life after cancer

Pleasure and Pain

It has occurred to me that, almost always, any experience of true pleasure is always mediated by pain of some sort. 

My pleasure right now is gotten from the fact that my Mum has moved into her new (old) house.  She is happy as a clam, back in familiar territory with her dear neighbours around her, but in a beautiful renovated home. 

Before and after of the kitchen:


The house is unrecognisable, but the place as familiar as her own skin. She has risen to the challenge of learning to live in an almost new home, and has finally, after significant encouragement from my brother and I, started spending some of the money she got from the sale of the house. Mum grew up poor, and has never had money, so buying things simply because you like them is an utterly foreign concept to her. It has been a lesson in humility for me to watch her struggle with whether she should really by $150 worth of new pots and plants for her garden because ‘it is just so frivolous’ whilst knowing that I have eaten single dinners that have cost more.

Impacting on this pleasure has been the pain of my shattered arm, which after 11 weeks had not healed and resulted in surgery last week. 

Behold, Frankenarm!


I am doing well, the pain is controlled, and I have considerably more movement already than I’ve had since I broke it in April. But all the things I want to do, like drop into Mum’s for a coffee on the new back deck, or take her shopping for new linen, just aren’t possible right now, and it’s bloody annoying. I’m still feeling pleased, it would be impossible not to, but it’s just not exactly how I’d imagined.

Oh life, you saucy minx. Pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, blogging one-handed.

A Life More Ordinary

I love the day-to-day sameness of life. I wake up at about the same time each morning, because my six-year-old wakes up at about the same time each morning and I am greeted by his beautiful toothless grin as he wishes me good morning. I shower, washing my hair, then face, then body. I get out and dry myself in the same order every day – face, arms, legs, front, back. Teeth cleaned, deodorant on, skin moisturised and then into bra and undies while that soaks in, make-up on, hair tamed. Iron my clothes, get dressed, downstairs to make Hugh’s lunch and my lunch and have a quick bite of breakfast before I’m out the door just before 8am. In the afternoons I’m home around 5, I cook dinner while Dave supervises homework, piano practice and footy kicking. We eat, Dave cleans up, we loll about for a while watching dodgy television and then I put Hugh to bed, always with a story first. Dave and I then watch whatever tv series we are currently obsessed with – last week it was season three of House of Cards, this week it’s season two of The Fall. Every weekday, lots of sameness. Very ordinary.

Saturdays we get up a tiny bit later, do multiple loads of washing – darks, coloureds, whites (always in that order) and then Dave and I attack the housework – he does bathrooms and toilets; I do kitchen and floors. After that I pick up my mum and we go grocery shopping. The afternoons are a bit more fluid – maybe a playdate, maybe lunch out, maybe some fun shopping, maybe a nap. Saturday night is wine or cider, sometimes takeaway, sometimes a night out with friends. Sunday is sleep-in, more washing, park time, play time, then cooking a few meals ahead for the week, and making something remotely healthy for lunch boxes. Sunday is the day banana bread for morning teas seems like a good idea, until Monday comes around and nobody likes banana bread. Weekends are relaxing in their ordinariness.

The thing is, there is so much joy in my ordinary life. So much pleasure in the sameness. In 2012 and 2013, my life was punctuated by scans, diagnoses, surgeries, treatments, illness and despair. There was no ordinary; life was upside down and inside out. I craved normalcy, but there was none to be had. Christmas 2012 my present was a gorgeous pair of earrings that the jeweller told my husband would suit someone with short hair (I guess no hair is the shortest kind of hair), New Year’s Day 2012 was spent having a cytotoxic infusion, later that January my son started school for the first time as I again went off to chemotherapy, and then we celebrated his 5th birthday the day I finished radiation, with third degree burns weeping through three layers of bandages and clothing. So little ordinary, so much fucking horrible.

But, thanks to a mix of the wonders of medical science and plain and simple good luck, I got a second chance at ordinary. I’m now 2 years, five months and five days into a remission that I was only given a 50% chance of having. I look like an ordinary person; I have hair, I can walk more than 100 metres without needing to sit down, my skin isn’t grey, my face isn’t bloated, and I don’t have a catheter sticking out of my chest. I am an ordinary person; I make my son the same school lunch every day, I sleep in my mismatched pyjamas in bed next to my husband every night, and I absolutely fucking revel in all of the ordinary, the normal, the same.

There is, however, one neither normal nor ordinary thing that cancer has given me that I plan to hold onto, and tightly. Just under a year ago, inspired by the tales my prosthetic right breast had to share, I started this blog. In those 11 months, I’ve had a small but dedicated group of readers who’ve encouraged me to keep telling my stories and who’ve inspired me to think and write, to put into words (and dodgy memes) my pain and happiness, and joys and fears. Then, last week I wrote a post about children and friendship – or maybe it was about bigotry and intolerance – or maybe it was just about love – and it’s safe to say that it went absolutely fucking nuts. More than 250,000 – yes, TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND, people viewed my post via Facebook shares. A quarter of a million people read my words, heard my voice, felt my anger and my sadness, and expressed their own.  The resulting conversations, via comments here on the blog, on Facebook, Twitter and via email have had the most incredible impact on me, and I am abuzz with the power of words and the possibilities they bring.

A little bit of extraordinary in a life more ordinary.

See-Saw

As I may have mentioned (in my entire post dedicated to it), I turned 45 last Friday. This was my second birthday since the cancer diagnosis, and like last year I made sure I had a fat time (and I mean that literally – thanks to Cafe Sydney, Mr Wong, Balla, Danjee and Red Lantern amongst other amazing Sydney restaurants).

The celebrations involved a fantastic couple of days in a fancy hotel in Sydney with my two dearest friends from high school, followed by another couple of wonderful days with my two boys. Here is a photographic summary of what I have christened my birtholiday (patent pending).

sydney photo 1 sydney photo 2 sydney photo 3sydney photo 5  pants too tightsydney photo 7  sydney photo 8

Even though we are home and back to reality, enhanced by the bone-shaking cough Hugh apparently bought back as his Luna Park souvenir,  I was still flying high on the joy of my birtholiday today when I was brought crashing right back down to earth. I got a reminder about an appointment I have on Monday. It’s my regular 3-monthly check-up with my oncologist. As soon as I read the reminder, I felt sick. Hot. Cold. Weak at the knees. Teary. Panicky. Worried. Terrified.

I don’t want to go. I don’t want to walk into the Cancer Care Centre ever again. I don’t want to sit in the waiting room, desperately trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Concentrating on not noticing how pretty much everyone else is bald, and that those that do have hair are either in the process of losing it. I don’t want to go into my standard ‘visit with the oncologist mode’, where I do my best impression of the world’s happiest person who will surely stave off cancer with the sheer force of her bubbly personality, whilst internally my fear and anxiety is so bad that I am only just able to swallow down the vomit that is creeping up my throat. I don’t want to take off my jacket, and my top, and my bra, and sit there feigning nonchalance whilst the oncologist does a physical exam. I don’t want to be unable to breathe the whole time her hands are on me, listening to the cancer demons screaming in the back of my mind, trying to convince me that her hands just slowed and that must mean she can feel something. Convinced for the minutes of silence that constitute her exam that I am about to be hurled, again but this time with no chance of escape, into cancer.

I read that appointment reminder and I was immediately taken back to morning in October 2012 when I was diagnosed. I am there, in my lounge room, wearing my bathrobe and saying ‘oh shit’ over and over and over as the doctor delivered the news. I am staring at the faces of my husband and mother who have overheard my side of the call but are waiting, with faces full of blind hope, their eyes pleading with me to say that they have somehow misunderstood, and that I am fine. I am saying those words for the very first time ‘I have breast cancer’. I am sobbing as I look at my four year old, tow-haired boy. I am marvelling to my husband about getting an appointment within my GP within the hour, when it normally takes two days to get a slot, until the reality of why I am now at the front of the queue hits me fair in the chest as we are ushered through the waiting room without a pause and delivered straight to the doctor by the gloomy faced receptionist. That was also the first time I observed what I call ‘cancer face’ – a look that many people (probably quite unwittingly) give you when they find out you have cancer.  Cancer face is a cross between pity (for me), fear (of one day being like me), relief (that they’re not me) and denial (both that  I may die and they may ever be in the same position as me). Cancer face is very similar to this:

I'm sad you have cancer, but at the same time i really fucking relieved that I don't. Also, tell me it's genetic because if it's not that means it could happen to anyone, and that would be really scary for me.

I’m sad you have cancer, but at the same time I’m really fucking relieved that I don’t. Also, tell me it’s genetic because if it’s not that means it could happen to anyone, and that would be really scary for me.

Every time I think I’ve made such great progress, I am dragged right back. Whole days go by, when I don’t think about cancer. I go to work, get caught up in problems that need to be solved and people who need to be helped, and I am worker Julie. I come home and have conversations with my husband about whether we should buy a new dishwasher and when new series of The Walking Dead starts, and I am wife Julie. I help my son with his homework, and almost burst with pride at his reading ability, and I am mother Julie. Whole days and no sign of cancer Julie. And then, bang, BANG:

A reminder that your next appointment at the Cancer Care Centre is scheduled for Monday, 8 September at 4:20pm. Please bring with you the results of any scans you have had in preparation for this appointment. 

and I am right back there, on the ground.

see saw