The day I was diagnosed, I felt the world as I knew it crumble away. Three words ‘you have cancer’ were like a giant bulldozer that instantaneously came smashing through my life. I had just turned 43, commenced work that week on a major project, my husband was half-way through his career-changing degree, and our son was in his final months of pre-school and looking forward to starting school. I had a lovely life, was happy in the routine swing of the daily business of being and contemplating a future full of promise. But with those three words, all that seemed gone, and what I had left was a great big smashed up mess of what used to be my life, with a giant, steaming pile of shit perched right on top of it.
The fear and shock that comes with such a diagnosis pervades every waking moment in those first hours and days, and in my case it was like a constant buzz in my head, to the point where I was convinced I could actually hear buzzing. Initially I wondered why no-one else could hear it, then I convinced myself, as only someone with newly diagnosed cancer can, that I must also have a brain tumour which was affecting my hearing. Of course I didn’t mention the buzzing to anyone because denial was pretty much the only weapon I had left in my armoury.
Right up until the point I went in for the mastectomy, every waking moment was filled with the buzzing noise, to the point that I often found myself trying to lip-read what people were saying because the clamour of it was so loud. Just before I went into surgery, I had a final discussion with the anaesthetist, and the buzzing was almost deafening. But then he said ‘I know you are scared. But this surgery will remove the tumour, and when you wake it up it will be out of your body’, and quite literally, right at that moment the buzzing stopped. I realise now that there was no noise, that it was purely a psychosomatic manifestation of my fear created by my brain. My sub-conscious must have decided that I couldn’t take on board anything more, and the buzzing became like virtual earplugs, keeping anymore bad news out. It was only when that doctor acknowledged my fear that it was able to be quelled enough for my brain to shut off the buzzing.
Once the noise was muted, and a plan of action for my treatment was put in place, it became clear that things certainly had changed. I had been the sole income earner at the time of diagnosis but wasn’t able to work for the eight months of my treatment, and so my husband had to stop studying and find a job. My daily life went from juggling projects, pre-school pick-ups and community volunteering, to treatments, appointments with my medical team, and drug-assisted sleeping. I found out about the vortex of bureaucracy that underpins income protection insurance, and learned that ‘being treated with curative intent’ was the most fist-pumpingly positive phrase that I would ever see written about me by a medical oncologist.
The thing about my life, or maybe about me, that changed the most was my ability to think about the future. When you are being treated for cancer, your world becomes very small as you focus on what must be managed – your treatments and responses to them, and what cannot be ignored – your family. Everything else pretty much fades away, with what you are capable of dealing with in the foreground and the rest pushed so far away you’d need binoculars to see it. You tend to live day by day, and as far forward as you dare look is the next chemo infusion or oncologist appointment. Any thoughts of the future become too uncomfortable to contemplate because, the stark fact is, you might not actually not still be alive in a year. When I was at my sickest, my young son was obsessed with reading a picture book called Mr Chicken Goes to Paris. He would talk incessantly of when we would go to Paris, and what we would see, do and eat. I found these conversations excruciatingly painful, and would hold myself together long enough to humour him with discussions about our possible trip to France, and then later sob quietly to myself in the shower.
But despite all this, I started to see that my whole life had not actually been fucked over to the degree I originally thought. There was still happiness and a developing, new normality. Each night (except for the two I spent in hospital after surgery) I lay in bed next to my husband, soothed by his regular, deep breaths and reassured by the warmth of his skin under my hand. I was still alive, I was still here, and the steadiness he brought to my life was as reliable as ever. My beautiful son was still a source of complete joy with his mix of earnest small boy musings, slapstick humour and love for his mummy … and I still had his Lego to walk on with bare feet to remind me what real pain feels like.
My friends were there like they have always been; involved, supportive and pulling the piss out of me when I was looking a bit too po-faced, as did my work colleagues who took to emailing me daily photos of other people using my closely guarded personalised coffee mug. I had my third chemo treatment on 17 December, and we hosted fourteen people at our house for Christmas lunch seven days later. The potatoes cooked in duck-fat were bloody delicious, the maple glazed ham stupendous, and I didn’t lift a finger to clean up despite the fact I felt quite ok. The fireworks still went off on New Year’s Eve, they were as glorious as ever and I gasped at their beauty and only once wondered if they were marking the beginning of the last year I would ever see. They weren’t. I’ve seen them again since, with my boy perched on my lap, our cheeks mashed together as we cast our eyes skyward, and this time I didn’t even think about dying once.
For as much as I have lost – and there is a shitload both quantifiable and not – I have been, and continue to be, reminded in myriad ways that I still have so much. And at this point, that (and the actual boob in the box) is the legacy with which cancer has left me. When things start getting taken away, the things that you still have are thrown into sharper relief. Whilst these days I may have far fewer certainties in my life, those that I do have mean so much more. And that is the new normal.