Shortly before Christmas 1992, I was given nine months to live. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and an aggressive form of lymphatic cancer. I was 39 years old and told that I was unlikely to make it to my 40th birthday. The news was devastating.
Now, 23 years later, I can look back and share my journey to health and happiness. At the time, I knew I was facing a terminal diagnosis deadline (which seems like an appropriate word), so I would like to share the first five things I did that I think had a big impact on my recovery.
Get your house in order:
The day I went into hospital for my first operation, I realised I had not written a last will and testament. I asked the nurse if I could dash out and get a ready-made will pack and she realised I was anxious, so agreed. While I was waiting for the consultant I started to complete the form and I could feel the tension leaving me.
I was sitting writing my will when a handsome young consultant surgeon came along, with five students in tow. He asked me to get on to the bed and as I did so, noticed the partially written last will and testament sitting on the table. He announced in a loud and tongue-in-cheek manner, "I had better do a good job as this lady seems to have a very low opinion of my skills!" I was so embarrassed I could not find words to excuse myself. He laughed and we all saw the funny side of it.
Once he had moved on to the next patient I continued to sheepishly complete my will. The action of completing the will and putting 'my house in order' gave me peace of mind and I felt ready for the future whatever it held, albeit with a feeling of trepidation.
Don't stop being you:
After the operation, during my recovery in hospital, I would spend the day getting ready for visiting time which was in the evening. I made sure that each day I had either a bath or a strip wash. I could not have a shower because I was hooked up to a drip which I had to wheel with me everywhere I went. Odd as this might seem, there were days that this simple task seemed insurmountable. It would take a huge effort and sometimes two or three attempts.
It might seem trivial, but washing in this way did three important things. It made me feel clean physically, and that helped me to maintain some self-esteem. Finally, it gave me some control over my day - when you're undergoing treatment, it can be easy to fall into the rut of just sitting in the ward waiting for things to happen to you, but feeling like you are in control is important for your own mental health.
Fake it until you make it:
It might sound crazy, but every day during my treatment I would apply false tan to my face and body. That way, whenever I looked into the mirror, I would see a sun-kissed, healthy person looking back at me. At the time I didn't know it, but looking back I believe I doing this confused my subconscious mind into believing I was healthy, supporting my body's work of healing. My stay in hospital was extended due to complications and by the time I was ready to leave I was so orange I looked like a carrot.
Live like you have something to live for:
During my recovery, putting my make-up on was a huge struggle. However, I wanted to look like I was going out somewhere. Some days it took until bedtime to achieve this - I would apply mascara to one eye and then I would need to rest before even attempting the other eye.
Things like make-up might seem trivial when you're facing a terminal diagnosis, but it is the little things that add up to help you keep a healthy mindset. Again, I don't think I was fully aware of why I was doing this routine, but on reflection I think that this simple action re-enforced the overall mental image of myself, being healthy enough to wear make-up.
Clothes maketh the man (or woman):
As well as putting so much effort into false tan and make-up, I also wanted to put on my finest clothes. I would wear one of my silk blouses, a silk skirt and pretty shoes around the hospital, although it was always the last task of the day because the hospital was always so hot and I wanted to look my best for my visitors.
It was important to me that I did not want to look all crumpled and unkempt to my visitors. Of course, there were some days when I did not have any visitors, but thankfully I never knew this until I had completed the arduous task of getting ready and was sitting waiting.
I always felt proud of my efforts. There was so little that I was in control of in my life at that time, it was important to me that I was going to do my best with whatever I could control.
It is now 23 years since I was given that terminal diagnosis, and I have done many more ordinary and extraordinary things to survive and thrive. I know that, sadly, there are thousands of other men and women facing the same challenges I did every day, so I wanted to share my story through my book, 'Achievement: Cancer Free For 20 Years.' Even after all these years, I still have what I call my "Daily Dozen", or 12 things inspired by my cancer journey that I do every day to survive and thrive in life.
Achievement: Cancer Free for 20 Years by Curly Martin is out now