I thought that the longest week of my life was the week between biopsies and getting my results. I was pretty sure I had cancer, and was encouraged to learn that most people have a ductal carcinoma in situ, which is easily treated and arguably not even cancer. I tried to stay distracted with he help of a few close friends and reminded myself that even if it was cancer it was probably easily treated.
The week was made harder by the fact that my 21 year old daughter was holidaying in China with her boyfriend. We’re vey close, and not having her here was upsetting. She was staying with her birth father and his partner, both lovely people, and I was grateful that she had their support. I was sending her messages asking her not to worry prematurely and simultaneously warning her dad that I expected bad news. I was reluctant to tell her at all but a good friend reminded me that she was going to pick up that something was wrong and the truth would be better than her highly creative imagination. Good advice.
When we had a diagnosis her first instinct was to cut her holiday short and come home. As much as I wanted to hold her I encouraged her to stay where she was and finish her holiday. I apologised for the cloud I’d sent. I reasoned that if she came home I would look exactly the same as when she left. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t on death’s door. She would be home soon. If it was at all possible for her to enjoy the rest of her holiday she should do that.
On reflection, our circumstances were probably a good thing. If we’d been together, I would have worried about her and she would have worried about me and we both would have focused on each other. Being apart meant we both got to process the diagnosis on our own. For both of us that involved a lot of crying.
Waiting for a diagnosis is nothing compared to knowing you have cancer and that you need to wait a week to see a surgeon. That’s the longest week of my life.
I spent my working life as a police officer. You learn to park your emotions off to one side so you can function in stressful situations. We saw my GP, got a referral, booked an appointment, talked about what kinds of options I might be offered and how we’d manage financially. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Then I fell apart.
Not in a great, dramatic display of emotion. My version of falling apart involves wandering the garden while I cry, crumbling rather than exploding. Here’s what my internal dialogue sounded like:
“I’m going to die. This is it. I am going to die. My dad died of cancer at 58 so in the back of my mind I always knew this was likely to happen. He died young. I’ll die young. It’s not like I didn’t see this coming.
Oh my poor family! My husband will be so sad. It’s okay. He’s strong. He’ll be sad for a while and then he’ll be okay. But it’s going to be hard. I’m going to die.
Harder for my daughter. How will she cope. Oh no. At least she’s an adult and not a child. It must be so hard for children. She’s strong and capable and smart and she’ll be okay. She has a wonderful relationship with her boyfriend and both her dads. Should I write something for her? I could write her a letter. I could title it ‘In the event of my untimely death’ and put all of the advice into it that I want her to remember. Should I do that? No. Better not to become a ghost that haunts her with my ideas of what she should do with her life. Better to make her own decisions and choices without worrying about what I would say. Death throws a halo. It makes you more important than you would be if you were still alive. I wont do that.
Why do people tell me to ‘be positive’. How is that even possible. I’ve got an aggressive cancer growing inside me and it’s likely to spread through my body. Be positive? Okay. I’m positive I have fucking cancer! How’s that for positive. I bet it’s a secondary cancer. I’ve probably got Dad’s bladder cancer and this is just that cancer metastasising.
I’m going to die. Serves me right for all those years of smoking I suppose. This isn’t a simple ductal thing. Triple negative. Or it’s secondary cancer. I looked it up. Poor prognosis. Highly aggressive. I am going to die. ”
……..and so on.
The information they had given me when I was diagnosed sent me to Breast Cancer Network Australia and I read that about now I should be asking ‘Why me?’ Actually, this thought never occurred to me. Why not me? I didn’t feel angry or hard done by. I just felt resigned.
I lost my voice. I’d had a cold leading up to the diagnosis and then spent a long time on the phone talking about cancer. My vocal chords gave out. My voice vanished for about three weeks, strangely returning whenever I needed to talk to a doctor.
When you get a diagnosis of cancer you really appreciate Facebook. It’s a great way to give bad news to a lot of people. It saved me the excruciating task of ringing everyone. Of course, I told close friends and family first and then I posted my diagnosis. My friends were amazing. I had all kinds of messages of support. Some people sent cards or arrived with flowers. Some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time came to visit. Two of our closest friends joined us for dinner and kept us laughing. I felt very loved and supported.
In my head I was planning my funeral. I was sure I was going to die.
Then something wonderful happened.
Because irony loves misery my diagnosis arrived in the middle of July, when we’d joined a campaign to raise money for adults living with cancer. Dry July happens each year and we’d dedicated our month of abstinence to my late father. We were all using facebook to encourage people to donate. My daughter reposted the Dry July link with this comment:
“I want to say something poignant or wise to ask you to support this great cause. But today we found out that my Mumma has breast cancer, and all I can think of to say is fuck you, cancer.”
I felt like she’d smacked me up the side of the head. Fuck you cancer! What was I thinking? I was walking around feeling healthy and I’d already dug my own grave and stretched out in the bottom of it. All I needed now was someone with a shovel. What a stupid thing to do. Fuck you cancer! Why should I let you beat me? What happens if, instead of deciding that I’m going to die I decide that I’m going to kick cancer’s arse?
Now I felt angry. Not with my circumstances but with the cancer. Suddenly the whole concept of positive thinking became stunningly clear to me. Belief is a powerful thing, and entirely within my control. I can choose to believe I’m going to die or I can choose to believe I’m going to live.
Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying”
Time to get busy.