If You Are Doing Something, You Are Doing The Right Thing

Switching point of views for a second.

I have spoken at length about my experience of cancer as a patient, because that is what feels the most true, the most raw. That is what I need and want to get off my chest, that is where I feel my experience could help others.

But there are two, seven, twenty sides to every story.

Over the last few months, several of my friends and family have had to witness a loved one going through diagnosis and treatment. Have had to be a rock for their family to rely on, despite their own grief and pain. The shoulder for someone else to cry on after the loss of a close relative.

In a strange turn of events, I have become somewhat of a confidante.

‘I don’t know if I’m doing enough.’

‘I feel like I’m not helping.’

‘I don’t know how to act around them.’

‘He said he was fine. I don’t think he’s fine.’

‘I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.’

‘I said something funny to lighten the mood and she just bit my head off!’

‘I asked what was wrong. That was a mistake.’

‘I don’t know what to do.’

‘I’m afraid I’m going to lose it in front of them.’

‘What can I say?’

‘I’m afraid of stepping on his toes.’

‘Maybe he doesn’t want my help.’

‘I’m afraid I’m going to make it worse.’

‘It’s like they don’t want me there.’

‘I feel like everything I’m doing is wrong.’

‘I’m doing my best but it seems so little.’

Having been on both sides, I can honestly say: whatever you are doing, it is the right thing.

Short of refusing to listen to someone, and ghosting them after you have heard the news, there is no wrong thing to do.

Yes, we will bite your head off from time to time.

Yes, we will be a bit short with you.

Everything is so raw.

But weeks, months, and years later,  we won’t remember the moment you decided to make a joke and it fell flat.

We won’t remember you only being able to text your support because you were in another country.

We won’t remember that you were overbearing in your desire to help.

We won’t remember that you used some really clumsy words which you instantaneously regretted.

We won’t remember the terrible dinner you cooked for us.

We won’t remember that you had tears in your eyes every time you said it was going to be OK.

We will remember you said it, and you wanted to believe it.

We will remember you cooked for us when we didn’t have the strength to do it.

We will remember that you said something, and that was enough.

We will remember you tried to help even when we thought we didn’t need help.

We will remember you were there, in whatever form you could manage.

We will remember that you were making sure life was going on.

There is no need to be afraid. There is no right way to support someone going through a life-threatening illness, or the loss of a loved one, or a traumatic event.

You are doing the right thing, and we are grateful.

Erasing the Stigma of PTSD

I must have been about 16 when I first heard about PTSD. It was on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, one of the very few storylines I still remember more than 10 years later.

Like so many other people, at first I was convinced that PTSD was something that happened to people in the armed forces, something that veterans suffered from. A mental health condition which, unlike depression or anxiety, would have very little chance of one day affecting me.

It took a few years for me to encounter it in another context. I remember reading that someone famous had suffered from it, and thinking ‘they haven’t been to war, that’s not it. They’re exaggerating’. As I got older, I realised how wrong I had been.

PTSD Can Affect Anyone

Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone who has had a traumatic experience. And any situation that someone finds traumatic, even if it would not necessarily have been considered traumatic by someone else, can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. An accident, childbirth, the loss of a loved one, assault, those are just a few examples of events that can lead to PTSD.

PTSD can happen at any time after a traumatic event. It usually starts within a few months, but it can sometimes take years to develop, even decades if memories have been buried deep.

The first time someone told me it sounded like I was suffering from PTSD, I shrugged it off. They were the words of a friend, in early summer 2020. I was only a few months out of surgery. Surely it was normal to feel anxious, to replay conversations in my mind, to see the same scenes over and over again, to be easily triggered, to have excessive emotions, to feel numb, to refuse to talk about my situation, to avoid places and people that reminded me of cancer. Surely, it would pass.

It did not pass.

In August, a psychologist told me they believed I could be suffering from PTSD. All the symptoms I described to them, my daily struggles, were consistent with an anxiety disorder, low mood, and trauma-related mental health conditions. Post-traumatic stress disorder was a likely culprit.

The Stuff of Nightmares

I will not get into the details of all the possible symptoms of PTSD – I am not medically trained, and there are so many resources online that can offer help and advice (I will link a couple of them at the end of this post). All I can talk about it my experience of trauma, the symptoms I have that are consistent with a diagnosis of PTSD, and how it affects me at the moment.

I have had regular flashbacks for months. Moments when I lose track of where I am, and find myself reliving parts of my cancer journey. I am irritable. For months, I felt completely numb. Now, I have all of the emotions, all of the time. I have insomnia. I live in fear that something bad is about to happen. I startle easily. I avoid places that remind me of cancer. I feel sick talking about my diagnosis. I get triggered by the smallest thing – a picture of an ultrasound or a letter from the GP in my letterbox. Smells, noises. Lights.

For the last few weeks, I have been dealing with one of the nastier symptoms of PTSD: nightmares. They happen every single night, at least once, sometimes three or four times.

I will wake up feeling panicky, exhausted, sweaty, terrified. Some of the nightmares are very clear – they are memories of the worst moments of the last few years that will play in my head, over and over again. So much that I feel lost. I feel like I am back in those horrendous months before surgery. I will be reliving hospital appointments, tests, results. Sometimes they are painfully close to reality, sometimes I get told my cancer is terminal. Sometimes I do not make it out of surgery. Sometimes I learn that someone I love is going through what I did, not me.

Some of the nightmares are only vaguely related to cancer, but feature hospitals, bad news and people getting hurt. They are disturbing, sometimes violent, they often end with me walking around aimlessly. I get lost in hospitals. I wait for hours in a waiting room that gets darker and darker.

Have you ever been terrified of closing your eyes? Have you ever cried of exhaustion, knowing at the same time that you would get no relief when sleep would take you? Have you ever been afraid of what your brain would make you go through when you needed a nap?

I fear sleep. Every night, I push back the time when I will actually go to bed, because I do not feel ready. I do not want to face the nightmares again. I do not want to wake up after a couple of hours, even more tired than when I went to bed, craving the thing I also want to avoid.

Each night, the cycles repeats. Fight sleep. Push back my bedtime to 10pm, 11pm, 12pm, 1am. Fall asleep, sometimes despite myself, sometimes with the lights on. And wake up, after a couple of hours, feeling absolutely spent, frustrated, heart racing and tears all over my face.

I think the most I have slept on a single night, in the last three weeks, has been about five hours. These days, it is closer to two or three hours a night.

And as a result, my symptoms during the day get worse. I am even more prone to tears, even more irritable, even more disconnected from reality. Even more likely to have an anxiety attack for the smallest thing.

I am tired.

We Are Not Alone

I know so many people with PTSD. Friends, family members, slight acquaintances. I have read about so many more people having it, living with it, trying to overcome it.

Our experiences are all so different, but they are all valid. Do not let anyone tell you you cannot have PTSD because your situation was not traumatic enough in their eyes. Do not let yourself think you cannot have PTSD because your trauma was somehow less than someone else’s.

Trauma is personal. Trauma is subjective. Trauma is welcome to pack its bags and go away.

Useful links:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/symptoms/

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-and-complex-ptsd/about-ptsd/

https://www.ptsduk.org/

World Cancer Day

Today was World Cancer Day. A day to celebrate those who won, remember those we lost, support those who are still fighting and give hope to those who will fight in the future. A day to raise awareness and stop being afraid.

It was a long day. I woke up in pain from the physical repercussions of my low oestrogen levels. I had my first counselling session. I cried hot, burning tears. I had flash-back. I said words I had never said out loud. I took another step towards recovery.

On this day, we all have a part to play. Whether it is taking care of your own body, paying attention to the signs, raising awareness, remembering a friend, making a donation towards cancer research, saying a kind word to a loved one fighting cancer, driving someone to an appointment or listening to someone’s story – it all matters.

And on this day, I am grateful to everyone who has been part of my cancer journey, however big or small your contribution was. Thank you. It all matters.

Talking About Cancer – Making Light of It

Today marks exactly one year since the day my operation was first scheduled. It is also six days until my next check-up at the hospital, for the dreaded one-year mark (or as close as we could get without having me go for a check-up at Christmas).

At the moment, it is impossible for me to spend any length of time during the day not thinking about cancer. It permeates everything, it colours every feeling, every decision I make. It makes me cry, it makes me sick with worry, it makes me crumble to the floor in the shower until the water goes cold, it makes me forget how to breathe in the middle of my morning walk, and fall over in the park.

Because cancer is all-consuming, it is almost impossible to push it to the back of your mind, and not think about it at all. You need to find other ways to cope. Ways to tame cancer, to make it less of a threat, make it into a subject you can discuss, something that can make you laugh as well as cry.

I have found that making light of cancer helps. Making jokes, bringing it up in an unexpected way and observing people’s reactions can be priceless. When you make fun of it, for a few seconds, it no longer is the big C, or the other C-word. It is cancer, and it is something you can bring up without fear, something you have earned the right to laugh about.

I have always loved dry humour. Saying something unexpected, sometimes a bit dark but that will bring a laugh upon someone’s lips – or a shocked gasp, depending on who my audience is.

Just this week, even though I am battling one of the darkest weeks I have had all year, I made two of my ‘cancer jokes’, and it felt amazing. They were awkward, they were uncomfortable. They were not necessarily funny – I definitely will not be quitting my day job to start a career as a comedian – but they did make me feel more in control. For a few precious seconds, it felt like cancer was mine to beat, mine to laugh at. If I can laugh about it, surely it cannot hurt me anymore.

I was on the phone with a friend at the weekend, and we were talking about how I have been having a lot of mood swings and have been feeling very tearful lately – even more so than usual. My friend was asking whether I thought it might be hormone-related, or could it be an issue with my antidepressants maybe? In a deadpan, slow voice, I interrupted her and said ‘God, I hope I’m not pregnant’. A couple of seconds of silence, and an awkward laugh followed. Sorry to have made you uncomfortable – personally, I think that has been the highlight of my week so far.

The other joke I made was during a group video call, with a lot more people than I am usually comfortable with. I had not spoken to some of them since the summer of 2019, before it all happened, but they all knew, either because they had been told by other people or they saw something on social media, or read this blog. We were talking about how long it had been since we last saw each other, and I said ‘well, it’s been a while. Last time we spoke, I still had a uterus’. Some faces looked shocked. There were a couple of laughs, a few shaking heads and one amused ‘Can’t argue with that’.

I have been using humour to cope for months now. Earlier this year, I uploaded a selfie on social media, showcasing my brand new short hair and using a caption that would have made my mum cringe: ‘Getting rid of my hair like I got rid of that cancer – #snipsnip’. I felt so powerful in that moment. Cancer was nothing more than a punchline. Snip snip, my hair. Snip snip, cancer.

I understand these comments might make people uncomfortable. Not everyone is happy to have a laugh about something so serious. But for me, it is a way of getting over it, of proving that cancer is not as threatening as it looks, of feeling like I have the upper hand for once.

I think it is also important to show people that I can laugh about it. If I can make jokes, if I can make light of a terrible situation, maybe people will start feeling comfortable around me and my issues. Maybe they can make their own jokes, and I will laugh at them – no puns though, nothing make me cringe more than a bad pun.

I have earned the right to make those jokes, and to laugh when you make one. Not everyone with cancer will see it that way, and for some people cancer will always stay off-limits. For me, making light of cancer is proof that it has not taken over my sense of humour. I can still be hysterical.

Well. Not etymologically.

Talking About Cancer – 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.