Rebuilding My Identity, Finding My Voice

People often say that serious illness made them reconsider their priorities. That it made everyday troubles, fleeting friendships and things they had previously enjoyed seem unimportant. ‘Did it change your whole outlook on life?’ is a question I have had to answer more than a handful of times. Did it?

At first, I barely noticed it. During treatment, I was intent on sticking to my well-established routine. Get up, have a shower, put my face on (even though I was probably going to end up crying my make-up off), get dressed. Hop onto the train, get to work. Put in exactly the same amount of effort I would have prior to my diagnosis. It was comforting. I could pretend nothing had changed.

I was adamant that I was still the same person. I did postpone some things – I had considered moving abroad again, a change of scenery. That was no longer an option, but I told myself it would still happen – in time. Cancer was a fleeting period in my life, I would be able to give it a start date and an expiration date, frame it neatly and fold it away.

But as the months passed, and as I started realising that cancer was more than these few months I had spent waiting for treatment, that I would be living with the aftermath for years to come, it became obvious I was lying to myself. My priorities did change, they are still changing, but not in a way I had been expecting.

I did not have a big revelation one day. There was no dramatic declaration, despite my penchant for the theatrics. None of these things you see in films, with someone suddenly quitting their job and deciding to go on a trip around the world. No leaving my flat to go live on a farm and breed horses. No sudden, rash decision, no promise to dedicate my life to God, to find everlasting love, to go back to my family.

The changes were subtle.

My previous blog post was all about how I have lost myself. I do not recognise myself in the mirror, I am a shadow of who I used to be. I lost so much of my identity over the last seventeen months (seventeen months – my cancer is a toddler!), that I had to rebuild it from scratch. It is a long process. Some days, I feel more lost than found. Some days, I feel like I have not even started the process.

And to exist, to find and fight for my identity, there are things that I cling onto.

They are the causes I care about, the ideas that I stand up for. In forgetting about myself, I have only made these ideas stronger in my mind, and as I am rebuilding who I am, I am focusing on these things I am passionate about. They are the only things that make sense, the ones that keep me going, the beliefs and engagements that are strong enough to support my weight, help me reconstruct a whole new identity, and still be myself.

I have always been politically aware. My parents might not have passed much of themselves onto me, but that is one thing they would not let me forget. How important it was to understand politics, to stand for what I believed in, to fight for my voice to be heard. Their political stance might be a lot milder than mine (they are, after all, late boomers), but the idea was there. The world matters beyond yourself, and you must fight for it, you must fight for equality and acceptance and tolerance, and for a better world.

I tried not to allow myself to be overwhelmed by what was happening to me and forget about the rest of the world. Yes, there have been times in the last year and a half when I have wanted to scream ‘this is about me’ at the top of my lungs. When I have wanted to close my eyes to what was happening around me, to the pandemic raging around me and say ‘think about ME, think how bad I have had it’. But instead of changing my priorities and focusing only on myself, I have directed most of what little energy I had towards the things I believed in.

I am a feminist. I am a left-wing environmentalist. I am involved in all sorts of movements fighting discrimination, be it based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. I spend hours and hours reading about it all, trying to understand what I don’t know, trying to help by increasing my awareness and knowledge. I want to work, and keep working so that people understand cancer better and help others have a better experience than I did.

There is also a selfish reason why I do that. It helps me find purpose. I find reasons to keep fighting, I feel like I belong somewhere. When speaking about these things I care about, I see tiny little sparks of who I used to be, and of my true self. I find a voice again – my voice. I am no longer my body, I am no longer the fun-loving, easy-going girl I was a couple of years ago, but I can still fight for my ideals.

I am more radical than I used to be. I am more quiet in my personal life, and more outspoken about the causes I care about. And I am quite happy about that.

Cancer did not change my whole outlook on life. It did not change my priorities. What it did was break me down into a million pieces, and as I am putting them back together, they take a slightly different shape.

Who Am I?

‘Please tell me about yourself.’

This question has been haunting me over the last few weeks.

It first came up in a scenario which I had not expected to be a trigger – a job interview I was conducting with a colleague. It is a most basic interview question, which I have answered myself many times. It is an easy one, you just have to find something witty to say, something truthful but exciting. But as I sat there, silently listening to someone else describe themselves with a sense of confidence and ease, I felt a pang of anguish. Would I be able to do the same?

It came up again during my first appointment with the therapist I have just started seeing, but this time it was directed at me. I did not have the words, and I started crying.

Two years ago, I know exactly how I would have described myself. I had perfected it to an art, and I had smart and playful ways of describing myself, with a number of variants – for job interviews, on a dating profile, when meeting strangers, as an awkward first date question.

I have lost that sense of self. The first, and pretty much the only thing that comes to mind when I think about that question is ‘I had cancer’.

Most days, I feel like it is the only thing that defines me.

I used to say I was ‘aa sister – with two brothers, one younger, one older’. Now, I am the only member of my family that had cancer.

I used to say ‘I am in my twenties’. Now, I had cancer at an early age.

I used to say ‘I love art, crafting, making things, discovering new techniques’. Now, I try to craft to occupy my hands and stop myself from thinking about cancer.

I used to say ‘I grew up in France, and I moved to the UK right after uni’. Now, I went through cancer with my family in another country.

I used to say ‘I am determined, ambitious and always up for meeting new people’. Now, I am tearful, shy, and scared that other people are going to see that cancer broke me.

I used to say ‘I love writing – I am in the middle of a short story at the moment’. Now, I write a blog about cancer.

I used to say ‘I am a rock for my friends, I am someone you can rely on’. Now, I crumble and can barely hold the weight of my own pain, let alone that of others.

I used to say ‘I do not want children’. Now, I cannot have them.

I used to say ‘I love travelling, I am always up for an adventure’. Now I know I will be refused travel insurance because of cancer, and I will have to coordinate my holidays with my many appointments.

I used to imagine my friends thinking of me, and describing me me as ‘a friend from uni’, ‘a friend from work’, ‘my old school pal’, ‘my old tennis partner’, ‘that girl with the French accent’, ‘the one with all the shoes’, ‘the one who listens to weird music’. Now, I know that for a lot of them, I am ‘the girl who had cancer’.

I feel like I have no identity, no personality outside of cancer.

Even when I look into the mirror, I barely recognise myself.

Strands of grey have appeared in my hair for the first time, and they have only become more prominent over the last few months.

I lost a tremendous amount of weight after the surgery, which I put back on after starting HRT, and now again because of the antidepressants.

I have scars, which my eyes go to as soon as I soon as I pass a mirror. It does not matter if I am wearing clothes over them, I look for them, as if I could see them through the jeans I wear. Some of them are scars from the surgery, some of them are wounds that I have inflicted to myself during panic attacks.

I have messy, medium length hair as a result of the many post-cancer haircuts I decided to get. I am growing out the undercut I shaved when I wanted to regain some control over my body.

Even the tattoos I got and which I absolutely love are there to remind me of cancer. They have other meanings too, but they are part of my cancer.

The one on my left arm are words from On The Road, with black stars that reference Kerouac, David Bowie and Harry Potter all at the same time – probably three of the things that most defined me between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. But the words ‘mad to live’ remind me of how I felt in those first few weeks after the diagnosis. They are cancer words.

The tattoo on my right arm is made up of circles spelling out ‘you won’ in Morse code – a broken, incomplete circle on the inside, and a full one of the outside, a metaphor of how the surgery has left me. It is a timeless quote from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it is the line that broke my heart in the last series of Schitt’s Creek, but it is cancer as well. I trace it with my fingers as I write this blog, and it feels like I am tracing the last fifteen months of my life.

I am my cancer. I wish I was not. I hope a day will come when I am more than that.

Family – Breaking Traditions, Crushing Expectations

This marks the start of a new series of posts. After spending time with my family over Christmas, a full twelve months since last seeing them, I suddenly had a clearer idea of what my diagnosis meant to them and how, in some ways, it affected them as much as it did me.

I am the middle child. The only girl in between two brothers. One close to my age, one a lot younger.

I only really know my mother’s side of the family. Amongst my cousins on my that side, I am ranked fourth out of nine. The first girl after three boys, amongst a group of six cousins all born within five years of each other. Three boys, three girls close together and then, years later, another three boys.

I never knew the pressures of being the eldest, of paving the way for the ones that would come after me. I never had the attention that comes with being the youngest child, the baby of the family.

What I have had to live with though, were the hopes and dreams of parents and grandparents who had different visions for the future of their boys and girls.

It is very prevalent in my family, more so than it probably should be. There is a sense of tradition, passed down from generation to generation. Boys and girls are not the same, and they should be raised differently. It is the relationship we have with our grandparents, the goals they have set for us since the beginning. Boys are pushed and encouraged to follow their dreams, get a good job, be successful. Girls are praised for having good grades, being quiet and amiable, and they are constantly asked about their relationships, and when they will have children.

Oh, I am sure I exaggerate. There were times when my parents and grandparents were proud of me for achievements of my own. When I finished school, then uni. When I won prizes for best poem and best calligraphy at the tender age of nine. When I found a job and became financially independent. When I started knitting, and proved to my nan that her lessons twenty years prior had not been in vain.

But there was always a sense that I was not following the path that they had wished for me. The fact that every time I went to visit my grandparents, they asked if I had a boyfriend, how serious it was. Whether I wanted children. When I was going to have them. When I moved to the UK, my family were more scared than encouraging. ‘But are you really going to raise your children in another country?’

My family laugh when they hear my brother’s tales of joining this or that political demonstration in Paris. They shake their head when he mentions his political engagement, but still they debate with him and take him seriously. When I told my nan about taking a feminist writing class, she told me to be careful, and not become ‘one of those feminists who scare men away’. After all, political engagement and strong feminists beliefs were not, in her mind, synonymous with a happy, fulfilled life. It is dangerous. I never told her about the many demonstrations and women’s marches I took part in.

My nan used to be a feminist. She used to be out on the street, marching for women’s rights and choice to own their bodies. But as she started having a family, raising her own (many) sons and daughters, she fell back into age-old patterns that imprison women in a role I did not wish for myself. My mum often tells me how differently she and her sisters were treated from her brothers. She does not see that she has repeated the same pattern.

For years, I pretended to go along with it. Shook my head when they asked me when I was finally going to get married and have children. Laughed when my nan kept mentioning how her sisters were already great-grandmothers. How my cousin had had a child – how it would be my turn next. I ignored my mum when she told me that she would love to be a grandmother, when she said she was not getting any younger.

It was always expected that, once my rebel years were over, I would settle down, marry and have children. I still have trinkets that were given to me to ‘pass on to my children’. By refusing to conform to the family pattern, in their eyes, I was only delaying the inevitable. It would happen, and they would finally be proud of the woman I had become.

When my mum and my nan, in turn, learnt of my diagnosis, in addition to the pain, they had to face the disappointment of hopes they had clung onto for years. My mum mentioned how she would never see her only daughter pregnant. My nan sent me a teary, extremely violent email, about how unfair it was that my ability to have a family was being ripped away from me. How sad she was that my life was being torn apart, even if I would be physically fine. How she could not even begin to imagine how it felt, for me never being able to experience the biggest joy of being a woman. In her eyes, I had lost everything I should have lived for. That realisation hurts.

I am more at peace with my future than they are. They had built a world of hopes on something that I had not signed up for. But today, these disappointed dreams and expectations weigh on me. I hear it when my nan barely knows what to say to me anymore. Her whole idea of me as a person, as a woman, has shifted. She does not know me anymore, as the life she had built for me in her head has come crumbling down. What do you talk about with someone you cannot understand, someone who you had imagined a whole life for, and who no longer meets your expectations?

Every time I speak to her, I feel the weight of her disappointment, of her shame. She has voiced this disappointment every time she has written me an email or given me a call, telling me how tough it must be for me, how sad I must be. How she wished we could have traded places, so I could live a proper woman’s life. But the disappointed dreams are not mine, no matter how many times she tries to convince me of it. They are hers.

I will never be able to give her what she thought would be my future. I was the eldest granddaughter. I know she wanted to see me pregnant, because she had told me so. I know she wished to see me happy in the only way she could imagine a woman ever being happy. I know she worries about what my life will look like now that I am no longer able to repeat the old family tradition of having children.

It is taxing, feeling like you have disappointed someone you care so much about, someone whose dreams you crushed without having any say in it. I feel responsible, even though I never wanted these things for myself.

I will never achieve the ideal life of a woman, as defined by the matriarchs of my family. I will break tradition. I will go against their expectations. But I will be the woman I decide to be, my own idea of a woman, and I will grow from their experiences, even if I do not claim them for myself.

Talking About Cancer – The Power of Words

Cancer is big. If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it is that cancer is massive. When you first hear the words, it upends your life in a second. And then, it starts affecting the people around you, your friends, your support network, your family, people you had not thought about. And what I have come to realise is that we all have one thing in common: we struggle to find the right words to address cancer, and discuss it.

Does it come from a place of fear? The word ‘cancer’ itself is unnerving. A couple of years ago, I told off my older brother, who had started using the phrase ‘c’est cancer’ (‘it’s cancer’) to say ‘that sucks’. He had picked it up from some French gamer on Twitch, and was using it so much it drove me crazy, and not just because it is grammatically incorrect. I told him it made me uncomfortable, and I think that was because of the power I gave that word. In my mind, ‘cancer’ had always represented something horrendous, something so severe that the word itself made me feel scared.

I have now come to terms with it. I can say the word without feeling anything, without feeling scared or crying. It is everything else that I struggle with.

There is no right way to talk about cancer. There are no right words, because they all feel wrong. They feel like they should not have been uttered. They feel private, they feel hurtful, they feel dangerous.

From the moment you decide to talk to people about your condition, you have to be careful what words to use. How to even start the conversation. I think every time I told someone, I started with some version of ‘I just wanted to share something with you – I have had some bad news. I was at the hospital the other day and […]’. I felt like that was a good start. It prepares your audience for what is to come. It is not as abrupt as coming out and saying ‘I have cancer’ straightaway. By making it into a story, with an introduction, by setting the tone and narrating it like a tale, it almost made me feel like I had it together. It was a story, it had a beginning and a clear narrative structure. And when the word ‘cancer’ appeared, whoever I was talking to was not taken aback. I had led them there, and made their experience more peaceful than my own.

When talking about what happened to me, I am so careful about the words I use, the sentences I write. Consciously or not, I make a choice every time I talk about cancer. Just take the first sentence of this paragraph. ‘What happened to me’. That was a deliberate choice. Making it sound like something that came upon me, diluting the message by using a vague concept. It does not sound as real as ‘when talking about cancer’, does it? And it puts me in a passive role, a spectator to my own life. Just think about how long it takes me to write these blogs if I think about each word for that long.

I have always tried to find the right balance between melodrama and a cautious indifference. Depending on who I was talking to, I would adapt the way I spoke about cancer. I would speak about it freely with a couple of friends. I would tone it down for people at work, stressing that it was probably ‘very early-stage cancer’, even before I knew that for sure. I spoke about ‘treatment’ at length, without going into the details. I barely ever uttered the words ‘chemo’ and ‘radiotherapy’, even when I was discussing potential post-surgery treatment. I did not find comfort in the medical terms. Hysterectomy, FIGO stage, adjuvant therapy. They always felt cold, almost too severe for me. I am not a medical professional. If I had not been personally affected by cancer, I probably would not have used these words. By not using them, I was hiding from their reality, and it helped me cope for a while.

I also struggle with tenses. It does not feel like much, but I freeze every time I want to say ‘I had cancer’. Should I say ‘I have cancer’? Should I say ‘I have had cancer’? None of them feel right, and all of them feel right at the same time. I am not out of the woods yet, but I also do not technically still have cancer… Or do I? In my previous article, I typed the word ‘remission’, and only then did I notice that I had completely banished it from my vocabulary. It is an ugly word. It is a word that denotes the limbo I currently live in. Neither ill nor cured. Cancer might still be here, in my body, dormant and menacing, quiet and deceiving. I will try and use ‘remission’ more going forward, because it is the word that defines me best. I will get used to it, I promise.

There are other words that come to mind. I already spoke about the duality of the word ‘strong’, and how uncomfortable it makes me feel. ‘Cured’ is another one of those. ‘Lucky’. ‘Depression’. The list goes on. But there are also words that make me happy (ok, they are mostly the names of baby animals, I will never say no to a discussion about meerkittens and otter whelps).

It is true not just for me, but also for people I talk to every day. I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that I do not think that anyone (apart from health professionals) has said the word ‘cancer’ to me in at least six months, at least in reference to me. And I have discussed it with plenty of people. I have used it myself. I speak to a few of my friends about it directly at least once a week. Is the word taboo? Do people avoid saying it because they are afraid of it, or afraid of how I will react? I will say it here – you can say cancer to me. You can even say it three times in a the mirror – I promise I will not come and haunt you.

People are so careful around cancer patients, worried about saying the wrong thing. But just so you know, there is no need to tread on eggshells around me. You can say anything you want. I have lived through it, there is nothing you can say that will shock me, that will trigger a reaction in me that I do not already trigger in myself twice a day.

Words are a big part of this, but talking about cancer goes beyond just that. It is an uncomfortable topic in general. I will see you at the weekend for a blog about how to make light of cancer – because we all need it sometimes.

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.

The Language of Trauma

I was a very late bloomer when it came to talking. If you believe my mum, I did not start speaking until I was almost three. I apparently had too many other things to do, like climbing fences to jump into pools and running away on supermarket car parks (both of which happened on several separate occasions). Clearly, words were not my priority back then.

French is my first language, and for almost nine years, it was the only language I could speak. In my second-to-last year of primary school, I was given the option to start learning a foreign language. It was the first time they were going to offer to teach languages to our year – up until then, only pupils in their last year of primary school had been allowed to learn a language. I was very excited – my older brother, who is two years older than me but was only a year ahead in school, would be starting at the same time. I have always been very competitive, and I loved the idea that there would be one thing in which we would both be at the same level. We did not have much choice, our school only offered English and German. My brother picked English. Because I was a very contrary child, and I had heard that German was much harder to learn, I chose German. Twenty years later, I still cannot resist a challenge.

I loved German lessons that first year. Because so few of us had chosen German (English was the overwhelmingly popular choice), we were all together, last-year pupils and younger ones like me. I was having lessons with some of my brother’s friends, and I felt like I had finally reached his level. To be honest, I had even surpassed him – German was harder, so I had basically won. I loved German, but my parents were pushing me to switch to English, as they believe it would be much more useful.

At the end of that first year, I made the choice to quit German and start English instead. That would mean that I would be behind the other pupils when school started again in September – they already had one year of English under their belt, and I did not.

I do not know if I had a gift for languages back then or if it was my competitive spirit shining again, but after a few months, my level of English matched the ones of my friends. By the end of the year, I had won the English language challenge set by the school, and was given my very first French/English dictionary as a prize. I put it on a bookshelf at home, and did not pick it up again for years.

In secondary school France, you usually study only one foreign language for the first two years, and then start a second foreign language in your third year. The secondary school I went to offered to study two foreign languages (English and German) from your first year – it was part of a short-lived attempt at getting more French people to study German. My brother had only studied English (with the aim of picking up Spanish in his third year), so I obviously decided I would outdo him and join the double-language course.

For years, my German and English were pretty much on par with each other. When we had to declare a ‘main’ foreign language, I chose English, encouraged by my parents. I liked English classes, but it was not until my first year of the equivalent of sixth form that I truly fell in love with it. I had an amazing teacher that year, who was in his very first year of teaching English. He had a passion for the language, and for making us read and write, instead of asking us to learn grammar and lists upon lists of words. I started reading in English, first books and then way too many Harry Potter fanfictions.

That year, I decided that, despite having chosen a science-laden course in sixth form, I wanted to pursue arts and literature at uni, and more specifically English (by that time, my German had become much weaker). After graduating, I chose a language course and, one thing leading to another, I ended up with a master’s degree in translation, with a very marked preference for English.

Two days after my course ended, I moved to the UK and started my new job within a week. Since then, my English has improved a lot (at least I would like to think so), and has replaced French as the language I am most comfortable in.

I do not consider myself bilingual. I think you can only be truly bilingual if you grow up surrounded by two languages, and learn to use them at the same time, so you have similar relationships with both languages. I grew up learning French and for year, English was a language that only applied to specific contexts, like classes, work and dissertations.

I started dreaming in English halfway through uni, but it was always in dreams with an English background. I would dream of something happening in the UK, or in English class, etc. It was not until a couple of years after I moved to the UK that English became the language that I think in. When I talk to myself (and trust me, that happens a lot), it is now usually in English. I swear in English, I cry in English, I work in English. I read almost exclusively in English, I watch TV in English. I cannot remember the last time I read the news in a language that was not English.

As the years went by, I started struggling more and more with French. Phrases, specific words, I keep forgetting them. They sound foreign to me. My phrasing is ridiculous – I use English sentence construction and just use French words instead of thinking of the actual French phrasing. I speak proper French in two contexts: when I speak to my parents, and when I work with French clients (although I still have to double check what I write to make sure I have not used any English).

I am lucky enough that most of my friends from back home are fluent in English, and do not mind me using a mix of French and English when talking and writing to them. To be honest, I switch between the two depending on what comes naturally at the time. I will often start a sentence in French, and finish in English. I will use English words in the middle of a French sentence, and will react in English to their French messages.

I sometimes struggle to identify the language I am reading in, or confirm whether I just used French and English. Honestly, it is not great when part of my job is identifying source languages in documents my clients send. I will confidently start working on scheduling a French to English translation, only to have the translator ask me to confirm what I need, since the source text is already in English. Sorry, my bad.

My English is not perfect, but it has become the language of my daily life.

What I never imagined that there would be things I would only ever be able express in English.

I have been asked about my decision to write this blog in English. Was it a conscious decision, was it done in order to increase readership, to give it a better chance of becoming viral? Absolutely not.

English has clearly become the only language in which I can think of my experience, and the only language where I can express my feelings.

There is a reasonable explanation for it. After all, I got my diagnosis in the UK, all my consultations were conducted in English, all my phone calls and appointments were in English. The words the doctors used, I only knew them in English at first. Everything was explained to me in English. Everything made sense – as much as a cancer diagnosis at 27 can make sense – in English.

I never had any issues understanding what the doctors were saying in English. My issue was communicating the same in French.

I struggled speaking to my parents about it, struggled to explain what was happening. The details, but also the bigger picture. I had to look up words in the dictionary, I had to read medical articles in French in order to find the French way of saying what was happening to me. It was not easy. They tell you you should avoid googling your condition too much, that it is only going to add to your anxiety. But I had no choice. I had to do it, in order to be able to tell my family about it.

As a result, I know everything there is to know about womb cancer in both languages. It does not mean I feel comfortable talking about it in French.

A few months ago, a friend made me realise that, even though I spoke to them in a mix of French and English most of the time, I automatically switched to English only whenever I spoke about cancer.

In my head, it is very clear – cancer happened in English. The language of my trauma is English. Is that a way to detach myself from it?

I am very much of the opinion that I have two very different personalities. French Lauriane is self-conscious. She can be moody, tough and sarcastic. She had to tell people ‘that’s just my face’ when they ask her if she is mad. She is pessimistic, she does not play well with others. English Lauriane is more confident. She is more resilient, she has been through a lot, but she is also more open. She is bubbly. She is invested. She says please and thank you. She will smile and give you a hug if you need one. French Lauriane would run away.

It is quite common amongst people who speak several languages. For me, I believe it is also related that there was a clear cut between my life in France, as a child, as a teen, as a student. The moment I moved to the UK, the moment English became my main language was when I became a proper adult.

Because I have these two identities and they are very separate in my mind, I feel like cancer only affected a part of me. It struck English Lauriane, but she can take it. She is positive, she can get through a lot. She has learnt to deal with it. The French part of me was always here, in the background, but separate. Detached. It was not her language, it did not feel as real. A part of me is safe from it, protected by the language barrier.

Whenever I think about cancer, I think in English. I have flashbacks in English. I have panic attacks in English.

I did not realise how obvious that was for a long time. I was speaking about my mental health struggles with a friend, who mentioned finding a French-speaking therapist in the UK. And immediately, my reaction was to say no. If I ever was to share my burden with someone, to find a way to deal with it, it would be in English. The part of me that is broken is the part that speaks English.

But that is also the part of me that feels strong enough to get over it. The only part of me that can express feelings. I have never said ‘I love you’ in French. I have never said ‘I am scared’ in French. I have never said ‘But what if I die?’ in French. Do I feel comfortable doing it in English? Absolutely not. But I have.

Would I technically be able to speak about it in French? Do I have the words for it? They do not come naturally. French might be my first language, but my fingers do not fly across the keyboard as fast when I write in French. I feel free writing in English. There may be mistakes, there may be typos, but it is the language in which I can talk about fear, about depression, about anxiety. Feelings are stronger in English, and they are bubbling inside me, waiting to be put on paper.

There is a story I like to tell. It is about the operation, but it is a fun one.

For weeks before the operation, I joked with friends about not knowing what language I would speak when I came to, when I woke up from the general anaesthesia. You know, these stories about people who have been in horrible accidents, who wake up and have forgotten their first language entirely, or suddenly speak Chinese despite never having studied it? I laughed and told my friends my mum might need to call them to understand what I was saying, if I ended up only able to speak English. Or maybe, I would only speak French, and the doctors and nurses would try and explain things and I would blink in confusion and have to request an interpreter (good thing I have contacts in the business!).

I do not remember much from the first few minutes after I woke up, but I remember my mum looking at me and questions which I answered with confidence, only to see a puzzled look on her face. Apparently, I woke up speaking English, and it took more than half an hour for me to start speaking French. I understood what my mum was saying perfectly, but the words coming out of my mouth were in English and I could not articulate them in French.

Is it a coping mechanism, a barrier that I have built in my mind, which I will ultimately need to take down in order to make peace with what happened? Was it a safe place for me to store my experience, whilst protecting a part of me from the truth? Will I ever be able to express myself in French?

English is the language of my experience, it is the language of my cancer, the language of my trauma. But it is also the language of my hopes and dreams.

The Womb of Shame

Or how it is still taboo to speak about endometrial cancer, when almost half of the world population has, or has had, a womb at some point in their lives.

After my cancer diagnosis, I only shared the news with a few people I trusted. I did not post anything on social media for over three months, I avoided any mention of my health or anything that could suggest something was wrong. And then, one day,  more than a month after surgery, I decided to take the plunge. It was late in January 2020, I had just registered for the Shine Night Walk, a charity walk through London that was supposed to take place this September. I had set up a fundraising page to collect donations for Cancer Research, and I decided that I would share my story on it – it felt like a safe place.

For the first time that night, I posted on social media about my cancer – sharing the link to my fundraising page and a long text about my own personal battle with cancer. I wrote in English, and I wrote in French too, fighting against myself to find the right words. 

It was a very private post. I wrote that I had had womb cancer, and that I had been lucky enough to only have needed surgery to get rid of it (fingers crossed). There was no mention of a hysterectomy, no mention of my reproductive organs, no mention of how it would affect my hormones or my body going forward.

I received a lot of support. So many messages started pouring in, so many well-wishers and concerned friends. When people messaged me separately, sharing their concern and checking up on me, I gave them more details about what had happened, but only if they asked.

It was very early in my grieving process. I had not really come to terms with what had happened yet, so I was not able to put it into words like I can today (not that I claim to have fully come to terms with it, not yet, not quite). However, I now realise that was only part of the reason why I did not give more details at the time.

There are some cancers that are widely understood. The ones that are often represented in mainstream media. There are visible cancers, there are the scary ones, there are the ones you cannot hide. And then there are the ones like mine, that people cannot see. The ones where you have no obvious physical proof that you have cancer – at least not at first glance. And then there are also the cancers that make people uncomfortable, because they feel they should stay private.

When I first shared the link to this blog, I received a message from a friend, who had only learnt about my cancer right there and then. That person was shocked and supportive. We spoke, and they asked why I had decided to share such private details about my body with the world, and whether I had considered that talking about my womb might make some people uncomfortable. The person who asked that question was a man.

The question was not meant in a rude way at all, he was not trying to be malicious. It was simple curiosity, and I answered it as honestly as I could. It did not come out of the blue, it was one of many questions he asked, because he was a bit taken aback by my decision to share details about something that is usually kept quiet. He wanted to understand why. It did not feel great to be questioned like that, but I understand where he was coming from.

There is an element of shame attached to talking about your health, about how you are not doing as well as people were expecting. Speaking out about parts of your body that are diseased, parts of you that you do not show to the world. Cancer comes with its own element of shame. It should not, but it does.

It is definitely exacerbated by the fact that there are some cancers you talk about openly, and there are some you do not hear about much. Had you ever heard about endometrial cancer before? Did you know it is the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK? I did not.

There is a particular stigma attached to cancers which affect your reproductive organs, because we do not talk about them much in public. Because the cancer was in my womb, some people may feel like I should maybe not talk about it as openly as I have, maybe the details should be kept private.

Would describing what happened to my womb and my ovaries really bother people that much? Should I maybe hide those details? Should I not post on Facebook about my hysterectomy, with the view of sparing anyone who might feel uncomfortable reading about my reproductive organs?

It is not just because of cancer. It is because I am discussing female organs, female issues that a lot of people normally avoid talking about. Take menopause for example. It is something perfectly natural that happens to so many of us. But people keep it quiet. Women themselves do not discuss it amongst themselves, they censure themselves out of habit. The effects of the hormonal changes to your body, to your mind, they are almost taboo. There should be no shame in talking about a natural process happening to a person’s body. But there is.

So many women have hysterectomies these days, not all due to cancer. And yet, I did not know anyone who had had one – or so I thought. When I started sharing my story, people started coming to me, telling me about how they, their friends, their sisters, their mothers had gone through something similar. But it had been kept private, hidden from view.

I realised that I had censured myself when I posted, back in January, about the ‘surgery’, with no further details. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I had refused to share the details with a wider audience. I had been afraid of offering a detailed description of what happened to an intimate part of myself. I was ashamed. And I am now ashamed of having been ashamed.

Who was going to see my posts, who would read my blog? Friends, family, colleagues, old acquaintances. People of all genders, people roughly around my age, for the most part. Out of those people, how many would feel uncomfortable? How many would stop reading because the words ‘womb’, ‘ovaries’ and ‘periods’ bothered them?

Would I have felt the need to censure myself if I had had a different type of cancer, one that did not affect my reproductive organs, like a brain tumour, leukaemia, pancreatic cancer? I know people who have had those cancers, and they talk about them openly, and do not worry about offending anyone. So why should I?

When I started this blog, it was with the purpose of sharing my story, of unveiling what had happened and not holding back the truth. I am going to talk about my ovaries, I am going to post about the loss of my fertility, about being a woman without a womb. I am going to tackle issues that women have been refraining from mentioning out loud for generations.

Men, women, non-binary people might read this, and might feel different levels of discomfort, for innumerable reasons. Family, friends, strangers, people who are related to me, people who know me and people who do not. They do not have to carry on reading, but I hope they do.

Cancer can affect pretty much every organ in your body. It does not discriminate, and we should not either. Let us discuss every form of cancer, let us discuss how it affects our bodies, whoever we are. Let us get rid of the stigma that some cancers are more shameful than others, just because they affect a part of us that has been deemed private for centuries.