I wrote this post two years ago. Although the unpacking is done, the rest of it – including the need for long train journeys and activities that allow for reflection – is still remarkably true.
This November, it turns out, is a time of reflection for me. At home, I unpack and sort out; for work, I spend long periods of time on trains and waiting for trains, and the fact that it’s two years since I was getting my head around having a cancer is never far from my mind. (A good approximation of what I was thinking a lot of the time two years ago would be: ‘Cancer? Me? That can’t be right. Cancer wouldn’t happen to me, because cancer sort of suggests death and pain and nasty and I am, somehow, exempt from that. Also, I have been divorced and depressed. Definitely someone else should get the cancer.’)
What’s going through my head now is, frankly, surprising. Not because I’m having any earth-shattering revelations – although I have had the Standard Cancer Insights – but because the most vibrant memories of that time aren’t necessarily the ones you might imagine. So I don’t have strong recollections of being told I had a cancer, of the immediate surgery aftermath, of finishing the different stages of treatment. What is vivid is a little surprising, I think. Here are the moments that are still as bright as copper pans:
- walking to the hospital for my appointment on the day I got the cancer diagnosis, and Knowing That It Was Cancer. Certainty poured and tumbled through me, head to toes, like cream into coffee. I stood on the pavement in North Road – there was a red car next to me, badly parked, front wheels on the pavement and back wheels skewed – and I shook.
- telling my children. The single worst moment of my life, ever. Really. But also the one that started me on the most important journey: understanding that being a mother, that being loved, that being me, is not dependent on me being perfect and being able to cope with everything, always. (Ned still teases me because during that conversation I said, “absolutely nothing around here is going to change”. You can see how well I was plugged in to my Mistress Of the Universe vibe.)
- being furious when, the day before surgery, the woman I had booked to give me a massage refused to do so for fear that her ministrations would “speed cancer round my body”. I had planned, so carefully, a day to nourish and prepare me. She threw it off at 9.15am. Grrr.
- having the final round of pre-surgery mammograms. I stood, shoulders hunched, breast squished between two plates of glass. I’d just had a guide wire fitted, so my poor beleaguered bosom was already blooming bruises pink and blue, slightly bloody, and had a long coiled wire and a whatever-the-medical-name-for-a-bulldog-clip-is sticking out of it. The anaesthetic was starting to wear off. I remember making a joke to the mammographer, and thinking how easily I could crumble away. As I left the room the mammographer said, “I hope I don’t see you again in a very long time.” I crumbled outside in the corridor. I didn’t have any tissues.
- taking a shower for the first time after surgery. Bliss. Alan stood arm’s length away in case I needed him. (And made me feel that this was a perfectly usual way for a relationship to be.)
- Joy’s horror as my hair started to go.
- being told I needed chemotherapy by a registrar with a hole in her tights.
- the feeling that one of the chemotherapy drugs created in my face, as needling ache and stiffness flowed around my sinuses like strawberry milkshake being sucked through a bendy straw.
- having chemotherapy the fourth time: being so tired and in so much pain that I lay in the chair and wept as the drugs went in, and felt that I would never, ever, ever be whole and well again.
- walking to the Royal Marsden for radiotherapy, and feeling very small and alone in a big, uncaring, grimy world, and finding an odd little comfort in the smallness.
- being asked by a doctor, “Apart from the cancer, are you in good health?”, and being amazed that she couldn’t see how that was funny.
- coming back from the loo at the Bah! to cancer party, and waiting in the doorway for a moment, and wondering whether this – the watching people that you love, the standing on the edge – was what being dead was like, even though I don’t really believe in that sort of thing, and thinking that if it was, then that would be OK too.
So…. these are the places in my dance with cancer where something was important, though I’m not sure I understand why these moments and not others have stuck. I’m not sure it really matters. I think what I’m doing here is accepting what has been my life for the last two years. And analysis isn’t what I need now: what’s needed is long train journeys and afternoons of sorting out boxes of books. It’s funny how it all works out, in the end.