Recently i’ve come to the conclusion that a cancer diagnosis is a series of violent events, linked together by gossamer-thin strands of something resembling normality. It’s an abrasive woollen blanket interwoven with the softest of silks.
My own diagnosis has never been neatly defined for me. There is no cracked tupperware box in my mind labeled ‘worst day ever.’ Instead it’s been a barrage of aftershocks that i’m still experiencing now.
Of course there’s the initial tremor when a loose-lipped consultant slips the ‘c word’ into what should have been a perfectly uneventful colonoscopy procedure. Next, there’s the full body shudder when a surgeon with thinning grey hair cheerfully announces that, with my consent, he’d like to, “zip me open and remove 20cms of my colon” in an operation that carries more than a fleeting percentage of high risk.
The foundations really start to crumble when, eight weeks later, I discover that the cancer is much worse than feared and I’ll need chemotherapy. Stage 1 was somehow manageable to me. I’d already neatly compartmentalized it as a momentary blip (think tupperware box again). Stage 3 is not. Suddenly cancer seemed like a never-ending ice-bucket challenge and I’ve been drowning in it ever since.
Cancer is an invasion, stealing into family life like a thick black smoke, smothering all the fun and light out of everything. It’s there in the lump in my throat when I glance at my daughter’s face during a fireworks display at Disneyland. The happiest of moments soured with all the ‘what ifs’ I dare myself to consider.
It’s the sadness in my heart when I can’t comfort you the way I want to because I have nothing left to give. Cancer has taken everything from me today.
It’s there in the quickening of my pulse when good friends announce new pregnancies, knowing that my fertility was left somewhere next to the IV stands on my chemo ward.
It’s there in my fixed smile when strangers joke about my youngest child’s upcoming teenage years, knowing that my future as her mother is constantly walking a high wire. I’m aware of the steep drops either side of me but my gaze will always be fixed on her face.
It’s the constant fear of recurrence, the exhaustion of contemplating the unmentionable. It’s the over-analyzing of every ache and pain in my body; the hours spent on the internet scouring for people with a similar diagnosis who are well on their way to smashing the magic target of three years of clear CT Scans.
It’s the scores of medical journals that I don’t understand but I’ll make myself read them just in case they hold the key to my universe. The tips. The cures. Miraculous tales of cannabis oil, turmeric and tree nuts… My head starts to swirl.
It’s the anxiety over scans and blood screening, genetic test results and colonoscopies. The moments in the middle of the night when the whole world is asleep, whereas my worst nightmare is right there in my consciousness.
Somehow I find the courage to stop and take a breath once in a while. That’s when I fumble for those gossamer-thin strands, and before my eyes they swirl and transform. Now they’re all hope and defiance, which is swiftly depicted across my social media accounts. There are genuine smiles for my girls without any subtext of fear and unease. The immediate future looks bright. There’s a splash of normality to my life, a glimpse of how things were ‘before’.
A year has passed since my bowel cancer diagnosis. The aftershocks are just mild tremors now but they are still very much present in my life. I find myself burying my hands into those strands and gripping harder and harder. I’m investing in earthquake-prevention tools like a sensible eating plan and gym membership but am I too late? Will it be enough?
The fear will always be there, whispering away in the corners of my mind, but these days my determination to beat cancer is learning to shout louder.
April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.
Please visit your GP if you have a persistent change in bowel habit, unexplained weight-loss, extreme tiredness, a lump or pain your tummy &/or blood in your stool.
Visit Bowel Cancer UK for more details.