When you try your best but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse
And the tears come streaming down your face
‘Cause you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?
Coldplay: Fix You
It’s been a long while since I wrote about my cancer experience. There are cheerier things to write about to be honest, so it’s something that I have resisted returning to. But time has dulled some of the scarier thoughts, and having read a couple of relevant articles recently, one by Genevieve Fox on how surviving cancer is an ongoing journey of readjustment, and another by the BRiC Centre on living with the ‘new normal’ – I fancied adding my two cents’ worth to the discussion.
Then, as I started writing, for some reason a jumbled hybrid of incorrect Coldplay lyrics popped into my head and off I went down the rabbit hole of YouTube to work out which song I was actually thinking of. Imagine my delight then to discover that Chris Martin wrote not one, but two songs specifically for this blog. Hence why they bracket this post.
To recap quickly, just over five years ago, after living and working in the Middle East for seven years, I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Mother’s Day 2013 (Sunday being the first day of the week in that part of the world). Every subsequent Sunday for the next four weeks, following a new set of scans and tests, I could be found in my GP’s office, waiting to be told the next round of results. On balance, not the best March on record. The fuller story can be found here.
Much has happened since then. And equally, not much at all.
Year 1 was the year of treatment. Year 2 – the year of recovery. The next three an attempt to slot back the pieces of an interrupted life. So here we are, five years on, the pieces in place, just not as well fitting as before. I don’t look the same. I don’t feel the same. I don’t function the same.
But I’m alive.
I thank my lucky stars that they were neatly aligned when I received my diagnosis, and (touch wood) had a strain that responds well to hormone therapy (anxiety levels soar as I write those words). But, the reality is, it’s not as simple that. The Before Cancer [BC] me is gone, absorbed into a different body and a different mind. The BC life has gone, abandoned thousands of miles away in the desert.
Of course I’m grateful for what I have and really, I should move on. It bores me senseless being a perpetual misery, preoccupied with my health, obsessed with my own mortality. My peak goal would be to wipe the slate clean, return to the life that I had. My more realistic goal is to move forward, enjoy the now, embrace the new.
But moving on, as I have discovered, is an interesting concept.
You can shut away memories, appreciate the present, and look to the future. But only for so long. Memories, however hard you try to contain them, have a stubborn way of breaking free.
Take, for example, those first three years when I refused to talk about our life in the UAE at all. The small issue of triggering was an excellent deterrent. If anyone in the family referred to our life then, the fear, shock, distress and sadness I’d experienced when diagnosed, when the investigations were being done, when I had to organise care for my girls left on their own, and when I had to pack enough of my belongings to tide me along for several months, knowing that I would never see my home, my friends, my career, my life in the Middle East again, flared up with such intensity I could only sob. So, if I didn’t talk about it, or walked out of the room when they did, I could manage the present and not dwell on the past.
It was very effective. For a while.
But memories are wayward things, and you can’t walk out of every room. Photos of me would rotate on my laptop screensaver when I was working. Snap: Me in Dubai with lovely, long BC curly hair. Snap: Me with the Jessica Biel fringe I cut in, even before diagnosis, to prove I was brave. In case that lump was cancer. In case I had to have chemo. Snap: Me trying on wigs in that godforsaken mall, just after diagnosis. Snap: Me flaunting the cool Sharleen Spiteri haircut the week before I left Dubai. Eyes sad, smile strained. Snap: Me not even trying to smile with the ugly buzz cut a week later in the UK. Snap. Snap. Snap: Me charting, month-by-month, the growth of post-chemo thinner, straighter, it-doesn’t-do-what-it-used-to hair. These images caught me unaware every time. Images that jostled and jolted and stirred up the memories against their will.
“Don’t look, Mum!” the children insisted, when I’d wept one too many times. So I’d wiggle the mouse and make them disappear.
I could also have stopped looking in the mirror (a little melodramatic?) Or done a Dorian Gray (even more dramatic) – flinging the mirror to the floor and crushing it into silver splinters beneath my heel – each time I caught sight of the scars, the edited boobs, the dot-sized black tattoos on my chest, made by the hospital to accurately target the radiotherapy treatment.
I could eat less, eat differently, go low-fat or no-fat, to try and resolve the new dodgy digestive system thanks to chemo. I could drink less, hold on longer, try and ignore the overactive bladder courtesy of Tamoxifen. I could cover my right arm with factor 30, and (try to) avoid slicing or grating my right-hand’s fingers when I cooked (a hazard of being left-handed) to avoid sunburn and injuries that are harder to heal after lymph-node removal on the cancer side.
I could appreciate aspects of our new life. Walking in the countryside, nature, proximity to London, the opportunities for my children, the fact that Mr S and I were now living together again all the time, not just weekends as we’d done in the Middle East. On a small scale I valued the fact that the hospital was only an hour away or at the end of the phone whenever I was scared. On a larger scale I heaved a sigh of relief for democracy and freedom of speech and equality for women. I enjoyed going to gigs in grungy pubs, and ‘keeping it real’, the changing of the seasons, and the wealth of culture. I was thankful for the Pilates teacher who helped me regain my strength and a hint of fitness. And the outstanding psychologist at the Marsden who kept me on for months longer than he was obliged to, helping me start to make sense of life after cancer and other personal stuff that was blocking the way to an untroubled mind. I loved the NHS (Happy 70th Anniversary) and the kindness and patience of my GP, the consultants and the nurses, who all knew how much I hated seeing them yet never made me feel that I was wasting their time. I treasured my friends who remained loyal despite my seven-year absence. And every night I made myself reflect on three things to be grateful for that day, even if I had to scrape the barrel and dig very deep.
But ‘moving on’ still proved unattainable. For despite this arsenal of tactics, anxiety struck. At first a ripple – if I had an ache or a pain or a check-up (annual check ups – the trigger of all fear triggers). Then in waves, whenever someone said the C-word – on TV or on the radio, in a book or in a film, in the news or just in passing. And finally the tsunami. Waking up everyday, heart racing, teeth sore from all night grind-fests, brick wedged in throat and chest. Nausea, tingling limbs, tearfulness, constant terror that the cancer would return. In the end it made sense (to me at least) to explore worst-case scenarios and exist as if I still had it.
Debilitating. Exhausting. Moving on was strangely elusive. What I did know was that I couldn’t carry on like this. There had to be a solution.
I went to my GP and wept in his office. I wept to my friends. I wept at home. I tried CBT; it helped a little. Found a new counsellor – she helped a lot. And upped my exercise – Pilates twice a week, dance once a week, walking everyday. It stilled my mind. I could force myself to stop investigating every ache and pain. Cut down the monthly calls to the hospital seeking reassurance. Stop dwelling solely on my health. So I did.
And that was good. But – my brain, now freed of one type of clutter, had space to explore another unresolved issue.
My lost identity.
When we moved to the Middle East, for the first time in my life, I landed a job that I loved, that I could do well, that gave me back the essence of me. As time passed, I evolved into someone I was proud of and really liked.
But, now, back in the UK after seven years away, with my confidence and self-belief in tatters, where I had no form as a writer or editor, where I had no publishing posse to fall back on, I felt like I’d been dumped in another person’s life with no way to get back to my own. The balls and guts I had found in the Middle East were lost in transit. Those precious opportunities, that had allowed me to become the person I’d always wanted to be, gone.
Giving up anxiety was all well and good, but now I was consumed with grief. And grieve I did. Until, fed up of feeling wretched, and wretched from feeling fed up, a sliver of the old me said, ‘Pull yourself together and just do anything’.
Opting for minimum stress and maximum choice, I went down the volunteer route. A morning a week at Mind as Facilitator of creative writing courses for service users, and a second morning a week as News Programme Editor for a talking newspaper for the blind. It was all mildly creative and distracted me from mourning the career I’d loved and lost. Then, on a roll, I applied for a paid job. Because not contributing financially was also contributing to the feelings of worthlessness.
It wasn’t a writing job. Nor a job that I loved. It wasn’t even a job that made me proud: Was this it? Was my writing career over? But it was a job nonetheless. And I got it. And slowly, I noticed that I was making a difference. I felt valued. I regained some confidence. And I learned that I was stronger in the workplace than BC because none of it mattered that much.
A year later (now the middle of Year 4) I knew I was ready to return to my writing again. I left my job, gave myself a deadline to complete the rewrites of my novel before submitting it to literary agents, and this newer, bolder me (not the BC bold me, but someone closer) set up meetings with editors at Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping magazines. Cosmo liked one of my pitches. Good Housekeeping told me that my ideas were not original enough for their new format. Confused, I read a couple of issues to see where I was going wrong. I dithered for a while. Scoured my imagination for housekeeping ideas that had never been thought of before and then decided that I couldn’t be arsed to think of any more than the ten I’d already submitted. Why should I prove myself to a magazine where once I’d been Deputy Editor? In a moment of clarity, I registered that I was no longer hungry enough to pitch detailed ideas only to have them rejected. As for Cosmopolitan, I was thirty years too old to care. But freelance work came my way and I started writing articles on wellbeing for Waitrose Weekend Newspaper. I signed up to every editing/writing job website in existence. And I felt ready to tackle View From A Broad – a blog about my time in the Middle East.
Or at least the Bahrain years. I reckoned that the time it took me to write about the three years we spent there would surely be long enough for my sad Dubai memories to fade. Just to make sure though, and before I’d finished Bahrain, I challenged myself to reread my Dubai notes. And started to cry. So, maybe not long enough after all.
I put Dubai to one side, soldiered on with Bahrain, came to the end and restarted Dubai. It’s now Year 5 and progress is slow. BC, I could fire out four articles a day with the speed of a Krav Maga fighter attacking the enemy. AC I feel pleased if I finish a paragraph. Who knows whether this is because of the Tamoxifen, the chemotherapy, the radiotherapy, the overnight premature menopause (thanks Tamoxifen), or all four? Whatever the reason, I am definitely woollier of mind.
I find myself bemused by this lack of sharpness, this – I wouldn’t say it’s an inability, but certainly it’s a shift in my ability to concentrate for long periods. I have to focus twice as hard to be half as productive. Is this the new me? Is this my new normal? Are these the tools I must now work with? Or do I need to push myself more?
I recently wrote an article for Waitrose Weekend Newspaper on Helpful Thinking (available in-store 16th Aug) yet I don’t seem to be able to practise what I preach. I struggle to galvanise myself into action to complete my novel’s rewrites. Or motivate myself to complete View From A Broad. Or recover the drive to find a halfway interesting job. Or kick-start my way out of this moping around. I’m no longer even sure what it would take to feel fulfilled, or how to go about achieving it.
Still adept at multi-tasking, I might have glanced at my phone and scrolled through my social media as I was writing that last paragraph (there are perks to working from home). 7 Great Second Career Ideas for Women 50 and Over popped up on my Facebook feed.
How timely, I thought. Maybe this is the answer…
I opened the link:
- Real Estate Agent
- Small Business Coach
- Interior Decorator
- Motivational Speaker
- Wine and Travel Guide
Maybe not. Though Wine and Travel Guide ticks some of the boxes.
So there we are, and, five years on, this is where I’m at. A lot has happened. And not much at all. I joke to myself that this period of lost time, as I see it, has been designed by a higher authority to test my patience and make me a stronger person. But I’m fed up of being tested. And I don’t need to be any stronger. I’d just like some solutions. Then I might fly.
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I used to roll the dice, feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
Now the old King is dead, long live the King
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand
Coldplay: Viva La Vida: