Reclaiming My Body

Surgery took away some of my organs. I lost the hormones I had relied on for years. Cancer started, and spread inside of me for months, possibly even years, and I did not notice. How can I trust this body? How can it ever feel like mine again?

Womb cancer, or endometrial cancer, happens most often in older women who have been through menopause already. The most common sign that something is wrong is unexplained bleeding. Because I was only 27 when I was diagnosed, I attributed any bleeding to irregular periods, which I had had ever since I first went on the pill as a teenager. I had flagged this up to a gynaecologist before leaving Paris back in 2014, and I had been told it was no cause for concern, it was quite common actually. It would take years for me to bring it up again with a doctor, which prompted a series of tests which eventually led to my diagnosis. Along from bleeding, some women with endometrial cancer also experience pelvic pain, which helps them realise something is not quite right. I never felt anything.

I have always had a high pain threshold. And I mean, very high. I once knelt on push pins that had fallen to the floor (I was a messy kid), and only noticed something was wrong when blood started seeping through my jeans. I played tennis with damaged ligaments, and only went to A&E after my foot turned blue. I could put my hands over a hot plate and not feel any pain.

After my hysterectomy, I did not need any painkillers. In the hospital, I only asked for them once, in the hope that they would help me sleep when the constant beeping of the machines kept me awake. When I was discharged from the hospital, they gave me a large box of codeine tablets, to take whenever I was in pain. They are still in my bathroom cabinet as I write this post, ten months later.

Now, I cannot help but wonder if my resistance to pain prevented me from seeing something was wrong. Had I felt pain, maybe I would have gone to the doctor earlier. Maybe they would have recognised the signs, maybe I would have been diagnosed more quickly. It would not have changed much – luckily, my cancer was caught at a very early stage anyway. But you cannot help but wonder what if, and blame your body for betraying you.

When someone gives you the unexpected news, so many things go through your head as you try to process it. So many feelings, some of which you can describe, some of which you have no words for, as you have never felt them before. I had this thought though, this disturbing but unrelenting idea that I did not know my own body. After all, cancer had been developing inside of me for months, maybe longer, and I had had no idea. Something sinister had been happening inside my body, something was growing and spreading, and I had not been able to tell.

You cannot see your womb. There is something incredible about your existence being threatened by a part of you you cannot even see. It is a silent, unnoticeable threat. There is nothing you can do about it. You cannot locate the cancer in your body. You cannot pinpoint the exact spot where something is happening. For someone like me, who likes seeing and experiencing things first-hand in order to understand them, it was mind-boggling.

I have never had the best relationship with my body. I have put it through hell, I have gone from one extreme to another, I have hated it at times. But that was the last straw. I had no trust left for my body. I had been betrayed by a part of me, by cells and organs that made up who I was. For the very first time, I realised I truly had no control.

Treatment only made that worse. Surgery is hard on the body, in many different ways. For me, it was the only real option if I wanted to live. So I accepted it. I was peace with it. But still, it felt like it was being forced on me. My organs were going to be literally ripped out of my body, and I had no say in the matter. Was it even still my body, since I could not control what was happening to it?

After surgery, I struggled physically. So many things I used to take for granted, I could no longer do. Small things I was not allowed to do, like lifting a kettle or bending over to tie my shoes. Sitting up without using my arms, which my body now simply refused to do.

The loss of hormones which accompanied the removal of my ovaries did not help. Suddenly, I would find myself crying, and unable to explain why. I would feel weak, I would feel hot. I had headaches which lasted for days. I had strange pains in my muscles, my body was doing its own thing, I would wake up cold and drenched in sweat. I would feel hungry, and then could go days without eating.

To get through it, I detached myself from my body entirely. I convinced myself that my body was going through something, but my mind was on a different path. My body was weak, it was diseased, but my mind was going to be fine, it would stay strong.

It is freeing, but it is also terrifying. There are days where I look in the mirror and I do not recognise what I see. Where I cannot make the link between my body and the image I have of myself.

I am working on it. I am now aware of every single thing that happens in my body. A twinge here, a tremor there, I am conscious of everything, but I cannot tell what is causing it. There is a disconnect between my mind and my body. I overreact about every sensation in every part of my body. If I was not able to tell the signs the first time around, I should now try and listen to every signal it is giving me, should I not? I feel afraid of my own body, of how it could be letting me down at any second.

But it is my body, and I hope to have it for many years to come, so I have to reclaim it. I have to make it feel like mine again. I might not have been in control of what happened to it a year ago, but I now hold the reins of what is left of it. I keep experimenting with my hair, because I feel lucky I was able to keep it throughout the last year. I cut it, I shave it, I bleach it, I dye it. It is all mine. I got a new tattoo, I have plans for more. I did not choose the scars on my belly, but I get to choose these ones. From now on, the marks I make on my body will be all mine.

I barely flinched when getting my latest tattoo, but I felt it. It was a slight pain, a twitch in my arm, but I felt it, and it was amazing. I knew where the pain was coming from, what was causing it, and I was the one who had made that choice. I had control. I could have stopped it at any moment. My body and my brain were connected for a while, and it was my own doing.

It is both beautiful and terrible. You should not have to cause yourself pain in order to reconnect with your body. For months after getting that tattoo, I kept tracing the raised lines over my arms, the scars which were giving me comfort. When they disappeared, as the tattoo finished healing, I felt a deep sense of loss.

I have taken to wearing different clothes. I used to always be hot and wear short sleeves. Now I wear huge jumpers, just to feel warmth around my body, to surround it with something I can touch every time I move. I wear trousers, when I always wore dresses. You can feel trousers against your skin, you can feel your body moving with them, straining against them as you change positions. I wear rings every day, just to stay aware of my fingers.

It is not an easy road. I do not make these decisions on purpose, all the time. It would be exhausting. I think my brain found a way to tell me what my body needed, without me being aware of it.

I need to listen to it. To all the signs. I cannot understand them, not yet. Every feeling, every sensation that I do not control causes fear. But I have a support team. I have a nurse who I can call when I am worried about symptoms. There are doctors who can tell me what is happening, who can reassure me. It is normal. My feelings are normal, my reactions are normal, my body is normal again, as far as they can tell.

It will need some getting used to. I hope one day, I no longer need people to help me understand my own body. But in the meantime, I will keep on learning to take care of it, so that we can support each other, me and this body that I am reclaiming.

Single, Self-Sufficient and Still in Need of Support

‘Do you have a partner?’ That is the very first question I was asked after being given my diagnosis. I said no. ‘Do you have any family around?’ I shook my head: ‘They are in France.’ ‘Do you live on your own? Do you have any close friends here?’

I have always been fiercely independent. I do not trust people easily. I used to think I did not need anyone, ever. I moved to the UK right after finishing uni in Paris, saying goodbye to friends and family I would only see a couple times a year from there on. I liked the challenge, the idea of not relying on anyone but myself. I was building a life for myself, with very little help from anyone else. I was financially, emotionally and physically self-sufficient, and that made me strong.

I am a people person. The coaster on my desk reads ‘I like otters, it’s people who annoy me’ – it is accurate, but also not. I am independent but I love having people around. I am very close to my friends, I am fiercely loyal to them, I enjoy meeting new people and building new relationships. Even during lockdown, I found ways of staying in touch with people – messaging friends at all hours of the day and night (they stopped replying to every single text after a while – how rude).

I get on with my family, most of the time. I see them a couple of times a year, we have a great time, then I go back to my life. We are not in constant contact, they do not know every single facet of my life, and that works for me.

I have been single, casually dating most of my adult life. I do not feel the need to constantly be in a relationship. I have always struggled to let people in, trust them enough to let them be a permanent part of my life. I do not like change, I am terrible at compromise, and that does not make it easy to build a life with someone.

Did I feel lonely? Sometimes, but I think most people have similar feelings from time to time. Would I support my friends through anything? Absolutely. You can call me at any hour of the day and night, and I will jump in a taxi/on a train/on a plane if you need me. Because I was so keen on being self-sufficient, on being independent, because I tend to keep my feelings and my problems to myself, I had never considered a situation in which the roles would be reversed. Would I be able to reach out, if anything was to happen? Would people be there for me like I would for them? Would I even want to ask for support?

I will admit the thought of doing this on my own crossed my mind. In the first few seconds, in the first few minutes after I understood what was happening inside my body, I considered not telling anyone. I thought it would be best. I thought I would protect people by not telling them. But I decided to reach out, and I am grateful every day that I did.

I reached out to my mum. I do not speak to her often, maybe a couple text messages every week or so (mostly talking about cats), one video call a month, two or three quick trips back home a year. But I called her straightaway on that day. And she offered to tell everyone in the family, to break the news herself as I was not strong enough to do it.

I reached out to two different groups of friends whilst still in the hospital. I texted some of my best friends here in the UK, people who knew I had a doctor’s appointment that morning. And then, I messaged some of my friends from home, people who have been by my side for over ten years now. The support started pouring in.

Obviously, I needed to tell work. I asked one of my friends from work to speak to my manager, and tell her that I had had some bad news at the appointment. I walked home. I cried all the way up the hill (and what a hill it is). I went into my room. I think my housemates were in, at least some of them. I did not see them. Did they hear me cry that day? Maybe.

I called my manager, and I gave her the news, lying on my bed, clutching my phone with one hand and the appointment letter in the other. I cried throughout, I said I would come into work later that day.

Once that was done, that was it. All areas of my life had been covered. Work, friends, family (not necessarily in that order). Someone from each of my social bubbles knew about it. It made it real, it also made it easier. Once you start telling people, it is no longer your burden only.

As the hours and days passed, I started telling more people. Every time, I told myself that I was only doing it for a practical reason. I told my housemates, because I was going to be home more often, because they might walk into me crying in the living room. I messaged more friends from the UK, because they were people I was going to see face to face in the next few weeks, and they would realise something was wrong. I told my team at work, convincing myself I was only doing it so they could understand why I disappeared every other day for a few hours, and why I would be off for six weeks later in the year.

But what I was really doing was showing people, for the first time in my life, that I needed emotional support.

Every time I told someone, I felt guilty. I felt guilty of bringing people into this situation, of making them part of something they had not asked for. It felt like I was involving them in something terrible, just to ease my own pain. Like I was forcing my issues on them, like I was asking too much of them, in a selfish and undeserving way.

Because of those feelings, I decided that I would not tell any of my other friends unless they reached out and asked how I was doing. I have always been terrible at lying, so I would not have been able to hide the truth. I would not share the news on social media, I would not do one big announcement, I would not shout it from the rooftops.

The support was overwhelming. I do not think I will ever be able to thank people for the kindness and understanding they showed me. Be it the friends who hugged me on the day of the diagnosis (one of the few times I allowed people to hug me), who drove me to my appointments, sat with me in the waiting room and asked the questions I could not think of, the friends who kept asking how I was doing, the ones who drove across the country just to spend an evening with me, the ones who sent cards and origami otters, the ones who told people I could not face, the ones who came to spend New Year’s Eve with me, crossing the Channel just to be there after the surgery, the ones who held me when I cried, the ones who were angry on my behalf when the surgery got cancelled the first time around, the ones who called the nurse for me when I could not even hold the phone, the ones who drove me home after the surgery, the ones who felt uncomfortable and pushed through it, because I needed them.

My parents who, barely speaking English, dropped everything to be with me for the surgery – my dad who, on my scheduled operation day, waited with me in the hospital for eight hours before the surgery was called off due to a lack of available beds, and was angrier and quieter than I have ever seen him when they told us to go home (and that includes that evening in 2002 when the far-right got into the second round of the French presidential elections). My mum, who came two weeks later for the rescheduled surgery, and listened to me babbling in English when I woke up from general anaesthesia, unable to speak a word of French. My brothers, who came to spend Christmas with me and agreed to watch Home Alone and Home Alone 2 back to back, snuggled up on the sofa.

My colleagues, who cried when I gave them the news, and my team, who bore with me when I kept bursting into tears at random times during the day and could barely get any work done. People who gave me advice, who told me they would be there for me if I needed them.

People who are still here for me today as I am struggling with depression, PTSD and anxiety, and for whom I have vowed to battle through it all, and come out stronger on the other side.

I am still independent. I am still tough, I am still strong. I now live on my own, and I love it. I still have my walls up with most of the world, even close friends, but I now understand the value of support. And you can be independent, you can be self-sufficient and still need a helping hand from time to time.

Fighting For My Right Not To Have Children

In the two months between my diagnosis and the surgery, I lost count of how many times I had to explain I did not want children, and I was not planning on preserving my fertility. I was used to it – after all, announcing to the world you do not want children rarely goes well, even today. But I was not prepared to have to fight for my voice to be heard.

When you are first told that the only treatment for your condition is a hysterectomy, many things go through your head. For me, the first one was ‘will that cure me?’, but I have always had a very rational mind. Before cancer, and during the diagnosis and treatment process, I was very much focused on the big picture. I saw an issue, I thought of a solution. I only considered the smaller details inasmuch as they could help achieve the bigger goal. This has changed since then, I find the bigger picture terrifying, overwhelming, and I find comfort in details and small-scale decisions.

For me, it was cancer, but many women go through a hysterectomy for other reasons. In a way, I probably had it easy. I did not have to fight to have my hysterectomy, the doctors agreed it was the only viable option. It was going to happen no matter what – unless I refused treatment entirely, which is always an option. And obviously, a hysterectomy is a major operation, with major consequences on your life and your future. Although it is a fairly standard procedure, and there are fewer risks than a number of other major surgeries, it has lasting effects, particularly on younger women. Without a uterus, you will not be able to get pregnant.

I have a pretty good knowledge of biology – I took A-levels (or, more accurately, the French equivalent, the bac) in science, and biology was one of the main components. The minute I heard ‘hysterectomy’, I knew what it meant for my fertility. The doctor who gave me the news made sure to explain as well, to ensure I had all the information. At that stage, he mentioned that it might also be necessary to remove my ovaries, due to the grade of the cancer on the biopsy they had taken. The cancer appeared to be Grade 2, and removal of the ovaries is recommended in that case, as more aggressive types of womb cancer have a tendency to spread to the ovaries as well. If the biopsy had shown Grade 1 lesions only (as my cancer would later end up being), I would have been given the option to keep my ovaries, and to harvest eggs later should I wish to have a biological child.

The procedure which I would be undergoing would be a total hysterectomy with bi-lateral salpingo-oophorectomy. I know, it is a mouthful and a half – try saying it in a language that is not your mother tongue, after you wake up from general anesthesia. No womb, no ovaries, no tubes. It is a lot to take in – or take out, as it is.

On that first day, the first doctor I saw – he did not have an interest in gynaecological oncology, and had very limited knowledge of my case, as he had to break the news to me at a routine appointment and did not have much information – mentioned that I should be thinking about fertility-preserving options. I was overwhelmed. I had just been given the news that I had cancer – you brain cannot process much information after this. Or at least, mine could not. I had understood that meant I would not have children. I was very quickly at peace with that. I had never been particularly keen on having children, and so in my opinion, it was not a huge loss. It was also something I was definitely prepared to do in order to survive, which is what it came down to. I told the doctor there and then that I was fine with it. No children in exchange for a 95% cancer-free survival rate at Stage 1, I would take that any day.

The next day, I had an appointment with a specialist in gynaecology oncology, and a Macmillan nurse was also present. This was exactly what I needed. Facts, accurate information, options, everything was discussed. I had a friend with me, here to support me emotionally and take in all the information I could not process, ask all the questions I could not think of. And at that appointment, they broached the subject which the previous doctor had only hinted at – fertility preservation. That would involve retrieving eggs or ovarian tissue, and freezing them. This could allow for potential future in-vitro fertilization of eggs, and the possibility of having a biological child, using a surrogate. The success rates of such procedures vary greatly, but it was an option.

It was always very clear in my head – this was not something I was interested in. There were several reasons for this, which I had been listing ever since the possibility had been brought up. One of my arguments for not having children even before cancer is that there are too many children in need of adoptive or foster parents, and I was always very open to the idea of adopting instead of having children, if I ever went down the route of having a family. I was not even sure I wanted a family, so it would be a waste of resources and money for my eggs to be preserved, if I ever was to decide I did not want to use them. Finally, I did not like the idea of forcing something that was not meant to be – if I could not have biological children naturally, I would rather not force nature and involve science, resources and energy to try and make it happen. I think it is absolutely right for people who wish to go down that path, but it is not for me. And I think a part of me was relieved. If I said no to fertility preservation, I had a clean break. There was no option, there was no disappointment if ever IVF and surrogacy did not work. I had arguments, I had made up my mind, I was very sure of myself. This was not something I had decided on a whim. I had never really wanted children, I was ready for that option to be taken away from me entirely.

I mentioned this to my team, and they were understanding. They did tell me that they wanted me to see a fertility expert before I made up my mind. I understand why they did. They do have to make sure that you are not going to regret your choice in 5, 10, 15 years. Womb cancer is very rare amongst young women, so not many have to make this choice. Caution is recommended. I was a bit disappointed. In my mind, I had already made my choice. I presented my reasoning, thought it made a convincing argument. It made sense for me. Surely it would make sense for them.

Maybe it did. But they still requested that appointment. I was fragile emotionally at that point, I will not lie. I cried about it, I complained a lot. I felt like I was not being listened to. Now, a year later, I understand. But it did not make it any easier at the time.

Because I was so young and there were factors which could make the procedure more complicated, I was referred to a specialised hospital in Oxford. A new team, a new set of doctors, a new string of appointments. That was going to be my life for the foreseeable future. All appointments, all tests were scheduled. All but the fertility one. At each appointment, I kept mentioning it. I was calling the nurse in between appointments, in between assessments, asking when I could have that appointment. That appointment I dreaded, that appointment I did not want to have.

I was scared. The date of the surgery was getting closer, and still no appointment. I was advised to call the fertility secretary myself. I called, I sent emails, I chased. I was a mess. I was glued to my phone, I was crying in the loo at work, I had to cancel meetings and work trips ‘just in case the appointment falls on that day.’ By that point, I had told about eight different doctors and nurses I did not wish to preserve my fertility, and got the same answer every time: ‘you need to speak to a fertility expert’. I protested (I was truly a horrible patient, and I apologise for it), and was told several times told that it was because I was so young, and there was a risk I would change my mind and they wanted me to consider all the options. I was not young anymore. I had aged about 20 years in the space of four weeks. I knew my mind, I was frustrated. I was afraid it would delay the surgery, as they refused to carry it out without me having spoken to a specialist. Finally, ten days before the surgery was scheduled, I was given an appointment. The hysterectomy was planned for a Tuesday, the fertility appointment would take place the Friday before. Cutting it close.

I had been arguing with doctors, but I was also fighting people in my personal life. People who kept telling me that I should reconsider. Friends. Family. The same arguments that the doctors had made to explain the need for that appointment, my loved ones now gave me to convince me to go ahead with fertility preservation. You are too young. You are going to regret it if you do not do it. You will see, in ten years. But do you not want to try, just do it and see if you want to use them later? It costs you nothing. And probably the most infuriating of all: but what about your future partner? What if he wants children of his own? Arguments that after a while, made me want to cry. Of course I had considered it. Of course I wished that I had been given the choice to have children. Having it taken away from you is extremely violent. It takes away your free will, and even though it is no different from what you wanted, it feels like something has been ripped away from you. I like options. I like having a choice. I often saw myself as one of these women who would decide not to have children, who would stand up against society. By taking that away from me, it was like a part of me I liked no longer existed. But at the same time, it was about making that choice, right there, right then. I would not have children, and that would be it.

All the fight had been taken out of me at that point. I remember going to the hospital, being in a room with the fertility expert, a medical student and another woman. They explained the options. I said I was not interested. And that was it. No explanations needed, no justification. I had made the choice in front of an expert, that was enough. I signed the papers they gave me. I agreed to donate part of my ovaries to research, so they could try and improve on options to preserve fertility in younger girls undergoing chemo or radiotherapy.

I have not regretted my decision. I am still angry about having had to fight to get my voice heard, to even get an appointment. To have had to speak to so many different people about it, to have given the same answer, again and again. To have had to justify my choice in front of people who should have been supporting me during this time, not making me feel guilty about the decision I was taking. To have been told time and time again that I was too young to make a decision like this. I was too young for cancer too, but cancer did not care.

Before cancer, I had to justify my lack of interest in children to people who had no say in the matter. Now, when they ask me, I just tell them that I cannot have children. I see pity in many people’s eyes, but all I feel is relief, because I no longer have to explain myself.

I Am A Woman

When I first heard the word ‘cancer’, when I was in that cold, cluttered room with a doctor I had met less than a minute earlier, I did not think for one second about how it would affect my identity. I did not imagine it would ever change the way I thought about myself, the words I had used to describe myself for years, decades. But it did, and I am constantly fighting to reprise an identity that was taken from me the minute I became another case on the surgeon’s schedule.

I have always been a feminist. I cannot remember when I first realised it. Maybe it was during discussions with my mum, with my gran, with these women who helped shape my life, sometimes despite themselves. Maybe it was because of arguments with friends, with my brothers, with teachers. I remember trying to deny it, pretending that I did not care, saying that I was not a feminist, no, I was in favour of equality between all genders, not just promoting women’s rights. I was a feminist then, and I am a feminist now.

I have always been proud of being a woman. There have been times where I found it hard, but I have always wanted to stand up for women, celebrate how strong we were, I have always admired women and everything they represent. My idols are strong, passionate women who support each other. I love being a woman, and though I might not love everything that comes with it, I would not wish to change that for anything in the world.

If there was ever one thing I was sure of, one truth that I could always go back to when in doubt, it was my identity as a woman. I used to be a girl, then I became an insufferable teenager, and finally I made my way into womanhood. I have always felt like a woman, even when I considered myself a tomboy, wearing ripped jeans, riding my bike, insisting on buying boy’s hoodies (and then went through an absolutely contradictory phase, where I did not wear anything but dresses and skirts for over five years – I am an all or nothing kind of person). I never even considered the possibility of feeling differently. I never felt the need to justify my feeling like a woman – it was so obvious to me, it was engrained into every single part of my being. It took me a while to realise I was coming from a place of privilege, being so sure of myself, fitting into one of these pre-defined categories. I consider myself a very open-minded individual, especially as regards gender and sexual identity. I never truly believed that a person’s gender was defined by their sexual organs (or lack thereof). As I grew up, I became more aware of gender identity and gender studies, and I find it absolutely fascinating (and I don’t just mean that I am obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race and cry every single time someone struggles with their gender identity on there. Even though that’s true too). I just never thought, privileged as I was, that I would ever not feel like a woman.

When the doctor told me that the only ‘reliable’ treatment option for my cancer would be a total hysterectomy, I did not imagine for one second that it would affect how I thought of myself. I remember sitting on that sofa, in a quiet room, calling my mum, messaging my closest friends, breaking the news to them less than an hour after having heard them myself, and I remember thinking that it was alright. It would just mean never being able to get pregnant, and no more periods. The latter, I could do without. The former was more complicated.

My life goal had never been to have children. I am terrified of pregnancy. I took more pregnancy tests ‘just in case’ in my early twenties than most people who are trying to get pregnant will ever take, just because of how much the possibility that I might be pregnant scared me, and I needed to be sure. Really, really sure. I am afraid of babies, I am not good with children (do not tell that to the families I used to babysit for). But at the same time, looking down the line, looking at how I saw my life in 10, 15 years – could I really say I never imagined having children, having a family? I could not. As I told my dad, a mere few weeks before the diagnosis, when no-one had any idea of what was happening in my body, I could ‘see myself one day considering thinking that I might not not want to have children.’ It was a very remote possibility, and I took my decision there and then. I would have the hysterectomy, and I would never carry children.

Further down the line (I will write a post about it, or maybe several), before the operation, I had to consider whether I wanted to freeze my eggs. Or, as the experts call it, ‘explore fertility-preservation options’. I had decided from the very moment they mentioned it that it was not something I wanted to do, not something I felt comfortable with. So this was it, then. I would lose my ability to have children that were biologically mine, and I was perfectly fine with it.

I know and admire plenty of women who are unable to have children, for one reason or another. I also know and support many who do not wish to have them. It does not make anyone less of a woman in my eyes.

And despite all this, I have struggled. I have struggled with my identity as a woman. There are days where that thought haunts me, and I do not know why. Is it the loss of my reproductive organs, even though I never believed they were what made me a woman? Is it the loss of my ability to have children, even though I did not particularly want them? Is it the loss of hormones caused by the surgical menopause, despite the fact that in my eyes, older women are still women?

I am always harder on myself than I am on others. I judge myself a lot more harshly than I do other people. Maybe that is it. But deep down, I think it is also the thought that other people might not see me as a true woman. I know who I am, but how can you predict how other people will react? How do you know what someone will think? And I am not naïve. I know very well that plenty of people consider that your gender identity lies with your reproductive organs. Well, in that case, mine burned down ten months ago.

The first time I felt like this was mere days after the surgery. I had just gone home after two nights in the hospital, and my family had come over to spend Christmas with me. They were staying at an AirBnB a few streets down from where I lived, and I was spending the night on my own. It was maybe the first or second night I was on my own. It woke me up in the middle of the night, and the pain was worse than any physical pain I had ever experienced. Who was I? Was I still a woman? It was the very first time I cried after the surgery.

It crops up regularly. Sometimes there are triggers. They are often silly, often extrapolations of my own imagination. I take things personally. I cry, and other times I get angry. One of my worst episodes was in the spring.

I have always been a huge Harry Potter fan. I know everything there is to know about it, they are the first books I read in English, just because I could not wait for the French version to be released. And that tweet from JK Rowling angered me like few things have angered me in the past. I was angry on behalf of the trans community, I was angry on behalf of some of my friends, I was angry on behalf of everyone who does not fit within the cisgender majority. I was angry on behalf of anyone who had been hurt by her words. And it took me a while to realise I was angry on behalf of myself as well. I do not menstruate, and I am a woman. I do not have a uterus, and I am a woman. My body does not produce oestrogen on its own, and I am a woman.

I say it to myself sometimes. I look at myself in the mirror, and I tell myself ‘I am a woman.’ It alleviates the doubts for a while. I am a woman.

The Post That Started It All

Although I have always loved writing, I had never thought of writing a blog to share my experience. One the eve of the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I decided I wanted to share my experience with people, and wrote and shared a long facebook post. The response I received was overwhelming. People reaching out, comments about how much they related, how much they appreciated that I had shared that with them. I realised that not only had sharing this post lifted a weight off my chest, but it had helped others as well. And overnight, the idea to start a blog came to me, and I decided to make the jump. The post below is taken from the message I wrote on that night, the 14th of October 2020.

If you know me, you probably know I am not a fan of feelings.

They are unpredictable, they are messy, they make you vulnerable, they are overwhelming. I am uncomfortable experiencing them, let alone talking about them or sharing them on facebook.

I have been thinking about it a lot this past year.

A year ago, if you had asked me where I would be in a year, I probably would have given you some positive, commonplace and deliberately hopeful answer, like ‘oh, I hope I have my life together, a good job, a boyfriend, maybe a new flat, I will have made some progress with my writing, started a small calligraphy business, who knows.’

Well, let’s be honest, it turned out slightly differently.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up and it will have been a year since I was given a diagnosis of cancer. A year since I first cried in front of friends, family, and strangers (I will make an exception for all those times I cried when I was drunk before – it does not count), and since I started doing it most days, because it is often the easiest answer to the question ‘how are you doing?’. Crying is not a feeling, and it is all my feelings at once.

I truly thought that when the dreaded one year mark would come up, I would be feeling all positive, ready to put it all behind me. After all, the prognosis was extremely good, the operation went well, I am expected to make a full recovery, recurrence is fairly unlikely.

But then, cancer had been very unlikely too.

A year is the perfect moment to turn the page on everything that has happened. A new chapter, a new beginning, that is what everyone has been saying, and I have too. Only, I have been lying.

I still cry every day, and that is not likely to magically change from tomorrow. I think about it every day, I think about the exact moment, at 9.10 in the morning, when I saw the first of scores of doctors. I cannot remember the name of the surgeon who operated on me, or the nurse who chatted to me whilst I was recovering, but I can remember the name of the doctor who gave me the news, telling me he was not supposed to be the one to tell me, as he had no interest in oncology, that it should have been done differently, not at a routine appointment, that he wished he was not the one delivering these news, that they should have asked for someone to come with me, that they did not because they did not expect it, that they did not even have a specialist nurse available.

I did not cry, even as he explained what the treatment would involve, and what it meant for the rest of my life. I asked if I could call someone. I had no idea who I was going to call. I could not even think straight, but I was obsessed with the idea that I had to save face, that I would not cry in front of him. They set me up in a quiet room with a cup of tea – even asked me what kind of tea I wanted. I took out my phone and without hesitating, I called my mum.

And then I started crying.

I have not stopped. I cry in the mornings, I cry when I make a cup of tea, I cry when I look at my scars, I cry when I think about the plans I had a year ago.

I am not turning the page, I am continuing to write on a scroll that only gets longer and longer, and that is ok too.

I have had the best support over the past year. Friends, family, colleagues, housemates, Macmillan nurses, everyone has been fantastic.

I still do not like feelings. I do not talk about them, but I have started writing them down, in the hope that in the future, I will be able to make sense of them, and help someone else like people have helped me.

I will continue saying I am fine when you ask me how I am doing.

And one day, it will be true.