All the Women I Can Still Be

I wrote a few weeks ago about my struggles with finding my identity again, feeling like myself and existing as a woman following. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and I spent the weekend trying to work out where I fit in. What came out is a list of everything I am, would want to be, may be, could one day be.

A friend.

A daughter.

A fighter.

A knitter.

A writer.

A career woman.

A patient.

A partner.

A winner.

A loser.

A manager.

A baker.

A business woman.

A bridesmaid.

A mother.

An advisor.

A reader.

An author.

A crafter.

A protester.

A supporter.

A defender.

A cousin.

A younger sister.

An older sister.

A rock to lean on.

A drama queen.

A hustler.

A traveller.

A dreamer.

A cancer survivor.

A gossip.

A listener.

A boss.

An artist.

A girlfriend.

A wife.

A seamstress.

A feminist.

An ally.

A leader.

An activist.

A lover.

A protector.

A flatmate.

A nightmare.

A dream.

A mess.

A blogger.

A champion.

A girl.

A lady.

A cat-lady.

A risk taker.

A fixer.

A teacher.

A carer.

A student.

A translator.

A decent cook.

A music lover.

A theatre geek.

A niece.

A grand-daughter.

A mother.

A creator.

A queen.

An entertainer.

An advocate.

A performer.

That is my list. It may evolve, it may grow, it may be missing a few items, and that is the strength of it.

Rebuilding My Identity, Finding My Voice

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

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

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

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

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

The changes were subtle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

New Year, New Challenges

There are similarities in the way I rang in the new year those last two years. Same group of friends (minus a few members), same no-drinking policy, same hope for a better year ahead. Minor differences – this time we were in France and had a seemingly unlimited supply of face masks and hand sanitizer. We played games, ate too much and had a chilled, fun-filled evening.

But instead of the fireworks of 2020, 2021 started with a panic attack and hot, burning tears.

I had felt them coming. I had had a few scary moments throughout the evening, moments where I lost touch with reality and slipped into my own mind. Moments when, unable to cope with two many conversations around me (and there were still only six of us), I retreated back into myself, into the mind that used to be my refuge, but has since become booby-trapped with dangerous thoughts.

After a year spent mostly in isolation, I had no idea how I would react to being around people constantly. Over the last three weeks, as I got reacquainted with my family and friends, it proved a challenge.

How do you talk to people who know of your vulnerability, but have not experienced it, witnessed it first-hand? How do you broach an entire year of physical and mental struggles with people who have only known you at your best, healthy self?

As usual, I pretended everything was fine. Most people are comfortable with that, that is what they are expecting. Most of my friends did not ask any follow-up questions. I managed to see both my parents and only mention the word ‘cancer’ a handful of times at most. They were not interested, they were avoiding the subject. It probably made them more comfortable to ignore the issue, so I pretended to do the same.

My mental health struggles, I was not able to hide as well. I felt down at times, which my friends noticed. I realised that confrontation, arguments and aggressive debates automatically sent me into a panic spiral. I cannot deal with conflict anymore – and in a family setting, conflict is sure to arise at some point, particularly if my brothers get started on politics. I guess I needed to experience it to learn of my new limits. I was given plenty of opportunities to test them, and I did not disappoint. Or rather, I did.

Big personalities make me feel small and inadequate. I used to be like that, and now I feel invisible. I no longer have the strength to battle for what I think, so I disappear in group conversations.

I do not want to disappear, but I also constantly feel like I am not enough. Like I am a hindrance, rather than a help. Like I am imposing myself on others, just by being there, by taking up space, quietly, without contributing much. I feel like I am a bother, like people do not want or need me around.

I struggle to make decisions. Weirdly enough, it does not affect me much at work, in a setting where I know I have to make calls as part of my job. But choosing between five different types of tea, what room I want to sleep in, or deciding what music we should listen to, all of that sends me into a panic.

It all culminated at New Year’s. Too many people around, too many different things to pay attention to, too many small decisions – where do you want to sit, what do you want to drink, which conversation do you want to listen to, too many things to look at and people to smile at. I could not keep the pretense long enough and I crumbled.

There were so many thoughts in my head at midnight. How everyone was hoping for a better year, even if quietly and without much confidence it would happen. I find it difficult to hope, to think about the future, which is what New Year is about. Closing the door on a terrible year, and leaping into a new, unknown one. To me, that sounds terrifying. 365 more days, and any one of them could bring terrible news and things.

Seeing people around me being happy is hard – it reminds me of how much I have changed, how I used to be one of them. It draws me into a downward spiral – I feel guilty about being down, about not being able to enjoy a few hours with my friends when I have the opportunity. My guilt transforms into shame, into self-hatred. Panic and tears settle in.

When it finally happened, just after midnight, it was not pretty. I withdrew into a dark room and let my tears flow, my breathing returning to normal after a good twenty minutes. It was my first panic attack of 2021, but I already know it will not be the last.

Last year, my only New Year resolution was to beat cancer. It was a worrying time, but the goal was clear, and could be achieved with medical procedures and treatment. This year, I do not have any resolutions, but I have challenges I want to reach and win. Feeling more confident. Achieving things and enjoying small victories. Letting go of the guilt. Allowing myself to shine and be myself, proudly and unapologetically. Having fun, saying goodbye to doubts and worries, and not being afraid to be happy.

The Ghost of Cancer Past

I woke up this morning in my mother’s guest room at home, a kitten biting at my bare feet, head pounding.

My first conscious thought was that I really should close my bedroom door. The second one was that today was the one-year anniversary of the actual operation.

365 (well, 366 – obviously 2020 had to be a leap year) days since life-changing surgery. A year ago, at the time I am writing this, I still had a womb. I still had ovaries. I still had cancer.

I would be lying if I said I did not feel a sense of loss. But strangely enough, it is not only the loss of my reproductive organs that I feel today. I also mourn the fact that this is the second-to-last one-year anniversary that I will have on my cancer journey. Today, and then all that is left is the 13th of January, the one-year anniversary of the final staging, the day I was told that for all intents and purposes, and as far as doctors could tell, there was no trace of cancer in my body. I was in remission.

For a year, I have clung onto these dates, the small anniversaries of each step in my cancer journey. They were frightening, I dreaded them, each one more intense than the previous one. But I also found comfort in them. I reached milestones. No matter how hard those days were, they made me realise I was moving forward. They helped me retrace my journey and let go of feelings I did not know I have.

Tomorrow, I will not be able to say ‘I had surgery less than a year ago’. I will not be able to use it as an excuse for however I am feeling.

In four weeks, I will not have any more one-year anniversaries to celebrate. It is daunting. It feels like I am losing a timeline that helped me stay anchored for the past year.

I did not expect to feel that way, I did not even expect that I would think about those anniversaries coming to an end. I am discovering more aspects of my grief every day.

Am I looking forward to being free of those dates? Will things get easier when I do not wake up each day knowing exactly what I was doing a year ago? Will I rejoice in the fact that, come mid-January, I will no longer associate each day with memories of cancer?

I will not blow a candle today. I will not celebrate the birth of my new womb-free, cancer-free body. But I will light a fire in the living room (I am not turning into an arsonist – there is a fireplace), and let it consume a year’s worth of memories and grief for the organs I no longer have.

One Year On: We Are in the Clear

If I had any energy left after my one-year follow-up appointment this afternoon, I would probably blow up some balloons and put them up in my flat.

It was hard. My eyes are raw from crying. I used about two boxes of tissues – one in the waiting room and one in the exam room.

I cried in front of the receptionist. I cried in front of the nurse who checked my height and weight. I cried in front of the doctor, and I cried in front of the cancer nurse specialist.

Follow-up appointments are rough. You can go about your life for months, but you know that everything could change in a matter of seconds, in that same room where you first got the news. The. Exact. Same. Room.

I had a new doctor again, who asked me plenty of questions about how I was diagnosed, how it came to be, what tests were done, how thick the lining of my uterus had been on the MRI scan (I have no idea). As I was battling my way through my tears, she told me it was ok to cry. It was ok to be overwhelmed, to be traumatised. She told me that I had gone through a lot for someone so young – terribly young, and she could say that because we were exactly the same age.

I do not know why that comment struck me as odd. Why of all the things she said, that is the one that stayed with me.

But it is all said and done now. A quick exam, a lot of background info, a chat about any symptoms I could have had, an inventory of the medication I am on, and I have been declared cancer-free, until my next appointment in four months.

I will have more to say in the coming days. About how they told me if things remained the same, I would be discharged after one more year, instead of four. About how my dedicated nurse was self-isolating so I was not able to speak to her, but arranged a phone catch-up in a couple of weeks to discuss my ongoing mental health problems.

For now though, I will crawl under the covers, put a good audiobook on and try and get some much needed rest. I may order a celebratory takeaway later, making up for the fact I have had maybe 4 meals in the last 6 days. I will make myself a hot chocolate and put the Christmas lights on.

In the wise words of Adore Delano – Party.