Being diagnosed with cancer sorts the wheat from the chaff, in terms of people in your life. Some people you thought you’d be able to rely on disappear into the ether so fast they leave a fine coating of dust on your newly-bald head, whilst others who might have only been on the periphery of your life come to the fore in unexpected but incredibly important ways. Others still stay the same – those constant, firm, stable friends who knew you then, know you now, will always know you.
Fortunately for me, the grieving I did over those who disappeared was brief and exact, because I thought I was dying, and there is no clarity like that provided by the bright, white light of your impending doom. And once that grieving was done, the bright light of doom shone on all the people who had stepped forward, and all those who would always be in the front row. Doom actually started to feel ok, because I was so loved, so supported, so fucking lucky.
One of the people who showed herself to be wheat of the finest grade during my illness was my hairdresser Tracy. We became friends as she gradually chopped my hair shorter and shorter in anticipation of it falling off, and she proved to be such a staunch supporter when times were truly tough, taking me out for lunch, calling, texting, checking in. We realised that her boy and mine liked all the same things, so they too became friends, bonding over Minecraft and Lego. When my hair grew back she guided me through the shock of having curly hair for the first time, having grey hair when I’d always dyed it, and having short hair when for so many years I’d hidden behind its length. She told me I looked chic, and I believed her, because if anyone knows chic it’s my beautiful, stylish friend Tracy.
And now, almost four years on, it’s time to pay forward and pay back. Tracy got the call too, the dreaded, awful, paralysing call to tell her she had breast cancer. She had her right breast (same as me) removed on a Thursday (same as me) a couple of weeks ago, and is about to head into chemo (different from me). We have talked and talked, and last night compared scars while our boys played in another room. Her daughter, young but not young enough not to know, was hesitant to ask me questions, but once she started it all came out and with age-appropriate honesty I showed her that cancer was treatable, beatable, doable. I told her it would be hard, and that it wasn’t fair, but look at me now, four years later. She did look at me, really look at me whilst my shirt was pulled up around my neck, and then said ‘You’re normal!’. As compliments go, it was en pointe – pleasing to hear but distinctly embellished – everything a compliment should be. But more importantly, the moment had shown that gorgeous girl that amongst all the fear and flux going on in her life, there was a chance – a really decent chance – that life would at some point not too far away, go on. No doubting she will be forever changed by this experience, but knowing my boy and his resilience and empathy, that change will likely not detract from who she becomes, but rather make her a more human, human being.
For her mum, there is so much in front of her that will appear insurmountable, but that can, with the right combination of medical science and good fortune, be climbed. And thanks to medical science and good fortune, I will be there, paying it forward and paying it back.