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 – The Burden of Genetics (I)

When I think about family, I usually think of people. A moving, imperfect circle, individuals all coming together, fighting, loving, arguing, hugging. People hanging out at big events, related by a multitude of ties, some unbreakable, some so thin they disappear over the years.

I always saw my family as this group of people, some with whom I had great relations, some I barely ever spoke to. I had never defined family based on whether we shared any blood, any DNA. Whether someone had married into the family or was on the same branch of the family tree never mattered to me.

Until one day, when it became all that mattered.

I was told early on, the day after my diagnosis, that there were two potential causes for my cancer. One was that it was random. Faulty hormones, bad karma, a variety of factors that could contribute to my developing womb cancer at a ridiculously young age. The other explanation would be genetics. There could be, running in my family, a genetic condition that had until then remained undetected, and my cancer could be one of the many manifestations of this genetic mutation. The overwhelming majority of womb cancers are random, and happen in individuals who have no family history of cancer. But a small percentage are due to various genetic conditions, and these cancers tend to appear much earlier. Because I was completely out of the usual age range for womb cancer, I was a candidate for genetic testing. It would not change the treatment plan, or the outcome of this particular cancer. But it had the potential to change everything else.

I was referred to a genetics specialist on the very day of my diagnosis. At the time, I did not realise how much that weighed on my shoulders. I was told it would take months for me to get an appointment, and that it would only be the start of my journey into genetics – if I decided I wanted to get tested, after discussing it with the specialist. I agreed to speaking to the geneticist without even thinking about it. Since it was going to take months, it was better to get started early.

Pretty soon, I received a bunch of forms to fill in about my family, about where each branch of my family came from, our ethnic background. I then had to fill in separate forms about each of my first and second-degree relatives. Names, dates of birth and medical history of my parents, brothers, grand-parents, aunts and uncles. Date and cause of death, where applicable. Any medical history that could be relevant: cancers, unexplained medical conditions, etc.

It was an incredible, uncomfortable amount of work. I had to ask each of my parents to quiz members of their respective family. My mum’s family was straightforward. No cancer in the immediate family, and no trace of it for generations. It is actually quite unsettling to realise that I am the first in four generations to get cancer. That seems terribly unfair.

We hit a hurdle as soon as I started filling out the information about my dad’s side of the family. We know very little about his father, and his life after he left his family when my dad was just a toddler. My dad has always refused to look into it, to get in touch, to renew the ties before his father died, back in the early 90s. He could have had cancer, and we might not have known about it.

My dad also had to ask his elderly siblings, two of which are currently battling their own advanced cancers, about any genetic testing they might have undergone. It must have been terribly taxing. I have rarely been so grateful to have someone to delegate some of this work to.

We filled in the forms, using all the sections allocated and then more – the form only allowed for three siblings for each generation, and my parents both come from much larger families. I had to add a few extra pages of names and data, before sealing the envelope and sending it off to Oxford.

As I was doing this work, I also started looking more in depth into what a genetic condition could mean. I did the very thing that the nurse had asked me not to do during our first appointment, and I went on an endless search for answers on the Internet.

I read pages and pages of information about potential genetic conditions, thinking and overthinking anything I knew about my family. My aunt is battling breast cancer – there are several genetic mutations that can cause both breast and gynaecological cancers in some families. My uncle is fighting pancreatic cancer – although there are many factors that could have contributed to his specific cancer, it is also one of the cancers associated with Lynch syndrome, which causes a predisposition to a wide range of cancers, including womb and colon cancer.

Because of these cancers on my dad’s side of the family, and the unknown threat of his own father’s family history, I had somehow convinced myself that the likelihood of a family genetic condition was pretty high. Doctors had told me that my cancer was more likely to be random. But they had also told me before that the chances of me having cancer at my age were almost non-existent. When you are one in a million, how can you then trust that your cancer will follow the most common path?

A genetic condition like Lynch syndrome would have meant that, even if I beat this womb cancer, I was at a much higher risk of developing other cancers in the near future, if it had not started already. My life would be very different. I was scared. I was terrified. For months, I analysed every single thing happening in my body, convinced that it was the sign of another cancer growing somewhere else in my body. More than once, I asked myself if it really was worth undergoing treatment, if I knew cancer was going to be a very real threat in the future. If it was only a matter of time. I will be honest. There were days where the possibility of being riddled with genetics conditions made me think of giving up altogether.

The one happy thought I had was that, if I did have a genetic condition, I would never pass it on to any children. It is bleak, when your one ray of hope is that your hysterectomy means you will never pass on faulty genes.

By agreeing to speak to a geneticist, I had agreed to open the door to an ocean of possibilities, each scarier than the next. I agreed on the basis that it is better to know in advance what you are about to face. I have said it before, I hate surprises. Undergoing genetic testing is pretty much as close to finding out about your future as is possible in this day and age.

In early December, as I was coming to terms with the delay in my operation, I received a letter from the genetics clinic, telling me I had an appointment scheduled for Friday, 14th February 2020. Well. I was not going to have a hot date on Valentine’s Day anyway, so I might as well have an appointment with a geneticist.

It felt so distant, so far in the future that I pushed it to the back of my mind for a while. I focused on the task at hand for the next couple of weeks: getting the surgery done. Everything else could take a backseat. But the moment I saw my brothers again when they came to visit at Christmas, a new threat jumped into my mind.

If a genetic condition was to be discovered, it would not only affect me. It would affect them. It would affect my parents. They would have to get tested. I would be the one triggering a series of reactions I had not foreseen. Was I ready for this? Were they?

All of a sudden, the threat of genetics became unbearable, and the guilt, the guilt I felt at the idea of being the one throwing my family into disarray was undescribable. I could not do that to them. My existence was putting theirs in danger. My medical history could unravel their lives.

Spoiler alert – it did not. But the feelings were there, for months. And they deserve a blog post of their own.

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.

If I Be Weak

This is how the chorus of one of my favourite songs goes: ‘If you be weak / Then I’ll be strong / When the night is long’. Later on comes the counterpart: ‘If I be weak / Won’t you be strong / When the night is long.’*

I used to listen to that song a lot, back in my late teens and early twenties. I listened to it with the arrogance of youth. I did not understand how someone could be both strong and weak at the same time. In my head, I was and would always strive to be strong, to be the one comforting everyone else. I was able to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I liked to pretend that the second chorus, that question about whether someone else would be there if I broke down, did not exist.

I had very old-fashioned ideas about what strength was. For me, strength had always meant not showing vulnerability, being reliable, being able to prove myself, rising to the challenges thrown my way without ever admitting how much effort it took. I spent years and years trying to prove I could do everything by myself. Being strong meant doing everything, and doing it well. I am highly competitive, and I have always strived to be the best at everything I did – giving up things that I enjoyed but had no natural talent for because I would not ‘win’, be it against myself or someone else.

I have spent the last thirteen months (happy thirteen-month anniversary to me – officially my third-longest relationship ever!) constantly oscillating between wanting to show how strong I am, how I am keeping it all together, and wanting to break down, to admit that I am weak and need other people to help me stand. It is a real balancing act. I want people to see me as someone strong, secure, reliable. But I also want them to see the cracks and acknowledge they exist, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Some people acknowledge this weakness. It is the only thing they see. I had that revelation just a couple of weeks ago, when I received a letter from the GP advising me to call and schedule an appointment to receive the flu vaccine. I had received another one a couple of weeks earlier and ignored it – not on purpose. I simply forgot about it, because of how ludicrous it felt. After all, I am 28. I have never struggled with the flu – I get it every couple of years, spend a couple of days in bed with a fever, and have aches and a bad cough for a week. And that is it. Why would I need to have the flu vaccine? Surely other, weaker people could benefit from it more.

And then it hit me. Doctors see me as a person who is at higher risk. In their eyes, I am one of those weaker individuals. I need to be protected, to avoid adding to the numbers of hospitalisations over the winter months. I am not a normal 28-year-old anymore. I am different than I was eighteen months ago, when I was a healthy individual, for all intents and purposes. (Well, it is either that or the NHS spent so much money on getting me cured of cancer, they would be pretty pissed off if I then died of the flu) And so I booked an appointment at the GP, and I finally got my flu shot. My arm has only just stopped hurting. 

But that is just one point of view, the one of health professionals who know one aspect of my life only: the one where my body has let me down. Not everyone sees things that way.

The thing that makes me the most uncomfortable is hearing people tell me how strong I am. Of course, it is a perfectly standard, commonplace thing to say to people who have had cancer. If you have ever said it to me, please do not feel bad, do not feel like you did something wrong. I have said it to many people in similar situations. I will probably say it to others in the future. But it makes me cringe every time, and I want to be open about it.

Hearing that feels both like a compliment and a slap in the face, a duality which is exacerbated by the fact that I am responsible for people thinking of me that way. After all, I am the one trying to project that image, and still I am the one cringing when people recognise it, I am the one feeling sick, like I have been telling a lie that people believe. To quote a phrase that I have been using in every blog post so far – it makes no sense. I am happy to hear that people feel that way, see me that way. It makes me proud, it makes me feel like I am not as much of a failure as I feel most days. But it also hurts, because it feels as if they do not see how much I am struggling. They are ignoring my pain, ignoring the fact I was not cured with a simple snip of the scalpel, that it does much deeper than that. It feels like they will not allow me to be weak, they will not allow me to tell them I am not coping. Instead, I feel like I need to keep pretending, again and again. Keeping up appearances, forever.

But it is ok to be weak. It is normal. It does not mean I cannot be relied upon.

I remember when I first told my team at work. There were tears, there were words of support. But over the next days and weeks, I realised they had started avoiding telling me about their problems. They wanted to spare me. They wanted me to focus on my own issues, they felt like their work wobbles, their doubts, their personal troubles were somehow less relevant now. But it was not the case. I still want to be able to help and support everyone. My team need me. My family need me. My little brother needs my shoulder to cry on, he needs my enthusiasm, my support, my help to prop him up during a difficult time in his own life. It is a struggle, because I only have so much energy and emotional capacity, but I like it. I like knowing I will be there when they need me. ‘If you be weak, then I’ll be strong / When the night is long’

It is very contradictory. I do not want people to treat me differently because of cancer, but I also do. When I let people in, when I tell them about the last year, it is not because I somehow want them to feel bad for me. I do not want, I do not need their pity. What I need is for them to understand that, despite everything I show the world, I am also weak, and I need them to be strong for me. I need shoulders to cry on too. I need support. I need to be allowed to be weak. I need to know I can let go, and that things will not fall apart when I do. I am a broken vase that has been hastily put back together. I am vulnerable, but I still hold my shape. I need you to be there, super glue in hand, for the next time a crack opens up, and water starts pouring out. ‘If I be weak / Won’t you be strong / When the night is long’

*Armistice by Patrick Wolf. A masterpiece that has been playing on repeat on my phone and in my head since 2011.

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.

From Diagnosis to Surgery, Part I

I got my diagnosis on 15th October, and it took another 65 days for me to have the surgery that would get rid of the cancer. The two months in between the diagnosis and the surgery were a blur. They went by so fast, and they dragged on at the same time. There were tears, there were delays, there were countless visits to four different hospitals, there were good days and laughs with friends.

As soon as I was given my diagnosis, I was told that things would happen at a quick succession. Before I had even been given the news at my local hospital, the gynaeocology oncology team there had referred me to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford for treatment. This was because of various factors, including my age, the fact I had never had children, and my raised BMI. I had been able to walk from my house to the local hospital, I would have to travel 40 minutes by train, then another 30 by bus, to reach the hospital where most of my appointments and treatment would take place. At that point, it did not even cross my mind that my friends would be so selfless and supportive as to offer to drive me there and back whenever they were able to. But they did.

When you are given your diagnosis, things are not always completely set in place, even in your doctors’ minds. There are so many steps, so many tests you need to have to stage the cancer before a treatment plan can be discussed. At the appointment I had the day after my diagnosis, with the gynaecology oncology team at my local hospital, I was given a list of the next steps. Many of the tests I could start having at my local hospitals, before the Oxford Multi-Disciplinary Team took over. The Multi-Disciplinary Team is the team of doctors and nurses who will plan everything for your treatment, from the scans and tests to the surgery and follow-up care. They are experts in their disciplines, from oncology to surgery to radiology, and they all work together to cover all aspects of your cancer, and make sure that nothing is missed and you are supported throughout. It is intimidating, to have a whole team of people discussing your case. It is also reassuring.

I had my first two scans at local hospitals. The first one was an MRI, in order to check for the local spread of your cancer. MRIs are not fun. I have anxiety, and the MRI process involves all of my worst triggers. I am uncomfortable in enclosed spaces, I am scared of needles (we do not have time here for a list of all my phobias, but there are MANY), blood makes me ill. For the type of MRI I had, they had to inject me with a contrast agent and a muscle relaxant. On top of my fear of needles, I have two further issues: I bleed very easily, and my veins are very fine. It usually takes them a handful of tries and a good few minutes to find a vein they can use, and I end up having bruises up and down my arms for weeks. It did not fail. After stabbing each of my arms half a dozen times, they finally found a vein they could use, and the MRI started. They gave me headphones playing some random, loud music. I had had an MRI before, I knew how noisy they were, but it… It is a lot. I closed my eyes, tried to focus on the music they were playing. I focussed on my breathing to prevent a full-blown panic attack. The scan took about 30 minutes, but it felt like hours.

The second scan was a chest x-ray. This is a scary one, but for very different reasons. The point of the chest x-ray is to check whether cancer has spread to the lungs. If it has, it is not usually a good sign. The doctors had told me they were not expecting there to be any signs of metastasis, the medical term for when cancer has spread to parts of the body that are farther away from where it originated, but they have to make absolutely sure before they start the treatment plan. I do not mind x-rays – I have had my fair share of broken bones and ankle sprains, so I had them regularly all through my childhood and teenage years. I think the whole test, from my registering at the front desk to putting my clothes back on after the scan, took about ten minutes. Once the MRI and chest x-ray were done, all there was left to do was wait for the multi-disciplinary team to review them, and confirm their findings in an in-person appointment in Oxford.

It is a long wait. You have been told you have cancer, you have been told the grade, which describes how different the cells look under the microscope compared to normal, healthy cells, but you are still waiting for what they call ‘staging’. The stage of the cancer describes how far it has spread in your body, and what each stage means will depend on the type of cancer. The vast majority of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer are Stage 1, where the cancer is confined to the uterus and has not spread to any lymph nodes, nearby or distant organs. Fortunately, I was amongst these women. Later, they would tell me that they believed that my cancer would be Stage 1a, where it is confined to the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) and has not grown more than halfway through the muscle of the womb. This initial staging was not definite – the final staging can only be done after surgery, after a thorough examination of the organs that were removed.

At the same time I was having these tests (they both happened within ten days of the original diagnosis), I had also been referred for genetic testing. Because I was so young when my cancer was discovered, the doctors were worried there might be some previously-undetected genetic condition running in my family that could predispose me to having endometrial cancer, and possibly some other types of cancers as well. It was more likely that my cancer was random than due to a genetic condition, but they still thought it would be best to check. If there was a genetic mutation, it was likely to affect other members of my family as well, and they would also be more at risk, and would need to get tested and monitored. I quickly received a letter confirming an appointment with a genetics specialist – scheduled for a few months later, in February. In the meantime, they had given me forms to fill in about my family history and background, including any cancers in siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grand-parents, etc. It is a very thorough questionnaire, and it gives you a lot to think about. Ethnicity, geography, genealogy, a lot of things apparently play a part in your genetic makeup. There is thankfully no clear history of cancer in my family – we have had a few family members diagnosed with various cancers over the last few years, as most families will, but no obvious pattern to discern. The one unknown was on my father’s father side, as that is a branch of the family we do not know much about. But I took it as a good sign, and tried to put it at the back of my mind. Whether the cancer was random or genetic, the treatment plan would be the same at this point.

I had my first appointment with a doctor from the Oxford team. Because I had been referred by a hospital in another county, they wanted to give me all the information again, explain what the treatment plan was going to be in detail, and carry out a quick physical examination. The same friend who had come to my appointment with the local team came to this one, driving me there and back and distracting me as much as she could in the waiting room, asking silly ‘would you rather’ questions and discussing random work issues.

The waiting room in the oncology ward at the Churchill Hospital is scary. It is huge, it is always full. At my local hospital, I was in the waiting room for the gynaecology and obstetrics department. I was surrounded by pregnant women, by happy couples and friendly faces. In Oxford, I was sitting in a room full of people like me, people who have just been diagnosed, and people coming in for further treatment. I remember looking at every single face in that room, in the hope of finding someone my age, of catching their eye. I felt young, young and terrified.

The doctor I saw was fantastic. She explained she would be part of my team, she drew diagrams to explain what was happening inside my body, what the scans had revealed. She was really reassuring. She went through the treatment plan – surgery first, and afterwards they would assess whether further treatment would be needed based on the surgery findings. Any further treatment would probably consist in a number of targeted radiotherapy sessions, to prevent local recurrence. The thought was scary, but it felt good to know there was a plan in place ‘just in case’. The doctor opened her diary, and told me we would book in a date for the surgery there and then.

I had been told it would be quick. We were looking at about three, four weeks from the date of that first appointment. So, there. It would be on a Tuesday, the third of December. That would leave enough time for me to speak to a fertility specialist, to attend my pre-operative assessment, to have one last appointment with the surgeon who would be leading the team operating on me. We pencilled it in, and just like that, I had an end date in sight. I then went into a room with the nurse on shift, where I was free to ask any questions I had. I asked about work – how long would I need to be off for after the surgery. I asked about how soon I could be expected to move around after the surgery. I asked practical and random questions which I had been thinking of for weeks. Reassured, we left the hospital. I am not a hugger, but a I had very long hug with my friend just outside the hospital.

I was relieved, I was focused. I felt now that I had a date in a diary, I had a goal. I had a plan. I knew what the next few weeks would be made of, and I had a clear end date. The third of December. About three weeks after surgery, they would call me in, to discuss the results of the operation, give me the final staging, and provide information about any further treatment. That would be around Christmas-time. That meant that by New Year’s, by the time 2020 started, I could be cancer-free, and well on my way to recovery. Four weeks after the surgery, I would probably be able to walk around, and spend a nice night out with my friends (but still be in bed by 1am, because I was already a 27-year-old grandma). I was relieved, and strangely excited. Things were happening, and I felt settled, for the first time since the diagnosis. My friend drove me back. Before dropping me off at home, she asked whether I wanted to go to Hobbycraft, and do some early Christmas crafts shopping. I bought so many things, an endless supply. I have always loved December, and I would be stuck at home, off work, for my favourite period of the year: the lead-up to Christmas. I would get so many crafts done, I was already looking forward to it. No better way to recover.

I received letters for my pre-operative assessment and meeting with the surgeon very quickly. They would take place in the last two weeks before the surgery. I was still waiting for the appointment with the fertility specialist, and that would not come until the very last minute. I have already spoken of this experience in my post ‘Fighting for my Right Not to Have Children’ so I will not repeat it there. It was a stressful time, a time where I felt my wishes were not being taken into account. The lead-up to the surgery was not the most pleasant.

The pre-operative assessment went without a hitch. I was declared healthy, there were few concerns – at least, once my stress levels went down and my heart rate finally fell under 100bpm. Did I mention I do not like hospitals and am a very nervous person?

For my meeting with the surgeon, I went on my own. I would face this waiting room in Oxford by myself for the first time. I had taken some knitting with me – I was knitting a blanket for my friend’s baby. As I sat knitting in the waiting room, different people, patients like me, came to talk to me, admire the softness of the wool, discuss my (very poor) knitting technique. I exchanged smiles with strangers, told them about my nan teaching me how to knit twenty years ago – and having to learn it all over again in my twenties, when I no longer considered it lame.

The appointment itself was quick and underwhelming. After an hour on the train, directly from work to Oxford, then a congested bus journey, I sat for two and a half hours in the waiting room. I made a lot of progress on my knitting project. When I finally was called in by the surgeon, we maybe had a 5-minute conversation. He wanted to make sure everything was fine, and I was still happy about going ahead with the surgery, which by then was only six days away. He asked me whether I had seen the fertility specialist yet, I said no, explained what had happened. He reassured me that the person I would speak to would give him their report immediately after the appointment, so that we could go ahead with the surgery, knowing that everything had been discussed, and was all in order. And then he shook my hand, and said ‘See you next Tuesday.’

The appointment with the fertility specialist was at the John Radcliffe hospital, also in Oxford. A few friends had offered to come with me, in case I needed support to make my voice heard, to tell them that I had decided not to preserve my fertility, that I was not interested. I declined, saying I wanted to do it on my own. They had also missed enough days of work because of me. I spoke to the fertility expert. I declined fertility-preservation options. I agreed to donate some of my ovarian tissue to science – so they could carry out research on how to preserve the fertility of young women undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy. They reassured me that my tissue would not be used to create life.

That was the last of my appointments. I went home. I had one last weekend to myself, and I had made sure to have plans. I went to the Barbican on the Saturday, to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew where all the roles had been reversed. It felt fitting in my situation. Women in power, women in control of the world and their own lives. I laughed, I smiled throughout. I walked through London on the way back, taking in the early Christmas decorations and the smell of cold in the city. I did not do much on the Sunday. I cooked, prepping and freezing meals for when I would not be able to, a few days hence. I spoke with my mum, I spoke to some friends.

I was off work on the Monday, and I waited at home for my dad to arrive. He was driving over from France, and would stay a week, until I was mostly recovered from the surgery. His partner had undergone a similar operation a few years before, so he knew what to expect. I was scared – it would be his first time driving in the UK, coming straight from the ferry in Newhaven. Of course, I had told him to text me when he set foot the UK and he did not, so I spent the morning worrying that something had happened, that he had been in an accident. In a way, it was helpful to worry about something other than cancer. But he made his way over, and I got to give him a tour of my town, take him for a beer and fish and chips at the pub – obviously, I was not drinking before the surgery, but I did enjoy my elderflower cordial. It was nice. It felt very strange, because we were never that close, and I cannot remember the last time I spent any time one on one with him before that day. We went home, I inflated an air bed for him, and I set my alarm for 6.30am the next day. We had to be in Oxford by 10am, and I did not want to risk being late.

I barely slept. I was too nervous, worried at the idea of finally having the surgery that I had been waiting for for months. On the way to the hospital, my dad’s driving allowed me to focus on something else for a while, so scared was I that he would suddenly change lanes on the motorway, reverting to his French habits. My phone kept going off in my lap, with messages of support and love from friends, family, colleagues. By the end of the day, I would have had the surgery, I would be waking up free of cancer – hopefully.

We parked at the Park and Ride and got a taxi to the hospital. I checked in, and we were told to wait. We settled in. I had booked a hotel room for my father close to the hospital. After thirty minutes, I was called in for a couple of tests. Back to the waiting room. I had a few books with me, along with a dressing gown and fluffy bunny slippers, as required by the hospital. I got halfway through my first book before I got called in again, this time to speak to the anaesthetist and sign consent forms. I had been fasting since the night before, as requested. I went back to the waiting room. We waited. And waited.

At around 2.30pm, I was called in, out of the waiting room and into the ward again. There, I was told that the surgery before mine was taking longer than expected, and it would be a while longer still. I was allowed to have a glass of water – it was clear the surgery would not happen for another couple of hours. I was exhausted, I was hungry, I was frustrated. I am not very patient in the best of situations, but particularly in these circumstances.

It was getting dark outside. Finally, at around 5pm, I was called in. They said my dad should come with me. I did not think anything of it, but maybe I should have. My surgeon and the doctor I had seen at my first appointment in Oxford were both in the room. They looked at me and told me to sit down, before apologising. I said it was fine, that I understood things could sometimes take longer, that I did not mind the wait. But that was not what they were apologising for.

They had tried to find a bed for me, for when I would come out of surgery, but there were none available. Why, I am not sure, I did not hear their explanations. All I heard was that it meant that, even though they would have been happy to operate on me, the surgery would not take place. It would not be feasible. I broke down in tears. I was hyperventilating. How could that be possible? I had waited for months. I had waited for a full day within meters of the operating theatre. I had been told it would happen, I just had to wait a bit more, another couple of hours. I was dehydrated. I was exhausted. I could not think straight.

I remember my dad, sitting quietly in the corner of the room. He barely speaks English. He had no idea what we had been discussing. I had to play the role of the patient and the interpreter at the same time, and explain to him, in French, that we had come for nothing. He was livid. He was so angry. He started complaining, asking me to relay his frustration to the doctors, tell them it was absolutely unacceptable, it was inhumane. I was trying to calm him down, I was trying to keep it together. I could not. I was completely spent.

The surgeon told me my hysterectomy would be rescheduled. I had assumed it meant it was delayed by maybe a couple of days, it would happen layer in the week. No. It was to be rescheduled for more than two weeks later, on the 19th of December. I could barely comprehend what was happening, I was in the middle of a panic attack, again.

I was crying, telling the surgeon that my dad had come especially from France for the surgery, that we could not delay it by two weeks. I was terrified, terrified that in two weeks the cancer would spread and it would affect my prognosis. I was not coping at all. I was trying to negotiate, without any idea what I was doing. It was never going to work.

After a while, I had no energy left. I felt drained, I just gave up. Said thank you, said we were leaving. They said they would be in touch, I would receive a letter confirming the time I would need to show up to the hospital on the 19th of December. I would be scheduled first on that day, to ensure the surgery would take place this time And then we left. I asked my dad to text my mum to let her know. And on the drive home, I was telling everyone who was asking for news that it had not happened. Reliving it, again and again.

We got home. We went for dinner. My dad ate, I did not. We decided he was going to go back to France the next day, back to work, so as not to waste a couple days of annual leave.

My colleagues at work were having our department’s Christmas party that night. I kept thinking about it, wishing I could be with them, resenting the fact that that opportunity had been taken from me – and all for nothing. In the grand scheme of things, a silly Christmas party did not matter. But I needed to be angry at something petty.

I went to bed early. In the morning, I would deal with the admin side of things. Telling my manager. Rearranging my sick leave. Trying to see if someone could be there with me for the second surgery. I was exhausted at the very thought of it.

Reclaiming My Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single, Self-Sufficient and Still in Need of Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.