Walking Down Memory Lane, Part Two: Confrontation

There is something thrilling about making yourself face your fears. An excitement that pushes you to go forward, even though you would rather stay curled up in bed with a nice cuppa. Adrenaline.

After a long week of no-sleep and exhausting anxiety attacks, of terrifying flashbacks and endless crying sessions, I finally had to take the plunge. Go into work, the place which in the last few months had become the personalisation of my cancer journey.

I was lucky enough to have a scheduled session with my cancer therapist the night before going back into the office. I had not cried that much, or shared that much of my fears in a session since my last hospital appointment. And I got more than a few tips out of it: tell my manager in advance that I might be upset, and why, allow myself plenty of time to make my way there, remember that I can leave at any time, let myself be upset rather than trying to shove it all down, breathe, breathe, breathe.

That morning was tough. I tried to stick to my routine, despite waking up before 4am. Hop into the shower, dry my hair, read for a bit, ponder going for a swim then deciding not to, so I do not have to rush to the train station. In the four hours between waking up and catchingmy train, I must have thought about cancelling a dozen times. Cried my make-up off three times, and re-applied it thoroughly. Using it as a veil to conceal my lack of sleep, but also as an incentive to keep it together. I am vain enough to not want streaks of eyeliner down my face because I have been crying.

I was a mess. I felt tears coming up on the way to the train station. I felt sick, I felt powerless. I took the same route I took the day I went into the office after my diagnosis. I walked on the other side of the pavement.

I am always late, but that day I was early. Early, and alone.

My psychologist had suggested talking to a friend on the phone on my walk from the train station to work, or listening to a podcast, distracting myself. I could not do it. I needed to process things on my own, and in the relative silence of the Buckinghamshire countryside.

That walk usually takes about 20 minutes. On that day, it took me 40.

Now, ten days later, I could not tell you what I thought about during those 40 minutes. Or how I felt. It is all a blur – which I have learnt to appreciate as I usually have such vivid memories of my bad experiences. All I know is that I made it to the business park where the office is without losing it.

I went to my building. Everything felt surreal. I was comforted by the fact I was alone. No witnesses. No-one to watch me break down.

I struggled walking up the stairs. Those stairs I climbed so many times between my diagnosis and the operation. But back then, I was never on my own, but with my friends supporting me, virtually helping me up the stairs. The five short flights of stairs up to the second floor never felt so high as they did that day.

I had to stop before walking through the doors. Looking at the stairs leading up to the roof, where I sat one day in October 2019 before going on lunch. Where, as we were alone waiting for the rest of our group, I told a friend that I had something to tell him, he would know soon enough anyway, and the friends we were having lunch with already knew – I had just been diagnosed with cancer. Womb cancer. It looked like early stage. I would be fine. He had no words, asked if I was okay, I wiped my tears and put my face back on.

I still picture myself sitting on those stairs. They have meaning now.

I walked in. Past the meeting room where I once had a breakdown mid-call and had to leave to have a cry in the loo.

Past the other meeting room where I told my dad on the phone, where I told my team in person, where they gave me an advent calendar they had made to cheer me up during the recovery time after surgery, where I spoke to HR about what was going to happen next. I did not look at the door. I do not think I will be able to step foot into that room again for a while, if ever.

It was overwhelming. Sitting at my desk. Setting up for the day. Did I want a tea, a coffee? Just water. I could hardly swallow as it was.

It came in waves. One minute I would be focused on work, the next I would get assaulted by memories. Feeling lost. Feeling the tears come up.

My manager and I went for lunch, to catch-up in person after so many months apart. But we went to that coffee shop where, every lunchtime for two months, the thought of cancer had dominated every conversation with my friends. Where I explained my diagnosis to someone in person for the very first time. Where, for the first and only time, I told someone I did not want to die.

I could barely eat. I felt hungry, I felt sick. Making new memories in a place riddled with thoughts of cancer seemslike a good idea, but also so out of reach. I wanted to try. It was probably too much for me on that day. Too many firsts, too many steps forward.

I breathed through it all. I thought of going home after lunch. The words of my therapist rang in my ears. You don’t have to stick it out. If you need to go home, if it is too much, go home.

I knew the moment she said it I would not do that. I know having the option is crucial, and I know I should not force myself to be in uncomfortable situations for longer than I need. But I am too proud, and I refused to give up. I stood my ground in my fight with my own doubts and went back to work for the afternoon.

Was it the food? Was it hunger, because I had barely eaten anything but a few bites of that cheese toastie in the last 24 hours? Was it nerves, the stress of it all? I was physically sick for the last two hours of my working day, and on the train journey home. I was exhausted, full of feelings, doubts, memories. After trying to act as a functioning human being for eight long hours, I was done.

It was too much, too soon. Too brutal. I should have given up earlier in the day. And I tell myself next time I will, I will be able to stop when my body has had enough, but I also know I will probably keep going. Because it is who I am, and I do not want to lose that little sparkle of my identity when I have already lost so much.

Looking back, I feel proud. I did it. I walked into that place which holds so many memories of my cancer journey, and I survived.

Sure, I had a bad day. I was exhausted. I was not able to follow the advice of my therapist. I was sick. I had more unwelcome thoughts and memories than on any other day in my recent past. But I did it.

I also know myself better. I feel proud of having identified, before I even went in, that that place might be a trigger. It could have been fine on the day. But I know myself. I know my mind, even just a little bit. It feels like a victory.

And you know what? The lead-up to it was worse than the day itself. The wair dragged on, a low-intensity anxiety that took over my life for a week, interrupted by full-on panic attacks. The feelings and flashbacks on the day itself were intense, but it was over after eight hours, and I was able to go home. I survived it, like I survived cancer.

I would not be able to do it again, day after day, in my current state. I felt like I needed to sleep for 48 hours after that day, and I doubt I would have been able to have another day like that without fully breaking down.

Next time, I will have more tools to help me cope with it – more therapy sessions, a better understanding of who I am and how my experience of cancer is linked to that office. I will have tried different psychotherapies.

But most of all, I will know that I can do it, because I did it before.

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.

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.