The most commonly used term for what I am is cancer survivor…there’s a song about that…I will survive…and like the catchy new number you hear on the way to work in the morning that sits inside your head whirring round and round for the rest of the day, driving you crazy, so the cancer chorus is never far from consciousness for those of us who’ve attended the big Concert and come away with a pink t-shirt.
Yes, I went to that performance, but I didn’t queue up for a ticket. I stood in line patiently though, with all the other ladies who received the same summons, because I had no choice. I wasn’t brave or strong, a fighter – I was a frightened child. I didn’t kick cancer’s butt, cancer kicked me, in the chest, hard, and I have the scars to show for it. They hurt, most of the time, and especially if I look in the mirror. How my body looks and feels is enough to jog my memory, if I should ever find a moment’s peace and forget that I’ve had cancer.
So what else reminds me? Thinking out loud, let’s start with lingerie departments – all those pretty lacy cleavage enhancing bras I’ll never be able to wear again; the never-ending search for a comfortable bra that supports my good boob but doesn’t aggravate my angry anchor shaped scar under my reduced boob, and which doesn’t rub the scar under my arm where my lymph nodes were taken away, and which also holds a prosthesis nice and firmly …and that kind well-meaning lady in the posh bra shop who told me that no-one notices my lop-sidedness and advised me not to worry, just wear an ordinary bra that fits a bit too tight on one side and a bit too loose on the other. Oh yes, that’s so comfortable (not) and anyway even if no-one else can see it, I know that I have one boob a DD and one a B.
But I digress: a big reminder: taking the oestrogen inhibiting pill daily before bed, just to reassure me before I lay my head on my pillow that I’m doing everything I can to prevent a recurrence; and all the reminders that delightful tablet brings me every day, such as weight gain, hot flushes, joint pain, mood swings…the tablets make me feel unlike myself, but that’s ok, the cancer is behind me after all, and I don’t need to think about it anymore. Only every night before bed there’s that little yellow pill, for just a mere eight and a half more years.
I know I’m not sticking to the point, and I know I’m going on about cancer again, aren’t I? It’s all these reminders you see, they are relentless, they never leave me alone for a second. Another one: the friend or family member who asks how I am and says how lucky I am, it was caught early, and now I’m well. To be fair, that friend is me, it’s what I tell everyone and it’s what they believe. I can’t have them worrying, now can I? And as for those adverts on tv, the Macmillan ones where David goes off in his head to a desolate beach, the wind is howling and he’s alone and cold and then the lovely nurse says ‘Are you ok David?’ and David turns to her and they smile and of course he’s all right. Those adverts make me shiver from head to heart.
Yes, there is always something there to remind me, and what the reminders do is fill me with fear. It’s true, I am one of the lucky ones, I’m one year clear and my surgeon confidently told me he had cut away all of my cancer with clear margins. My radiotherapy, he said, was belt and braces only; there was no sign of any spread. But what if just one rogue cell is hiding somewhere in my body, waiting to come back and bite me one day? After all, that first cancer came from nowhere, right? Something triggered that first cell to turn nasty on me. (And one day I hope we’ll find out what it was, and people won’t have to live like this anymore.)
I’m reminded when I have to leave the party early, because I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m reminded when I have to find somewhere to sit down on a shopping trip. I’m reminded when I decide not to go on the shopping trip in the first place. I’m reminded when I hear about shopping trips I didn’t go on. I’m reminded when friends no longer invite me on shopping trips because they know that I won’t go.
I’m reminded when my GP surgery sends me a letter telling me they’re under pressure, so please, no routine appointments. At what point do I bother them, how do I know if that stabbing pain in my left hip is a touch of arthritis, a yoga stretch taken too far, a side effect of letrozole, or secondary aka metastatic cancer in my bones…the kind of cancer that not everyone realises can’t be cured, only controlled, with horrible treatment that prolongs life but may reduce significantly the quality of that life.
I’m reminded when we plan a holiday and I realise I haven’t been swimming since before my diagnosis, I haven’t even worn a swimsuit except to try it on, once, and I hated it so much that I stuffed it in the back of a drawer, hidden away. I’m reminded when a friend is diagnosed with primary breast cancer and she’s whisked off onto the rollercoaster of treatment, tests, and the long wait for results that I recall so well. I’m reminded when a friend’s sister is diagnosed with metastatic cancer and I can’t stop the tears because her other sister died a few years ago from another kind of cancer, and here is a lady in her 70s who has buried one child already and now has another whose days are numbered. I’m reminded when I hear about a pink angel gaining her wings after her brave fight - that’s how the jargon goes; it’s supposed to soften the blow. Let’s face it, let’s not beat about the bush here, cancer kills people, people die, and not in a nice gentle peaceful way, young and old.
Most of all, I’m reminded when I have a really bad day, when I can’t sleep and I’m alone in the dark, and I feel very tired and very scared and very low, and all I want is my mum, and she isn’t here, and I cry quietly so as not to wake my husband, and I wish on a tear that the cancer will return so I can stop feeling and go to heaven to be with her.
Yes, there is always something there to remind me, but I’m also singing other songs now, and louder. I’m starting to realise that claiming and owning my voice is the key to living with the fear. If you’ve read other blogs on this wonderful site, you may remember Annie’s Song. Well Annie’s song is my song, and I’m happy to tell my tale. I’ve joined a choir, and there my small voice blends with others and the sound we make is astonishing in its beauty. When I am singing, there is no room in my head for cancer, for fear, but there is plenty of space in my heart for joy.
Each person’s cancer song is unique and has a chorus of fear. Within the safe haven of our support groups, we’re singing new songs in harmony from a place of understanding and empathy. Together, we are simply amazing, and we’re starting to be heard.
Anita Traynor, aka Annie x