“This too shall pass” is a quote often used to console people in times of trouble. I hate it. In the long term, of course, we all pass and that’s the end of things for us (I’m saying this as an atheist). But in the short term, no, this hasn’t passed. I suffered from uterine cancer and the fact that I can’t have my own family will never pass. I have to live with it.
I have lost plenty of friends to cancer and have been/am numb with loss and grief. I remember a doctor soon after my diagnosis writing what I said to her in my medical notes “I have lost a lot of things”. What I meant was I have lost my health, my trust in my (previously very healthy) body, my peace of mind, the future I thought I was going to have as a newly-wed. I lost the ability to have fun, I was depressed, could no longer find joy in things. I cried every day for pretty much 2 years. Not all the time, but at odd moments, and still do. But how do you live with the after-effects of cancer? I’ve had to carve a life of moments and experiences and to find meaning and friendships that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. No, being ill was never a good thing, but some good things came out of it. I want to share with you what has helped me, because I was lost and felt I was floundering, but you can get through these things, and if you don’t, you can make things better for yourself and others along the way.
1. The best thing I did was join a support group. I was never a “join a group” or “talk about it” kind of person so I’m not sure why I did, but it was local to me, so I gave it a try. For information, it was “ The Healing Journey” at Paul’s Cancer Support Group in Battersea. At first it was a nightmare come true, all sat in a semi-circle and asked to talk about things (if we wanted to). Initially I didn’t take part, but the ladies running the group were experienced and compassionate and I soon realised that the more I took part in the (structured) discussions, the more I got out of it. I quickly made friends with more than a few of the participants and these friendships have survived to this day (10 years and counting) and are less and less about cancer and more and more about just being friends, which I am very proud of. This group of friends all know what going through cancer is like, even if the journey has been different for all of us. I found this very helpful, because obviously my non-affected friends could not understand (and I would not want them to). I worried that I turned into a nasty friend at the time, when a friend of mine was telling me about her visit to the dentist, I was thinking “I just don’t care about this, why do you think I want to hear about it?”. But then you want your friends to talk about normal stuff, and then you don’t. Most of the time I had no idea what I wanted or needed, and the weekly support group gave a structure to the week, with the odd bit of homework to think about and focus on.
2. I found just having a small thing to look forward to at the end of the working day was helpful. I had 3 months off work and was “strongly encouraged” to go back to work before I was ready (for instance I couldn’t bend down or stand for long and my commute and job were quite physical). I hated being at work. But what helped for me was planting some vegetable seeds at home, then when I got home, I pottered in the garden with small tasks and was able to look forward to this time in the day. For other people, it may be meeting a friend, or sewing, drawing or cooking. I would suggest anything other than watching TV, i.e. anything that takes a bit of focus and something practical.
3. I find writing about things helped to focus my mind and order my thoughts. Not while going through treatment, but afterwards. I knew at the time that once my treatment was over I would struggle mentally. It was as if my mind had boxed away all feelings to deal with later. It was a very definite feeling. Keeping a vague journal/weekly update helped to “file” the experiences and create a narrative which I still continue as a blog (Life after Cancer tips). It’s for me rather than anyone else, but if it helps other people, then I’m grateful.
4. In a similar vein to the above, I decided I would be open about my experiences to raise awareness of symptoms. If I had known that having night sweats was a sign of cancer, I may have mentioned it earlier to my doctor. I also had other symptoms that were troubling but my doctors put down to my age (39? Is that “an age?”) and the fact I had polycystic ovaries. I had abnormally long, heavy periods and a clear discharge for approximately a year, then as I was being tested prior to starting IVF treatment, the doctors “found something” during a routine scan. By giving talks to doctors, nurses and other patients, I was able to share my experiences and feel that something positive could come out of them. I know this is not something everyone would feel like doing, but plenty of my fellow sufferers have been proud to do such things. Try it, you may surprise yourself. Sharing experiences on blogs like these is a good way to do it anonymously if you prefer.
5. I sat down and really thought about what I would like to do in my life. I decided the thing I really wanted to see was baby turtles hatching from a nest. I planned a trip to Sri Lanka with my husband to do just that. In the past, I would never have considered such an exotic (and expensive) holiday but I loved EVERY second of it. I didn’t see turtles hatching that time, but I saw a turtle laying eggs and also leopards, elephants and all kinds of exotic things, smelled frangipani flowers for the first time, ate fantastic spicy food, learned about Buddhism and just had a whale of a time. I still wanted to see turtles hatching so later planned trips to Mexico, Turkey and St. Lucia with my mum. We did see them in the end, cried because it was so fantastic, and also had great holidays and experiences together. I’m not saying that it’s necessary to spend money to do what you want, but have a think about what would really make you happy. Actually, for my mum and I, it’s just spending time together and sharing a bottle of wine. Wildlife is a bonus. But tailor your thinking to you circumstances.
6. I joined a local community garden group to meet people who knew nothing about me and just to bring a bit of meaning to my weekends. I made some great friends and as a bonus we have created a beautiful garden for wildlife in a neglected part of Wandsworth. Anyone can visit and I get great pleasure from seeing people and their children/pets/other wildlife living in the space we created. As a bonus, I take photos and wrote a monthly newsletter and that increased my determination to improve my wildlife photography, so later took a local photography course.
7. Having had cancer has made me a stronger person but a person more open to new experiences and more open generally. I tell people about my experiences. This was something I couldn’t do at first. I couldn’t mention “womb cancer” without crying. But the first time I did it without crying felt like a step forward. Something that someone told me that I remember on a bad day is “you’re probably tired”, and that is often true. Be kind to yourself, accept it’s not the best day. Healing isn’t a straight line of “improvements”, you have good and bad days, ups and downs. Just like life.