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.

Repeat Prescriptions, Withdrawal Symptoms and Having No-One Else to Blame

I have alarms set up on my phone.

I have a calendar with dates marked in red and blue – every twenty-eight to thirty-two days, depending on the medication.

I have daily reminders – the bottles emptying, the number of tablets dwindling, the old packets I take out with the recycling.

And still, I manage to forget to reorder my prescriptions on time.

I will sit down at my desk, looking at the calendar in front of me. ‘I’ll ring later on, after all, they only take repeat prescription requests after 11am.’

The alarm will ring on my phone in the middle of a meeting or a lengthy email at work, and I will turn it off. ‘I will do it in a bit, when I’ve got a couple of minutes.’

Usually, I remember after a couple of days, I ask my friends to remind me at a specific time – it is harder to ignore someone that it is to snooze an alarm. I always manage to find a way to reorder my prescription before I actually run out.

This month though, I was not that lucky.

I called last Thursday. Another painful phone call to the GP surgery, another ten minutes to wait to be put through to someone, another five minutes for them to check that I am actually allowed to reorder one of my repeat prescriptions. ‘As usual, we’ll need about five working days – you should be able to pick up your prescription at your usual pharmacy around mid-next week.’

It was a gamble. I had not run out yet, but the prescription I was ordering was my hormone treatment, which comes in an opaque bottle with 64 metered doses – that is 32 days of HRT. I never know exactly what day I am going to run out – I can tell when the bottle is almost empty, but that is pretty much it.

I shook the bottle that night, trying to ascertain how much was left. After all, I remember I skipped a couple of doses when I was home at Christmas. How many, I could not remember exactly. Would it last until Wednesday?

To absolutely no-one’s surprise, it did not. Thursday was fine. Friday’s dose came out of the bottle, albeit reluctantly – instead of two full doses, I maybe got three quarters of one. And by Saturday, it was all gone. It had happened once before – although last time, there were only three days between the moment I ran out and the moment I got my new prescription. I knew the next couple of days were not going to be fun.

It started with hot flushes, my body’s way of warning me that my levels of oestrogen are too low. That night, I could not get warm enough, and then suddenly I was too hot – I was boiling, I could not bear having PJs on, let alone a duvet.

Mood swings, even worse than usual. Feeling low, not feeling like doing anything. Trouble concentrating – I could barely get through a 20-minute episode of Modern Family on Netflix. Forget reading – I read the same page four times before realising I had no idea what book I was even reading. Fatigue – I took two naps on Sunday.

And then came the really painful symptoms. On Monday morning, I woke up with a slight headache. By mid-morning, my vision was blurry, I could see spots of light, I could barely read what was on my screen. The light coming from the window making me recoil in pain. I recognised the signs, I used to have them frequently. A migraine, and a migraine with aura at that. They are frequent in women with low oestrogen levels.

Nom nom, painkillers. Nom nom, a second tablet. Nom nom, nom nom. Nom nom.

What is worse than an unrelenting pain in your brain, which feels like it is about to explode? The thought that it is self-inflicted. That it could have been avoided, all I needed to do was pick up the phone a week earlier, when I had first set out to do it.

I am going to have to reorder medicine every month for at least twenty years. That is a pretty basic thing to do. I do not mind the phone that much (not when I am the one ringing – please do not ever call me without warning), so I was not particularly avoiding it. I am used to it. And I still cannot get it right.

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer (and probably before then, although the experiences of the last year have definitely made it more obvious), I have struggled with self-worth. For a bunch of reasons, I wake up every day and know for sure that there will be a point during that day when I will feeling like a failure. And these things, the little things that should be easy to do and which I still manage to mess up, they do not help.

I feel like I deserve the pain. I only have myself to blame, after all. I have let myself down. I should not complain about the migraine, I should not take a day off work, not even a couple of hours, because I brought it upon myself. I am responsible. There are many things I cannot control in my life, but this I do. If I was not such an idiot, if I did not forget what is basically one of the only things I have to do to take care of myself, I would have been fine.

My body does not produce the hormones that I need, so I rely on drugs to give it what it needs. It is a sort of addiction, if you think about it. And what I am experiencing are withdrawal symptoms. My body craves the medication, it craves the HRT and it goes into survival mode when I do not take it.

So I set another alarm on my phone, every four hours, to remind me to take painkillers, alternating between various active molecules. I have been taking them almost religiously for thirty-six hours, trying to keep the migraine at bay, to be able to carry on with my day.

I dress in layers, to be able to remove them as the hot flushes hit me. I do CBT in the evenings, to try and get a better handle on the mood swings that the anti-depressants cannot control.

Five days. That is how long I will have deprived my body of hormones for. It has not been fun. Will I do it again? Probably. Will it affect me in the same way? That is pretty much a given.

Anyone up for nagging me in 27 days?

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.

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.

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.

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.