When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought I was ready to expect the unexpected. It’s a bit like parenting: I understood that nothing can prepare you for what is to come. But even with that mindset, I was still totally floored by the force of it. It’s all-consuming. Life stops and you enter into a surreal whirlpool of appointments, information-overload and, primarily, terror. As I progressed through the treatment, I came to realise that there are similarities between having a cancer diagnosis and being bereaved. I don’t mean the grief you experience when you have cancer (the loss of identity, income, hair). I’m talking about the experience of being bereaved and the impact it has on your life.
I can truthfully say that having cancer isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to me. In 2003, our first baby Isaac died, just a week before he was due. I gave birth to him two days later, on 13th February. Nothing could have prepared me for the devastation it would cause in my life and the way it changed me forever.
Getting a cancer diagnosis had all the hallmarks of that first shocking moment when you are told someone you love has died unexpectedly. Time stops. You can’t breathe, or think of anything else for weeks. You feel like your brain is weighed down by treacle and even the most basic of decisions is beyond you. A truck has driven through your life and your life is now unrecognisable to you.
And there are other similarities, as I discovered over the next few months. People react in many different ways. Sometimes, people say unhelpful things or thoughtless things. Sometimes they just say inaccurate things. When our first child had died, some people urged us to look forward to the children we might have in the future, as if that might replace the one we had lost. Similarly, when I talked to people about cancer, particularly about the gut-wrenching prospect of losing my hair, some people talked with excitement about the opportunity that this might give me to try different styles of wigs. (For future reference; this just isn’t helpful. Wigs are expensive, itchy, hot and in no way compensate for the shock of being bald!)
People react in unexpected ways to life-changing news. In both situations, we experienced silence from friends and family members. When Isaac died, people crossed the road to avoid me. When some people heard I had cancer, I heard nothing from them. Just recently, a friend has decided to stop following me on Facebook because she had ‘nothing very helpful to say’. You find yourself trying to understand why people would behave like that. You spend what energy you have trying to put yourself in their shoes, trying to be kind and see how difficult it must be for them to respond. You wonder how your relationship with that person will recover, and in some cases it doesn’t.
For every person who is silent however, there are many more who will surprise you with their faithfulness, their commitment to you and their willingness to help. We have had dinners made, cakes delivered to our house, lifts to hospital for treatment, my hand has been held when I was too weak to talk. Some of this love came from people I had no idea I could rely on, and their support has amazed us. We are hugely grateful.
During cancer treatment, as in grief, people ask you how you are. You adapt your answers for the person who asks it. You find yourself responding with an answer that meets their expectations. There are only a few people you will want to share everything with, and it isn’t always appropriate to tell everything in Tescos, so you learn to give people a stock answer; a phrase or two that will give them an answer without costing too much. I can’t tell you how often I told people that I was “getting there” during my treatment. Sometimes even on days when I felt too weak to stand.
You will never be the same again. I am scarred inside and out. I have been lucky: my cancer is being successfully treated. But there are ongoing medical issues to deal with and the fear of it returning will always be with me. But, as in grief, you live on. Changed, but still here. There is an emotional debt that you will never pay off. You can still walk, but you walk with a limp. Cancer, like a sudden bereavement, in our case the death of our child, is trauma. No mistake about it. I knew this in theory only, and now I am living it.
But…I am living. And importantly, I found ways to live through the trauma. I discovered that, as there are similarities between the impact of cancer and bereavement, so there are in the ways I have coped with both situations. And so here, in no particular order, are the ways you can live….
- Find someone you can be completely honest with. Someone who is prepared to hear the brutal ugly truth of what you’re experiencing. I have been extremely lucky. I have a great husband and a core of women around me who have fulfilled this role. I didn’t do this alone.
- Allow yourself to be angry, scared, sad and frustrated. Sit quietly with those feelings and allow them to be legitimate. Don’t rush to look for positives. They will come much easier if you acknowledge how you feel honestly. Express your true feelings to people who will really listen. I found that acknowledging anger, and fear, helped me manage them far more effectively than bottling them up would have done.
- Be careful how much you read. This seems a curious piece of advice from a woman writing a blog, but I found that not all the stuff you find online is very helpful. If you do want support from an online community, find one that suits your character and your experiences. And stay away from Dr. Google!
- This next is possibly my most important piece of advice. Get fresh air as often as possible. I was fortunate to have my chemo during the spring and summer and I am certain that being outside aided my recovery after each round. Walk, breathe, look up. As often as you can. Sit by the trees, listen to the birds. Be silent. It helps.
- Create. Bake, knit, sing, paint, doodle. I don’t think it matters what you do. Just being productive was really helpful and I found an outlet for my frustration at not being able to work.
- Ask for help. Accept help when it’s offered. I found this particularly hard, but I’m so glad I did. I have felt supported and held in ways I hadn’t anticipated and I’m certain my ongoing recovery is due in part for the help I have received.
I have been very lucky. My cancer has gone and I am alive. The things I have learnt will stay with me. Cancer, like bereavement, is indiscriminate and that truck can drive through any one of our lives. If you’re experiencing either: good luck. Be brave. Keep breathing.