One day you are on your sister’s hen do and the next day you are told you have advanced, aggressive breast cancer. It was surreal. Even now it is like it happened to someone else, not me.
When I was diagnosed, one of the many ways I dealt with it was to ‘reframe it’. This is something I often do at work and in my personal life. It is all about perspective. I reframed my diagnosis as ‘My Cancer Gap Year’. Who wouldn’t take a year out to fight for their life?
I never had a gap year after A Levels or University, I only had 5-6 months off work when I had both my children, so this was my time. Not exactly my plan, but it was a way to manage it mentally.
I could afford to step off the accelerator of my working life and take things a bit easier. Except as a cancer gap year my way of being was to get through it as quickly as possible. To get to the finish line with the cancer eradicated and my body reshaped and looking as close to ‘normal’ as it did at the beginning.
I told myself that this year will become something that happened, something that shaped me, maybe even changed me a bit, but it would be in the past, behind me. Done.
The momentum and positivity was helpful. It was about 6 months in when the reality of a longer stint became obvious. I certainly wasn’t going to get everything including reconstruction done in a year.
Time to recalibrate. Cancer gone in a year, body a work in progress. OK let’s do this.
At 10 months the reality of a secondary cancer diagnosis meant I no longer had a curable cancer and even the glimmer of hope of a normal life expectancy (whatever that is). The cancer gap year increased ad infinitum. Bang goes the title of my blog I haven’t even written.
It was about at this time that I realised that I had to accommodate cancer (and its on-going treatment) into my life. I needed to take time to process some of the intense and difficult feelings in order to build a life around breast cancer now, not after it. The writing has and is helping with this.
The idea of ‘The Cancer Gap’ then evolved. For me this is the gaping hole it has punched right through my life, as well as the one in my chest and underarm. Turns out 96mm of cancer tumour and 23 lymph nodes, leave an emotional gap as well as a physical one. You can’t just fill this. Like grief, you have to build a life back around the hole cancer leaves.
There are also big gaps in cancer care, in insurance, in the workplace, in society. One in two people will get cancer and a lot of us won’t die from it because, like HIV the treatment is changing all the time. Cancer will be managed and controlled. However, we have a long way to go before our employers, insurers and society accommodates cancer. We can barely talk about it never mind accommodate it.
If you’ve had cancer or cancer treatment in the last year, you can’t even get a massage in most places! And yet all the hospitals and hospices know that massage, reflexology etc make a difference to well being and sometimes outcomes.
There is an enormous gap in how we deal with cancer. It’s OK to fund raise for cancer, but aside from that no one likes to talk about it much. Certainly not the side effects or the emotional side.
People think it won’t happen to them. But it might. It will definitely happen to many people they know.
I don’t tend to think or say ‘Why me?’, but I think ‘Why not me?’. And frankly ‘why not you?’.
It is not all doom and gloom though. I have had a pretty awesome 14 months in so many ways. I’ve got off my arse and done things I’ve been meaning to do for ages. I don’t mean big ‘bucket list’ things like flying over the Grand Canyon (not that I particularly want to do that), but small things like picking up the phone to old friends, like seeing more theatre, having real conversations with family and friends. Being present and living all the cliches like seizing every day and trying things you’ve never done (like this very personal blog) and not being wedded to them being perfect or a success.
So, ‘The Cancer Gap’ is also immensely positive. It got me off a bit of a treadmill. It is creating space and clarity around what and who to focus on. It is evolving all the time. I hope you enjoy this blog and connect with people in your life in a different way as a result of dipping into it.