It’s a year since I sat for the second time in the clinic waiting room, this time not just with one but with three friends doing their best to remain positive, waiting my turn for a biopsy. It was the day before my 48th birthday. One year on I feel less like I just celebrated my 49th birthday and more my first cancer birthday. Being on the verge of 50, there is something to be said for starting the count from scratch again.
When I reflect back to this time last year it is hard to believe that I actually didn’t spend the intervening days before receiving the results thinking about whether or not I had cancer. I remember being quite surprised when I picked up the phone and the person on the other end said she was calling from the hospital. The moment before the only thing my mind had been occupied with was running through a list of holiday essentials and checking them off as I zipped up our cases ready to depart, there was no thought of cancer.
Some people might think me crazy for heading off on a family holiday just after receiving the news that I had grade 3, Triple Negative Breast cancer (TNBC), but, although the holiday was a strange Jekyll and Hyde experience, I don’t regret for one moment making the choice to go. Those two weeks afforded me two important things: 1) time to experience how I felt about having cancer; and 2) time to think about what I needed to do to.
In the Mr Hyde nights between the Dr Jeckyll daytimes I would switch from a care-free mum cavorting with the kids on the beach to a desperate woman being sucked by a deep, strong under-tow far out to sea. With the kids safely tucked up in bed and with no other distractions I allowed myself to be swept up in the storm of my emotions. Fear, anger grief and love surged through and crashed over me. I did nothing but feel, tossed by the storm until finally it blew out, the waves subsided and I found myself washed up on something resembling solid ground again.
In the midst of the storm a key question – did I want to live or did I want to die? – had been answered: I wanted to live. Equally importantly I knew why I wanted to live: I wanted to see my young daughters mature into young women and to see who they would become, and I wanted to become the therapist I knew I could be. I held tightly onto this life line and continue to do so though subsequent storms have never been quite of the same magnitude.
With the greyest clouds gone and clutching my lifeline I could see, feel and think clearly again. If I wanted to live then I would need to take action. While there is no fortune in having cancer, I felt very blessed that I had been working in the world of cancer over the last few years. I not only had the expertise of the professionals around me to draw on but also the experiences of our retreat guests.
A fabulously chirpy lady dealing with stage 4 cancer, who had been at our retreat just prior to us leaving on holiday, in particular was great inspiration. She was living on her own and to cope with the severe treatment she had undergone she had pulled together a group of friends to support her whom she called ‘Team Linda’. I knew that the first thing I needed to do was to build ‘Team Ange’.
Again counting my blessings for the experience I had, I knew exactly who I needed in my team:
- Someone to talk through treatment options with
- Someone to advise me on nutrition and supplements
- Friends and family to help look after the children
- Someone to accompany me to appointments
- Someone who I could share how I was feeling with
- Someone who could help shop, cook and clean
- Friends and family to go walking with
- Friends and family to visit me and meet me for coffees
- A yoga teacher
I would suggest that this is a core list of players that most people should have in their team. I spent the rest of my holiday contacting various family, friends and colleagues, getting their advice and getting them in position to help me once I landed back on home soil. I intended to hit the ground running.
Understandably, often driven by fear and panic, there is a tendency for people who’ve received a cancer diagnosis to rush head long into treatment urged on by doctors who typically give the impression that if they don’t then death will be imminent. While I am not suggesting that anyone delay treatment indefinitely, the reality is that the cancer has probably been there quite a while, for some people it will have been growing for months or years before it’s discovery. Taking a week or two or even three to absorb the news and all the emotions that comes with it and then to steady and ready oneself to engage with the doctors and with the treatment I believe can actually aid the treatment process and improve outcomes. I am sure it did for me.