I was walking through my favourite place in my local park tonight, the sun was warm on my skin, blossom still on trees and the air full of the scent of the weeds that seemed to have doubled over night. Five years ago I walked through the same place unable to fight back the tears and fear that engulfed me after hearing those fateful words. It was a cold, dull, grey and gloomy afternoon. Five years ago I couldn’t imagine I’d even be here. Sounds a bit melodramatic in retrospect doesn’t it ? Clearly missed my big acting break.
Reaching the magical five-year cancerversary is a big deal to anyone who has been diagnosed, I’m still tinged with a bit of superstition so no whooping and air punches. I’ve always proclaimed cancer is a sneaky opponent not to be underestimated. I don’t think ok, now I’ve hit five years it’ll never happen again, more I feel incredibly grateful for every day of the past five years and hopeful of many, many more.
What’s changed in five years …..
Physically, loads. I had delayed reconstruction last year and think its fair to say that was like a piece of jigsaw, that was lost under the sofa. Having found it and slotted into place it’s made an incredible difference. I never really realised the impact losing a breast had until I had it back, and I could dress freely, feel more confident and attractive in my (scarred) skin. Everyone close to me saw the difference too. I felt restored. Balanced.
Prior to reconstruction I felt a bit of a fraud, and that I think stopped me from trying to date again. I’d think people would think I look a certain way and they’d be shocked if they saw the real me underneath. A year on from reconstruction with more scars than before I wear them with pride and feel if anyone can’t accept them, they aren’t worth my while. I didn’t break my cancer cherry (on dating) until three years post treatment Seriously ?!! Anyone reading this don’t take as long as me. I was grateful for finding a Facebook group for young women where Tinder and dating discussions were the norm, it was a relief to know I wasn’t the only person single after cancer. A woman at peer support group told me a well-meaning friend told her, ‘there should be a special dating site for people like you, you know with one boob’ sighs. I can write more on this kind of unhelpful post cancer dating bs believe me.
These days my eyebrows are always on fleek, after they ‘chose’ not to grow back my artistic endeavours have improved after five years of practise. The early attempts oh dear oh dear. I don’t have the ‘appear with no brows post swimming incidents’ these days either. Rookie mistakes. Always carry an eyebrow kit !!
My hair is a little fragile, it grew and grew and I was grateful to have those twirl round your fingers flirts again. Lately it’s thinner, and finer. Characteristic of peri menopause ? Side effect of Tamoxifen ? Quite possibly. A new stage and after spending a small fortune on a variety of products that promise to help regrowth, I’m trying new styles to disguise the receding parts.
Energy wise, I’m my crazy pre cancer energetic self. I dash around and do too much, such is my nature. I’m physically fitter than I probably was pre cancer, I make regular time to exercise as manages my energy and stress levels. I’ve taken up new hobbies, I was doing mixed martial arts before I got cancer (was how my lump was discovered) and immediately after was determined to return. I went for a bit, but never wanted to be hit on my ‘bad’ side and that felt like I was compromising myself. I’m an all or nothing girl. It took me a while to accept it but I’ve moved away from contact side of sport and found other passions.
I returned to work 10 weeks post treatment to mad and bad world of social care. I don’t regret it at all, but 18 months back at work I was struggling with the huge pressure at work and made a decision to take a chance and quit management. I spent two years in a less pressured role that really helped me flourish and find work life balance. I’ve just returned to more senior role now, but feel more equipped to, and boundaried perhaps ? For those just returning to work, listen to your body and work with it not against it, it’s not worth exhausting yourself for work. Back in my early days of work I used to resent hours spent in meetings, thinking if my life is limited why the heck am I sat here and not on a beach ? Told you I was dramatic.
Travel – well prior to my cancer career break, I’d wanted an adult gap year. I am now very careful what I wish for. I’ve travelled as often as I could afford since 2013.
Bad habits – the born again cancer commandments I wrote about a year after treatment lapsed a bit. Over time you relax and don’t worry so much about eating a clean diets, or binge drinking on birthdays oops, or missing the gym. I sometimes worry that stress = cancer, but then I remind myself that the only thing I’m really in control of is the way I think about things and the way I respond to situations. That’s work in progress.
Cancer isn’t in the forefront of my mind anymore, I’ve found a place for it somewhere and it’s just a chapter of my life that happened. Maybe when I think about this, this has been happening for the past two years, maybe three even. It shrinks, you perhaps never think it will, but it does. I certainly remember the first two years post active treatment being reminded of it, from sneaky fatigue that was like a delayed onset to returning to a full life.
Maybe I stopped attributing every ailment to cancer, or Tamoxifen too. In the first two years post treatment you are adjusting back from the stress of diagnosis, your body has been immersed in treatments and every twinge, pain, symptom you connect to cancer or Tamoxifen. Tamoxifen is blamed for so much. Five years later I’m slower at connect dots and making it cancer related if I feel a certain way, I don’t over think symptoms, I just go with the flow, and if something out of the ordinary and persistent I follow it up.
The fear of recurrence reduces, it never goes away, I think that’s one of those lasting effects of a diagnosis. Last October I had a complete falling down day at work as my doctor’s receptionist revealed the results of my chest x-ray as ‘a shadow on my lungs’ whilst I was sat in my busy office. Thankfully my breast nurse got on the case, pulled the results and reassured was nothing sinister and was something anyone who’d had an upper respiratory tract infection would have. It served as a reminder though and how close underneath the surface fear remains. In the course of that afternoon, I’d gone through a full spectrum of emotions from fear, anger, acceptance to planning the next steps. I’m never fearful for myself, it’s always about my kids, and ensuring they will be ok. Silver lining was it nudged me to apply for extra life assurance, and of course they said, come back when you’ve hit the 5th year cancerversary.
It’s interesting reading five years worth of blogs, I can see my highs and lows. How over time I’ve really invested in loving and nurturing myself. That at the beginning I was faking it until you make it. That over time I genuinely do have more love and respect for the incredible things my body and mind has been through. I’m still a work in progress, there is always room for growth.
So in closing, here’s the gifts cancer has left me with,
- Greater sense of gratitude and appreciation
- Zero tolerance for BS – ability to leave something that doesn’t make me happy, isn’t fulfilling or is a waste of time.
- Courage – I’ve done more in the past 5 years than possibly the rest of my life
- Sense of adventure – the continued desire to learn new things, travel, try things out
- Closer relationships with family & friends
Oh and here’s things that people say that still annoy me (and are unhelpful)
- ‘At least you are still alive’ …..this is usually said by a ‘well meaning person‘ if you dare to be honest about feeling unhappy about any physical change to your body post cancer. This seems to be said normally in the first 1-2 years post chemo. when you still struggling to accept the changes to your body. Also most people who say this to you, go on to moan about their own bad hair cut, weight gain etc – but that’s acceptable. We’ve survived cancer, we can’t moan about having an enforced crew cut, naked eyebrows or muffin round your middle that’s hard to shift as that’s ungrateful ! Pffft.
- ‘At least your hair grew back’, see above another way of guilting you if you have a wobble of vanity. My hair is finer, a reduced mass from before treatment, and even a distinct reduced mass from starting Tamoxifen. I have days where I feel self conscious and feel people are directing their conversations to my receding hairline, one day I will slip up and say, ‘staring at it won’t make it better’.
- ‘ How old are you now ? You would have reached menopause anyway’ –….true, but maybe not at this age or point in my life!
Way back in May 2012, I met and made friends with some wonderful women and men, this is to honour those we’ve lost along the way. In loving memory of Lynnie, Peggy, Annabel, Cherry, Satori, Nigel, Tracy, Dawn and Shelley ❤ Class 2012.