This International Women’s Day i’ll be celebrating a select group of women. You won’t find them ‘front of house’ or clutching a gold statuette, but they are all superheroes whose strength and beauty is something very much to be admired.
They’re the ones facing a cancer diagnosis before their fortieth birthday.
They’re the mums with children too young to leave motherless or those who have had their fertility stolen; women who have an all-too-familiar story to tell, of months of dismissals by GPs, of delays in treatment that have tipped them from curative to palliative.
I was 37 when I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. In May 2017 this disease chucked a glass of water at a painting of my perfect life and made all the colours bleed and distort. Since then i’ve used many adjectives to describe my diagnosis – cruel, unfair, challenging… But the one that gets the least recognition is often the hardest.
Cancer isn’t an experience than most young adults are familiar with. It’s not a typical pub conversation or a conspirative whisper between two girlfriends after too many glasses of chardonnay.
It’s a difficult concept to get your head around when everyone else is moaning about the weather or booking their summer holidays. Instead we are faced with months of anxiety over CT scans and a future shrouded in uncertainty. We can fill our waking hours with as much love, noise and chaos as we like but there’s no escaping our own thoughts at 3am. The insecurities, the fear, the ‘what ifs’…
For these moments I rely on the kindness of strangers, that amazing group of women I mentioned. You’ll find them on cancer forums and across social media. I don’t know them, we’ve never met before, but their words and encouragement save my life every single day.
Women like to feel included but a cancer diagnosis turns you into an outsider, especially at this age. Discovering the cancer community is like making that first best friend at a new school. You know they’ll be others but she’ll always be there for you no matter what.
I used to give my cancer too much power. Now, with the help of these women, i’ve overthrown that tired, old regime. They’ve helped me see cancer for what it really is, an annoying irritant, a chronic illness that will give me good days and bad days. Most importantly, they’ve taught me that it’s ok to laugh; that I still deserve to laugh. I may have cancer but I still count.
Cancer is the worst kind of thief. It steals bedtime kisses with our babies when we’re in hospital or undergoing treatment. It might even rob them of their mother. It takes a special kind of woman to pick herself up after such a devastating diagnosis.
So today i’m celebrating MY strength and the strength of all the beautiful young women around the world who are battling a cancer diagnosis.
Female solidarity at it’s finest.