Sunday 7 February 2016

Annie's Song ~ Annie

The Oxford English Dictionary defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.  I don't think having cancer requires toughness, because when that breast cancer diagnosis hit me,  I didn’t have a choice.  I went into shock, put my feelings into cold storage, and got on with what needed to be done.  Resilience makes a difference after treatment ends.   That's when the physical challenge diminishes (though it's never over - ongoing medication and the aftermath of aggressive treatment continues) and the mental and emotional challenge begins.  This is my story so far.

Every morning I wake up to two thoughts:  1) my mother is dead and 2) I've had breast cancer.  Some days they greet me in reverse order. I have not yet found a technique or tool to stop these thoughts appearing as I come round from another poor night's sleep, disturbed by hot flush tossing and turning, discomfort from scars and rib damage, and unpleasant anxious dreams.  But I’ve learned to live with these thoughts, and I let a few tears fall in the shower most mornings, as I wash away the night’s terrors.

Having cancer brought together every negative emotion I've ever experienced, and placed them in a tangled mess spread between my head and my heart.  All my fears came together, all my sadness in one big whoosh, all my anger and grief leering at me, every loss I’ve ever experienced flooded in and stayed, beginning on the day I got my recall letter following a routine mammogram.   

It's probably nothing, the letter reassures, but we would like to see you in a week's time to run some more tests.  I stood still with the letter in my hand, turned to stone, for who knows how long.  It was November 5th 2014, bonfire night.  That evening I cried as I told my husband. 

After that things moved very quickly, and that's when the numbness and disbelief set in. This was happening to someone else, not me. At first the cancer was just a tiny blip of nothing that could be removed by local anaesthetic; next came a biopsy which confirmed lobular breast cancer and then an MRI showed it was much larger than had been picked up on the mammogram.  I was given a date for surgery, December 2nd, and my Wide Local Incision somehow became a Therapeutic Mammoplasty.  The surgeon removed a quarter of my right breast.  I felt violated, un-whole, let down by my body, and I was convinced that I was going to die.

Telling my mum and dad was the worst. In fact I chickened out of doing it, I asked my sister to tell them and I visited the next day to reassure them that I'd be fine, they'd caught it early, there was nothing to worry about.  I painted them a cheery picture I didn't see myself.  I wanted to save them from whatever a parent feels when their child is diagnosed with cancer.

My mum has always been my best friend and never more so than during my treatment.  She was there the day after surgery, so that my husband and son could go to work.  She accompanied me to check-ups and radiotherapy appointments, brought me tea and cake, took me out for lunch, and held me while I cried, like I was her little girl again.

As my date for radiotherapy drew near (I did not need chemotherapy) I developed an infection and I went to my hospital for checks twice a week for 7 weeks before I was allowed to lie on the zapping table.   At last the wounds mended, with the help of the strongest most debilitating antibiotics I'd ever taken, and it was Happy Birthday to you, please come for your first radiotherapy session on your 55th birthday...

By the middle of March 2015 active treatment was complete and I was left with sore burnt skin, scars that seared with pain and tender to touch ribs.  Also a ten year sentence of oestrogen inhibiting medication, meaning I'm suffering menopause symptoms over and over again, along with other side effects such as joint pain and weight gain. 

I went for a meal with my hubby and sons on the day I finished radiotherapy, to celebrate.   I was supposed to be happy, but I was in shock and completely exhausted.  I couldn't eat or engage in conversation.  Every ounce of energy I had was spent, used up on the treatment I'd just endured, and I had nothing left.

This, then, was the beginning of my new life, my cancer journey was over.  Now I could get back to normal.  Ha!  How I wish someone had prepared me for the fallout that came post treatment, the total desolation of constantly being told how glad I should be that it was over, I'd survived. How lucky I was that it was caught early, how fortunate that I only had to have radiotherapy and not chemotherapy.  I didn't feel grateful, I didn't feel full of the joys of spring, ready to jig through my bucket list and to live each moment like it was my last.  And as I didn't feel as everyone was telling me I was supposed to feel, I thought that I was doing something wrong, that there was something wrong with how I was feeling. 

I worried constantly about the cancer returning, I bothered my GP and specialists about every little niggle, I slept in the afternoons and was generally lethargic and unenthusiastic.  I had by now found an online support group, and by interacting with the wonderful ladies there I found out that how I was feeling was normal and ok, and that was the beginning of my recovery.   I attended a HOPE course,  I joined an exercise class, I was offered counselling and Reiki and when the freebies finished I sought out private treatments.  I realised that I had to look forward, not back, and build a new life.  I wasn't going to be able to return to the old one. I wasn't the same person, physically or mentally.   I had already left my stressful job, so I didn't have that to go back to. I was doing a bit of training, meeting friends for lunch, spending a lot of time alone, reflecting, ruminating.  Slowly I was emerging from my winter cocoon, but I was a long way from becoming a butterfly. 

Then two big things happened:  my youngest son left to go travelling and the empty nest blues hit me, and then my mother was taken ill, and so my focus shifted away from my own troubles and I was looking after her.  I think perhaps this saved me from spiralling into depression. Mum died a few weeks later, suddenly and unexpectedly, and I was overwhelmed with grief.  But I had a role to play, stuff to do, supporting dad, sorting out the funeral, looking after my sisters. Just as I had done when my cancer had been diagnosed, I got on with it, and cried a great deal when alone. Mostly in the shower.  My mother's death helped me to deal with all the emotion that I'd held in during my cancer treatment.  I'd had cancer, and my mother had died, and I was still alive.  How amazing, how incredible, how was this possible? 

When I have bad days I sometimes wish that the cancer would return so that I can slip away from this world, because I don't ever want to lose anyone again.  But a precious friend has gone to join mum, and I am, by some miracle, still here.  My feelings have not overwhelmed me, they have not finished me off, I am still able to get out of my bed every morning and show up to wherever I need to be.

Right now I am one year cancer free. There isn't much on my bucket list after all : I'm no sky diver or bungee jumper, my two beautiful boys are my greatest achievement and they are grown up now,  I've had a rewarding career, and I'm a nervous traveller so I'm not too worried about seeing the world.    But I do have a lot more books to read and I have a lot more love to give to the people in my life, and  I hope I can hang around awhile to do that.

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