Fishing for Sympathy

I was in a shop last week, talking to a woman I had never met before, buying some sheets. I can’t even think of a reason why I said what I said. I’m pretty sure the whole conversation started with her asking, “Can I help you?”  There was a bit of the usual chat you have in a sheet shop. Nothing earth shattering. Then I heard these words come out of my mouth, “As you can probably tell, I’ve had a double mastectomy.”

The shop assistant looked surprised. “Oh really,” she said, and proceeded to tell me about a friend with breast cancer.

It’s not the first time I’ve done this. It’s probably about the third. It’s left me wondering why I do it at all. Why tell people that have no reason to know (and probably no interest) that I had breast cancer? It’s not like that makes me particularly unusual or special. As my daughter observed recently, it seems everyone has either had breast cancer or knows someone whose had breast cancer.

I suspect that, in my case at least, it’s about letting go of feeling so special. I read a comment by someone else with breast cancer about a year ago. “You will never feel more loved.” That phrase was like the sun coming up. Yes, I was sick and weak and frightened but I was also surrounded by people that made me their top priority. I could lay on the couch all day (and many days this was a necessity rather than a choice) and nobody would question my motives. Instead of doing all of my usual chores I could ask other people to do them for me.

During that period of time when I obviously had cancer and my entire body was hairless, I noticed how much nicer people were to me. People I had never met took particular care to smile, to be kinder, to go just a little bit out of their way for me. It’s interesting that I probably felt worse during radiation than I did during chemo, but by then I had short hair.

I never want to have cancer again. Never. But the big surprise about having it is how special I’ve felt since June 2012 when I was diagnosed.

Cancer has also been what I think of as a whole of life detox. I’ve shed all sorts of things, emotional and physical. I have lost friends that couldn’t cope or chose not to get involved. I have gained friends that I met along the way. I have changed my diet, increased my exercise, lost 12 kilos so far and massively reduced my alcohol consumption to an occasional glass of organic wine or two on weekends when we socialise. I used to have three or four glasses (about half a bottle) just about every night.

When you sit quietly holding hands with death the reality of your own, tiny, temporary life finally sinks in. It brings about a comprehensive shift in the way you think about just about everything. Priorities. They’re different now. I care less about things and more about relationships. I realise that, for me, connection, compassion, love and helping others are what really matter. I don’t feel guilty about spending time doing things I enjoy. I used to. I always had a long list of things I SHOULD be doing and I gave that priority over things I wanted to do. Not any more.

I am much less angry than I used to be, and much less inclined to escalate to anger. I am calmer and happier and kinder. I am mindful that anyone could be in the middle of what my family has just been through. You can’t tell by looking.

We are all temporary.

I still like my home clean and tidy, things repaired, gardens weeded and lawns mown. I just make sure that the things I love to do come first rather than second. Curiously the chores still get done. I get around to them after I’ve done the important stuff. Why did it take me so long to learn this?

My husband has finally been able to exhale. He’s been so worried for me. I insisted that he keep up his volunteering with the fire brigade and his involvement with two bands while I was sick. His employer let him shift to part time work during my treatment so he could drive me to chemotherapy. He’s back to full time work now. I miss the level of care and attention I got when I was sick. People really do realise how much they love you (or sadly for some, how much they don’t) when you get seriously ill. I don’t ever want to put him through that again, but I do miss that level of attention.

I don’t miss the distress that all of this has caused my beautiful daughter. Not at all. Not one bit. I can’t think of anything positive that it’s done for our relationship. We were already close. I am very glad to be able to show her how healthy I can be.

So maybe this is why I seem to randomly blurt out my medical history. I suspect I’m fishing for sympathy. I want strangers to be impressed with how well I look. I want them to contemplate what I’ve been through and give me credit for it all. Why? People get sick all the time. There’s nothing special about me.

And I think that’s the heart of it right there. Being special.

Cancer is horrible. Treatment is a blunt object with life threatening consequences and long term side effects. Bits of you get chopped off and thrown away. Or banked or…..I actually have no idea where my breasts are! Anyway…..cancer is horrible, but while you’re being treated for it you do feel pretty special. Well I did. Maybe this is just me.

I think that part of recovering from cancer is letting go of ‘cancer patient’ as an identity. It’s about getting back to being ‘Meg’. You really can’t tell that I’ve had a double mastectomy. I could just be flat chested. My hair is now past my shoulders and my eyebrows and eyelashes have regrown. If you met me tomorrow you’d never know.

I’m 53 years old. I’ve done a lot of things in my life so far, including 20 years worth of stories from my policing career, my commitment to being a really good parent, a short list of things I’ve learned to be good at simply for the pleasure of it, and all of the assorted bits and pieces that make up a life. Why should this disease be the most important thing about me? Why should I feel compelled to share this particular piece of medical history with anyone. I am so much more than just ‘a cancer survivor’.

I had dinner out with a friend last weekend. There was a woman at another table with a tell-tale cotton cap on her head and drawn in eyebrows. I thought to myself, “It’s her turn now.”

I need to return to being ‘normal’ (just as soon as I figure out what that is) or at the very least to stop making everything about cancer. I need to let go of it being who I am and relegate it to something that I once experienced. I don’t want to lose everything I’ve discovered and all of the changes I’ve made and I plan to keep writing about all of that. I do want to move on from a place where cancer is a big part of my day to day life. It deserves to be a footnote.

I am well.

I’m still going to be involved in relevant charities, but I was before I had cancer so that’s nothing new. I’m also going to keep sharing what I know and what I learn with other people going through something similar. The feedback I’ve had from this blog has been inspirational. It’s helped people. I hope to keep doing that.

So now it’s your turn. If you’re reading this and you’re going through treatment, or you recently finished treatment, and you’d like to ask me a question then please ask it here and I’ll do what I can to answer it. If you ask me something that I don’t know the answer to I’ll try to find out, or find out who you can ask. If I don’t know something I’ll be honest about that too.

I understand what you’re going through because I was once there too. I’ve benefited from the care and love of so many people. Now it’s your turn. How can I help you?


7 thoughts on “Fishing for Sympathy

  1. I have followed your story after finding out I HAD bowel cancer. I went through all the emotions. I was lucky understanding work manager, great work colleagues. My family rallied and gave me all their support , love and some.
    For me I didn’t loose my hair or show any symptoms people at work were like no! You have cancer you still have your hair. I had 40 days off work in the year and this included a 1.5 tumour removed from my bowel and 6 months of horrible chemo
    I think the main thing with any cancer is being postive and having awesome support.
    Last Wednesday I got the all clear don’t no what it means but my life is still rolling on.
    My saying the whole year through chemo and weight gain ” it’s only cancer” I wasn’t going to let it beat me.
    I wish you the best , you were part of my awesome support and you didn’t even no it.

  2. Thank you Meg for another inspirational blog. I too have much to be grateful for from my trek with tnbc. I’ve just finished treatment after…7 months since my mastectomy. I see my oncologist next wed for a ‘what now’ discussion!! I swim and exercise every day in our pool and then spend the best part of the day with my dad which has opted to die at home. It’s an emotional roller-coaster as mum and I keep him comfortable but also a special time as we remember times past. At 61 I’m still his little girl (only child)!!  Precious times I’m happy to share with my ‘knight in shinning armour’. Thanks again for your writings from the heart.♡♡♡ Ricki

    • Dear Ricki,
      Thank you so much for your beautiful message. I went through something similar with my Dad and my heart goes out to you. We’re fighting to have cannabis approved in this jurisdiction for medical use, including access for the terminally ill. What a difference it would have made to my Dad who suffered terribly with the impact of morphine. Love and best wishes to both of you.

  3. Thank you Meg, for again articulating tnis so well. I’m nearing the end of 15 months of treatment (mastectomy, radiotherapy, chemo) after a BC diagnosis.

    I had a similar experience, although I managed to stop myself from blurting it out. This is a few months ago now. On my way home from one of my radiotherapy sessions, I stopped at a fruit shop. There was an older guy in the line behind me. I had been chatting to the check out lady as she processed my shop. Just talking about day to day stuff. When the guy turned up all attention fell on him. From the conversation it was obvious he was also undergoing cancer treatment. She and another lady were marvelling about how good he looked and how well he was doing asking him lots of questions…..a part of me wanted to and so needed to blurt out ‘what about me!? I’m doing that stuff too, I’m feeling pretty shit right now and I think I’m holding it together quite well!?! I’ve just spent the last hour driving to and from the hospital, getting manoeuvred on the table like a sack of flour and put inside a machine that’s firing God knows what radioactive stuff at me and now I’m here in front of you, in line doing a normal thing, like buying veggies!!’ . I didn’t though, I quietly picked up my bags, put them in the trolley and wheeled it away.

    I often think about this occurance. It’s one of those that has really stuck in my mind. I often sit there and pick at it, trying to understand it. really don’t think it was jealousy that he was getting attention over me. I really dislike being the centre of attention. The fact that they had no idea about what I was going through confirmed that I did look well, for that I should be grateful. I think it was the fact that this treatment, the daily slog to the hospital, the constant questioning by medical staff, the constant poking and prodding had made me less of a human. It had made me feel a part of a process, an object on a conveyor belt. I guess I simply would have liked that acknowledgement from a a stranger. The energy flow that a conversation with feeling with someone other than your loved with ones brings………acknowledgement. It’s a big thing.

    Thanks Meg. Thanks for caring and thanks for sharing. xx

  4. Thank you so much for this comment, Amanda. What a brilliant description of radiation and how dehumanising it can feel. The clinic where I had mine actually gave me a card with a bar code to scan every time I came in. I appreciate that this kept waiting times really short, because the team out the back knew you’d arrived, but really! A bar code! Could I feel any MORE like a sack of flour?


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