different than I was eighteen months ago, when I was a healthy individual, for all intents and purposes. (Well, it is either that or the NHS spent so much money on getting me cured of cancer, they would be pretty pissed off if I then died of the flu) And so I booked an appointment at the GP, and I finally got my flu shot. My arm has only just stopped hurting. 

But that is just one point of view, the one of health professionals who know one aspect of my life only: the one where my body has let me down. Not everyone sees things that way.

The thing that makes me the most uncomfortable is hearing people tell me how strong I am. Of course, it is a perfectly standard, commonplace thing to say to people who have had cancer. If you have ever said it to me, please do not feel bad, do not feel like you did something wrong. I have said it to many people in similar situations. I will probably say it to others in the future. But it makes me cringe every time, and I want to be open about it.

Hearing that feels both like a compliment and a slap in the face, a duality which is exacerbated by the fact that I am responsible for people thinking of me that way. After all, I am the one trying to project that image, and still I am the one cringing when people recognise it, I am the one feeling sick, like I have been telling a lie that people believe. To quote a phrase that I have been using in every blog post so far – it makes no sense. I am happy to hear that people feel that way, see me that way. It makes me proud, it makes me feel like I am not as much of a failure as I feel most days. But it also hurts, because it feels as if they do not see how much I am struggling. They are ignoring my pain, ignoring the fact I was not cured with a simple snip of the scalpel, that it does much deeper than that. It feels like they will not allow me to be weak, they will not allow me to tell them I am not coping. Instead, I feel like I need to keep pretending, again and again. Keeping up appearances, forever.

But it is ok to be weak. It is normal. It does not mean I cannot be relied upon.

I remember when I first told my team at work. There were tears, there were words of support. But over the next days and weeks, I realised they had started avoiding telling me about their problems. They wanted to spare me. They wanted me to focus on my own issues, they felt like their work wobbles, their doubts, their personal troubles were somehow less relevant now. But it was not the case. I still want to be able to help and support everyone. My team need me. My family need me. My little brother needs my shoulder to cry on, he needs my enthusiasm, my support, my help to prop him up during a difficult time in his own life. It is a struggle, because I only have so much energy and emotional capacity, but I like it. I like knowing I will be there when they need me. ‘If you be weak, then I’ll be strong / When the night is long’

It is very contradictory. I do not want people to treat me differently because of cancer, but I also do. When I let people in, when I tell them about the last year, it is not because I somehow want them to feel bad for me. I do not want, I do not need their pity. What I need is for them to understand that, despite everything I show the world, I am also weak, and I need them to be strong for me. I need shoulders to cry on too. I need support. I need to be allowed to be weak. I need to know I can let go, and that things will not fall apart when I do. I am a broken vase that has been hastily put back together. I am vulnerable, but I still hold my shape. I need you to be there, super glue in hand, for the next time a crack opens up, and water starts pouring out. ‘If I be weak / Won’t you be strong / When the night is long’

*Armistice by Patrick Wolf. A masterpiece that has been playing on repeat on my phone and in my head since 2011.

Survivor Guilt and Impostor Syndrome

All cancers are not equal. That is a terrible thing, but that is the reality of it. Some are more deadly, some are tougher on the body. Some are quick, some take years to develop. Some are common, some are rare. Some are caught early, and some are never caught. I was one of the lucky ones. Womb cancer grows slowly, it is usually discovered early, and it can often be treated successfully with surgery, with or without the need for adjuvant therapy.

My final diagnosis was of endometrial adenocarcinoma, Stage 1a, Grade 1. After the operation, I was not encouraged to have any further treatment, as the risk of recurrence was quite low. That meant no radiotherapy, no chemotherapy. Other than the mess that is my head at the moment, the only proof I have that I had cancer are four small scars on my lower abdomen (unless you have an MRI machine at home – then I can show you I have organs missing from my body). Four small scars, only a couple of centimetres long, purple against my terribly pale skin. They will fade in time, and will no longer be so visible.

I know I am incredibly lucky. But there is a part of me – a part that I despise, and that I wish I could get rid of altogether – that feels guilty about this. That feels like I did not really have cancer, that I am claiming to be part of a group where I do not belong. My experience was so easy compared to others, it should not even count. I have no right to claim I am a cancer survivor.

I had been told that, after the results of the surgery came back, there was a chance I would need radiotherapy, even just as a preventative measure. So I had read all about it, and prepared myself for it. I had been ready for the doctor to tell me I needed a few sessions, I had researched how it would work, informed my manager of the possibility. When they instead told me they did not recommend any further treatment, and that the grade of the cancer was actually lower than they had initially assumed, I felt a huge sense of relief, which was immediately followed by a feeling of unease. So that was it, for now at least. That was my whole experience of cancer treatment, and it did not match what I most associated with cancer. No chemo, no radiotherapy. Without that adjuvant treatment and the risks and side-effects associated with it, I feel like I cannot claim that I have lived through a real, valid cancer experience. I feel guilty telling people about my cancer, I feel guilty of now having anxiety, depression and PTSD, when my experience was so much easier than most people. I should be glad, and I should be thankful.

I cry about it. I make myself sick when I think about it. I feel like I have no right to talk about these things, that it is not my place. I feel like I should not be struggling, it is shameful of me to complain, to feel bad about my situation, when so many other people have it much, much worse. Even writing this blog makes me feel guilty. Do I have the right to speak about this? Do I have the right to feel low, when people are grieving their relatives, when people are losing their lives to this awful disease? I did not even want children, so the loss of my reproductive ability is nothing compared to women who have always wanted children and have had that option ripped away from them. There was very little sacrifice on my part. I had it easy.

Those are all thoughts I have, maybe not every day, but at least a couple of times a week. There are words for them. Impostor syndrome. Survivor guilt.

I always worry that people are going to judge me if I say I suffered because of cancer. After all, all I needed was a quick operation – an hour and a half, snip snip, all done, goodbye cancer. Yes, I have follow-up appointments. Yes, I will be monitored for at least five years, to make sure the cancer does not come back – or catch it early if it does. But all that does not equate the pain and suffering of people with other forms of cancer, or more advanced disease.

I am afraid that people are not going to believe me if I tell them I had cancer a year ago. I am afraid of their reaction, of the fact they might judge me, and refuse to believe me because I show no exterior sign of having, or having had cancer at all. After the operation, when I first took public transport, I was afraid to sit down in a crowded train. I was afraid of the looks I would receive – me, a seemingly healthy woman in her twenties. I was exhausted, I was barely standing up, but I was afraid of people not realising that I was seriously ill, and judging me for taking someone else’s spot.

I always used to associate cancer with chemotherapy and hair loss, but all I needed was surgery. I kept all my hair (until I decided to cut it all off, before shaving half my head). It is something that still bothers me. I did not have the cancer experience that, for me, is the very definition of the disease. Did I even have cancer, if my experience was so easy, so short? Was my life really in that much danger, was it really overturned by the disease? Have I made it much bigger in my head than it was? Am I entitled to request help? I have a medical exemption certificate, which means I do not have to pay for my prescriptions for five years. And every time I use it, I feel guilty. Surely, there are people who need it more than I do, people whose body, whose life, whose livelihood have been affected by cancer a lot more than I have.

I sometimes feel like I should keep quiet about my mental health struggles. More than seven months passed between the moment when I first started feeling anxious and depressed, and when I finally spoke to my cancer team about it – and even then, it was only because I had a full-blown panic attack at my hospital appointment that I spoke to someone. In that moment, I was not able to hide it, to pretend everything was fine. If I had not been overcome by anxiety at that point, I would not have said a thing. After all, I am managing. I am living my life, I am still functioning. I go to work, I earn money, I pay my bills. Surely, I am not that ill. If I manage to do all this, surely I am fine, it cannot be that bad. Despite all the reassurance I have received from doctors, from my CNS, I still feel like I am wasting their time. There are people that are suffering more than I am, and they need their time more than I do. I am claiming help that I am not entitled to.

I read stories about people with cancer. I hear my friends talking about their family members, their own friends. I have lost people to cancer myself. I have family members currently undergoing treatment for advanced cancer. People who know there is very little hope. And I feel guilty. Why was I so lucky? Why did I have it so easy? And why, why do I not feel relief, why do I not rejoice in the idea that I am, as far as my doctors can tell, cancer-free? It is unfair.

I have not joined any support groups. I am afraid of being faced with people whose experience was a lot harder than mine, afraid that this will invalidate my own story. Afraid of the looks on their faces when I claim being one of them, when I know so little and have suffered a lot less. I feel like I do not belong, because of how easy I had it.

Every time I upload a new blog post, I have this ache in my heart, in my stomach. I worry about people reading this, and feeling like I am cheating. Like I am discussing things that I do not know. I am afraid they are going to see me as a fraud. As someone who is taking advantage. As someone who is claiming distress that they are not entitled to.

I have not spoken of this to anyone before today. Not to my doctors, not to my nurse, not to my family, not to my friends. I was editing a completely different article last night, which I was planning on publishing today, when I typed the title for this one. And then I could not stop writing, the words pouring out of my fingers and onto the page. I finished at 3am, long after the fireworks of Diwali had stopped.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Getting better. That has basically been my only goal since I first received my diagnosis last year. Everything else, life, friends, relationships, work, the future, it all took a step back, to allow me to focus on this one thing. Getting better is the aim, after all.

I always pictured my experience as a hurdle that I would need to pass. After that, life would start again, it would go on, I would be on a clear path to getting better and back to normal.

But as time goes by, and I start having first-year anniversaries of all the significant milestones of my diagnosis and treatment, I realise that getting better is not a straight line. It is full of curves, of hills that I thought I could not reach until I conquered them, of slopes that are too steep, too fast for me to go down safely. It is not an easy path.

There have been milestones throughout the year. So many moment where I thought ‘I have done this, now I will be fine’, only to reach a new low after a few weeks.

There was the operation, on 19th December. The day they told me the cancer was confirmed as Grade 1, Stage 1a, and no further treatment would be needed, on 13th January. The day I was prescribed hormone replacement therapy, on 26th February. The day I received a letter telling me there was no sign of a genetic mutation, sometime in late spring. The day after my first in-person follow-up, on 28th August. On those days, I felt relieved. I reached a new high each time. I felt like nothing could touch me. Depending on the appointments, I had been reassured that I was doing ok physically, or at least that things would start looking up.

But because there are highs, there are lows too. And every time I feel great, I know now that it is not going to last. That no matter what I do, there will be a point where I feel anxious, where I feel low, where I feel down again.

It can be overwhelming, this feeling that whatever you do, there is no progress. I am stalling. I am wary of even thinking things are fine, because I know there will come a time, pretty soon, where I will struggle again. I am afraid of getting my hopes up, because I fall harder every time.

I am at that point again, two months after my latest check-up, and a month before the next one, where I start panicking again at the thought that something might be physically wrong with me. That the cancer is back. I have nightmares about it. I wake up thinking about it. I go about my day, and I think about it every minute. I try to go to sleep, telling myself that I am another day closer to receiving bad news again. It is completely irrational. I know the chances of it happening are very low, but I cannot control it. I have tried CBT, I still try and undo this negative thinking pattern, but it all-consuming.

I feel anxious, and I feel low. Because so much of my energy is focused on this, I feel tired all the time. I feel unmotivated. I do not have the energy to do anything. I try reading a book, and I have to give up after two pages, my brain will not let me focus on it. I will watch a film and switch after ten minutes.

I feel all the emotions, all at the same time. I feel sad. I am downhearted. I feel angry. I am frustrated. I cry. I am mad, and I slam on my keyboard. I swear at myself, I swear at clients, I swear at my friends – but only in my head, and in my flat.

What I thought helped does not anymore. I thought that yoga helped me relax, and now I just cry at the idea of lying down on my mat. I thought medication was working, but I feel worse than I did weeks ago. I started doing crafts again and thought I had found my focus again, but I have to force myself to pick up my knitting needles at the moment. I thought that writing had really helped, that it had allowed me to put words on my feelings, that I was seeing the light again, only to realise that I have taken a huge step backwards, and I am now back where I was six weeks ago.

It is disheartening. I keep feeling like things are looking up, only to be disappointed again. Disappointed in myself, both for letting myself feel like this and having had the hope to think that maybe, it would not be the case this time.

It is a pattern I will have to get used to. Triggers that I will need to identify, and can prevent before I fall into a downward spiral again. What started it this time? I cannot pinpoint a single factor. There are a multitude of reasons, some more personal than others. Cancer anxiety. Family issues. Politics. Workload. Lockdown. Worry about not being able to finally go home at Christmas, and see the family and friends I have not seen for over a year. Watching my friends achieving things, reaching their goals, whilst I am still here, stuck in my post-cancer rut, unable to move on.

Thirty days until my next appointment. I know that if everything goes well, a new high point awaits me on the other side. And it is higher, better, deeper each time. I will feel happy again. I will feel like I am back to normal again. But if you are looking for me in the meantime, I will be hiding under a blanket with a Christmas-scented candle burning next to me.

A Creature of Habit

I used to be the type of person who was always up for something new. Sure, I had my favourite books, which I re-read once a year, my favourite films, which I would watch curled up in bed when I had a bad day. But I would rejoice in discovering something new, in watching something with the hope of being pleasantly surprised.

I cannot do that anymore.

In the last twelve months, I can probably count on one hand the number of films I have watched for the first time. For every single one of those, I read the plot first, I researched the synopsis, I looked for a detailed summary, I searched for spoilers.

Instead of starting new TV shows during lockdown, I have re-watched the same ones, again and again. I call them my little obsessions, and watch the same episodes several times over, sometimes in a different order, sometimes restarting series from the beginning. I know exactly what is going to happen. I find comfort in the lack of surprise.

I have read the same books over and over again, so much that I got sick of some of my favourites. So I bought new ones, and I jumped straight to the end and read the last few pages before coming back to the beginning.

What am I afraid of? Everything.

I have never liked surprises. I have always delighted in reading spoilers on purpose before watching the new episode of a TV show (except for that episode of The Good Wife – I was not ready). But I used to like finding new, exciting stuff to watch, new authors to follow.

Now, I am afraid that something, somewhere, will be a trigger and send me into a dark place. I try, sometimes. I watched the new series of Queer Eye in the spring, settling on the sofa with my coziest blanket and a cup of tea. It is one of the most heart-warming shows ever, and I had loved the previous series. There are a number of episodes that I still watch when I am feeling down. But I was not able to enjoy the new series. Every minute, I was afraid someone was going to mention their experience with a life-threatening disease. Terrified that I would be able to relate, that I would see my own experience on TV, see what my family might be going through, what could have been. Convinced it would send me in a world of tears and anxiety if it happened – and it did.

Whenever I watch something new, I am on edge. I cannot relax. You never know when a trigger is going to appear. I do not even know what all my triggers are. Sometimes, it will be a character talking about having lost a child, and my brain will start going crazy, imagining what my parents could have felt like. Some other times, it will be someone mentioning how they got their scars, and I will think about mine, about having to explain to someone how I got the four purple lines on my stomach.

Some triggers are both obvious and insidious. I was reading a new book the other day, something that was supposed to be short and light-hearted. I did what I always do, read the summary, read the ending. All seemed fine. So I started, and halfway through the book, it was revealed that the main character had had cancer, and had turned her life around after getting better. That was a punch in the gut. It was not the main plot point. It was in the background, it was a way for the author to justify the character’s anguish and struggles. But it moved me to tears, and all I could do for the next couple of hours was curl into a ball and wait for it to pass, taking deep breaths, trying cognitive behavioural therapy and only getting more frustrated when it did not work.

It is exhausting, to constantly be on the edge, to know that you might break down at any moment and be terrified of when it could happen. It takes so much energy, so much brainpower. And it is physically draining too – my whole body tenses up, I grind my teeth and do not breathe correctly. It is impossible to relax.

I have developed obsessions, because they are comforting. They allow me to feel safe, to feel protected. To have a break and to escape, if only for a few moments, the ‘deep, aching sense of dread’, to quote a line from Schitt’s Creek. No matter how many times I re-watch that gem of a show (and trust me, it is close to a dozen now), I know how it is going to go. I know where I will laugh, where I will cry, where I will love. I will know the lines, I will be able to anticipate and prepare myself for the feelings that are to come. There a lot of triggers for me in there, so many moments where I shout at the TV ‘that’s me!’ – usually when someone is being overdramatic for no reason at all. But I know they are about to happen, and I am ready for them.

I have read each of The Dharma Bums and On The Road twice since the beginning of the year. It brings back happy memories, it brings back moments of my life where I felt like nothing could touch me, where my biggest worry was whether I would be able to finish my essay in time to go out with my friends. I read Harry Potter again in the spring, because of how safe it felt.

I know I should try and widen my horizons again. I cannot keep watching and reading the same things over and over again. So I will give it a go every now and then, but always with the same care – read the plot summary, try and know of any major spoilers before I make a start. Get a feel of how it might affect me, so I can make sure I will not break down when the time comes.

I have tried asking recommendations from friends, and getting details out of them before I start reading or watching something new. It is hard, because small details which they might not notice will send me over the edge. I struggle putting my triggers into words, so I cannot ask them exactly what I need to know, what I need to avoid. It is also not fair on them – I do not want my friends to focus on my issues when they are relaxing.

It will probably take quite a bit of time for me to feel comfortable discovering new stories. In the meantime, there is an old season of Gilmore Girls calling my name.