Five years ago. I was in the living room doing the ironing. Mum was in the kitchen. Chris was upstairs.
The phone rang and I stopped what I was doing. I knew it wasn’t a good sign. Nobody really called during the day, and nobody called the house phone in the middle of the day.
It was the hospital. They wanted to speak to Mum. They wanted us to get there as soon as possible because Dad wasn’t doing good.
We got in the car.
I kept thinking that he was doing good the day before. How he looked me directly in the eyes as we said goodbye for the night. The doctors said that they would put him on a rehabilitation program. That we would plan all sorts of exercises and therapies for him, similar to others that had had strokes.
We got to the ward. The curtain around his bed was drawn. The doctors told us he had stopped breathing in the early part of the night. It was at that point I chose to shut off every emotion I had. I chose to go into nodding dog mode. Into ostrich with my head in the sand mode. Into pragmatic, what should we plan to do mode. Anything, but to deal with it that very second.
Then that night, when I got home, after 8+ hours in the hospital with family, and endless phone calls to the US and the Philippines, I got home and cried in bed.
Throughout this whole “cancer patient” process, I’ve somehow morphed into the strongest person that anyone in my circle seems to know. I’ve had it written in cards. Said to me on the phone.
I’m doing so well.
The reality is, at the beginning, I was an absolute mess.
When I got the diagnosis back in September, my emotions completely consumed me. Every appointment I had with Katy; every time I had an injection or biopsy; every scan, every surgery, every test result; every single thing that was part of the process of being a cancer patient; I would oscillate from being calm, to breaking down, to just going with the motions. It was exhausting physically and mentally. But, I somehow managed to keep it together. Just about…but somehow nonetheless.
Then chemo came about, and the fear that sat within me magnified. Hair loss. Mood swings. Weight gain. Fatigue. Loss of appetite. Infertility. The unknown of whether my body would be dealing with a long list of side effects, or a small amount. The unknown was what scared me. The idea of having absolutely no control of seeing my body change, and having to be ok with it.
Then, at some point I just “got on with it”. I cried, I hit the wall, I got frustrated; but at some point everything just became routine.
The nurses trying multiple times to access my port while I sat anxiously, it became routine.
Rushing to Harley Street a few days before chemo for my blood tests became routine.
Dressing up as a unicorn became routine.
Staying awake till 3am after chemo became routine.
Chemo just became routine.
Dad vs. Cancer
“Do you think your dad passing prepared you in handling this?”
Liz had asked me this a couple of months into being diagnosed. Like many, she had told me I was handling things really well. To everyone I was handling things really well. And to tell you the truth, if I think about the shitty times compared to the ok times, it’s definitely been less shitty than I know it could have been.
Whenever I would meet others going through treatment, I would hear about needing blood transfusions, the admissions to hospital for bad reactions to the chemo drugs, the fear of death, the struggle with isolation, the disappointment of not having people around as much as expected. Some of these things I went through myself, some I didn’t. And while chemo itself has been relentless, I’ve somehow managed to get myself into the right head space for it.
The fact is, I lost my dad. Five years ago, I lost my dad. It was and still is probably one of the most traumatic things I have ever gone through.
I spent five years dealing with emotions that had been blocked or sitting within me for years, and everything came to a front after my dad’s passing.
I became so much more anxious about everything. I was questioning everything. I lost my ability to feel good about myself. I had no confidence in what I was doing. Everything just felt hard to deal with!
To most people around me, I was probably more emotional than normal, but was otherwise ok. The reality was, I was in the worst place I could be mentally and emotionally, and I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it.
I battled with my emotions, and trying to manage myself as best I could. I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to turn to. I felt like I was absolutely lost. I felt absolutely miserable.
I sought help.
It wasn’t easy, and I struggled with it. I struggled with it a lot; but I stuck with it because it was absolutely needed. And after 4 years, of ups and downs, I came out the other end.
I felt happier. I wanted to make the most of my life and see the world more. Be around the people I loved more. Enjoy my life more. And I did.
For the large part of 2017, I made the most of it. I worked hard, but I played hard too. It had been years since I’d adopted this pseudo carpe diem mentality, but it was working for me. I was making memories.
And then, just like that. Nine months into the year of “feeling better about myself”, I got diagnosed with breast cancer.
I would be lying if I said that processing my diagnosis was easy, because it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. But dealing with everything over the last 8 months has been “tolerable”, because I’ve already been through something traumatic.
If I had to choose between being diagnosed with cancer or losing my father and the aftermath of losing my father; I would choose cancer over and over again. Because losing a loved one is tough. Dealing with mental health is tough. Feeling like you’ve hit rock bottom is tough.
It’s weird to look back on the last eight months, and process what has happened. Actually, I take that back. I haven’t processed what has happened. I’ve just gone along with what has happened.
I’ve wallowed in self-pity. I’ve been frustrated with the isolation. I’ve cried. I’ve felt shit. I’ve struggled with my body feeling like it’s aged by 40 years. I’ve been shocked by the quick change in my stamina. I’ve felt beyond crap, but then, I’m allowed to. It took me a while to really accept that bit, but I’m allowed to feel all these things.
I knew that for every time I would feel crap, I would tell myself that tomorrow I would be ok and be better with it. I didn’t want to let the down side consume me.
I made the conscious choice of avoiding people who had experienced cancer in a negative way. I didn’t want to get sucked in. I had been there, done that, and knew that my only option was to do what I was told, and try to make the last 6 months of chemo as easy as possible.
So I opted to dress up in a onesie each week, and my friends did too.
I opted to take up all these courses that I’d been wanting to do for a really long time.
I got round to decorating my home after living in it for two years.
I learned to listen to my body and be ok with not being ok.
I learned to be more selfish.
I kept myself busy, but also learned to not be so busy that I was not dealing with my emotions.
I developed coping strategies to deal with treatment.
The final stretch
And now, here I sit, with 15 chemo sessions under my belt, and one more to go.
One more to go!
I can’t process it.
I’m surrounded by so many people who are excited for me. I have two of my best friends who have flown over to be with me for my last chemo. I’m beyond happy and grateful for these people in my life who have been with me all the way through this.
But, the truth is, I don’t feel any excitement towards the end date. In fact, I feel nervous.
It sounds weird to say, but I don’t know what I’ll do after chemo; because without realising, chemo has become my norm.
Over the last 6 months, this has been my life; and to see it come to an end is a strange feeling. A scary feeling, because, what happens after chemo? Do I just pick up from where I left off in September? Do I go back to the life I had before?
I remember a week after Dad’s funeral, I received a sympathy card from a friend. She wanted to wait until after the funeral was done, because while everyone’s life would get back to normal after the funeral, my life would be changed forever; and it has.
Losing a loved one changes you forever.
Going through cancer changes you forever.
I know there will be a tsunami of emotions that will hit me once chemo is done. I expect it. Just like it did after dad’s funeral.
And, I guess the only thing I can keep in my mind is how I choose to deal with these emotions. I’ve already been here. I’ve already dealt with something tough. This is familiar territory for me. This is not new. I need to surround myself with those I know I can rely on.
I know it will be up and down. I know it will be; but if there is also one thing I know, it’s that…
I am braver.
I am stronger.
I am smarter.