I live alone. I am not unusual. 30% of households in the UK comprise a single adult . It seems likely, then, that about a third of cancer patients live alone. So why, in the kilos of leaflets I’ve been given since my diagnosis, could I find so little about coping with cancer treatment single-handed (and so much advice about getting your partner to do this or that)? There have been times when I felt as though hospitals and cancer charities were blind to the circumstances of me and a third of patients.
I am a happily single professional. I have no current partner. I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer one day in February 2018. I have hesitated writing this, because it seemed ungrateful to my friends and family. I have wonderful friends, an extended family (who don’t live nearby), but no one right here right now.
“You can’t possibly do this on your own”, said someone at work, rather grandly (she meant well, but this wasn’t someone who knew me well enough to share the burden). That’s unfortunate, I thought. What alternative was there?
“Bring someone to clinic appointments”, a doctor said. Lovely. But it was difficult enough for me to park my own professional responsibilities, how could I ask friends to drop theirs? There were going to be a LOT of appointments. I thought it best to save friends’ good will until I really needed it. So far there have been 18 breast clinic appointments, 7 days an in-patient, 9 medical oncology clinic appointments, 6 (+1 aborted) chemo sessions, 15 GCSF injections, 3 acute oncology visits, 2 clinical oncology appointments and 15 radiotherapy sessions.
I had no idea it would be 60+ clinic/hospital trips. But early on, having a plan for getting to and from hospital unaided most of the time was central to my sense that I could cope. Control. I can do it if I can get there. For my local hospital, where the breast unit is, I worked out the bus route (easier than hospital car park); for the radiotherapy (a different hospital), a long bus journey or driving myself where possible; and as a back-up, when all else fails, minicab (not a regular option: too expensive). Discharge from hospital after surgery was the only journey I couldn’t manage myself. I was very grateful to the friend who did take me home, and get me back up the stairs to my flat with my bag to fresh flowers and a chicken casserole. Help was there when I really needed it.
I read up and researched quite a bit in the first few weeks waiting for surgery. Practical advice appealed most (and I discovered www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com thanks to a work colleague). I asked my Breast Care Nurse some specific questions about how I would manage personal care after surgery. The whole business of cancer left me feeling like a by-stander while dozens of other clever people buzzed around me, so I needed something I could do. Things I could do in advance helped me feel like I was prepared. I bought button-jacket pyjamas, a drain dolly. I cooked for the freezer. I took things down from high shelves which might be needed. I sat and thought a lot. I thought about how much more difficult life must have been for my grandmother, who had breast cancer in the 70s, and still kept house in the traditional way. At least I can order groceries online. And they deliver, even up the stairs to my flat. Treatment was my focus now, and I didn’t feel I could do a professional job, and respond as needed, when so much else was going on. I made a decision to take a break from work.
Looking back, there has been very little I couldn’t do at all. But post-chemo I am SLOW. I have to prioritise, and pace myself with the energy I have. Some tasks take me all day. Hardest of all is changing the beds – all day in little bursts. My home is a clutter tip. Things that were pulled out of cupboards haven’t gone back. I haven’t been to the charity shop in 10 months, and the magazine pile needs a sort-out and a recycling run. These can wait. I have prioritised cooking, cleaning bathrooms and kitchen, and laundry. And treatment. I am doing what I can.
During treatment it has taken me a long while to admit the things I can’t do so well. Some environments leave me overwhelmed and tearful (especially crowds). My version of chemo brain seems to be a sort of disconnection of some of my planning and executive function. I used to be able to look at purchases in a shopping trolley, and automatically know the meal plan for the week. Come dinner-time, I would look at the contents of the fridge, and cook a meal from the mental list. Now I just see a wire basket and milk and broccoli. For too long during treatment, I opened the fridge door, looked blankly at the things inside, and made a cheese toastie anyway, not able to recall any plan, or remember the meals in the freezer. I have finally admitted to myself I need to go back to written planning, checking ingredients and following the written plan (I have similar problems on opening the wardrobe, so if I look a bit haphazardly dressed, there’s a reason for that).
As a way of giving structure to my week while I am not working, I have signed up for any event offered through my local hospital. I join a weekly cancer patients’ walking group on Tuesdays, an exercise class on Thursdays. I’ve been to support groups and workshops, sometimes more to get out of the flat than interest in the subject.
Doing treatment single-handed IS do-able. But it’s hard work. I got up every day and was showered and dressed, before lunchtime. I have done all the important things. I’ve paid the electricity bill, I’ve dealt with the final demands. I made sure my professional qualification was renewed in my absence. There is a heap of stuff I haven’t done. Tough. It’ll still be there when I’m ready.
I was glad to see the back of 2018. I am still very weak and fatigued, but 2019 is my year of re-hab. Best foot forward. If very slowly.