THE BLOG

Cancer Didn't Make Me A Warrior

02/10/2017 17:22 BST | Updated 02/10/2017 17:22 BST
ThitareeSarmkasat via Getty Images

I didn't feel like Boudicca when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. I can still recall with sickening dread, eight years after that fateful day, the surgeon's words; "you have cancer." Shocked and numb, I passed through an invisible veil into another realm where no-one else could follow. Everyone told me that I was brave, but they didn't know that I sobbed into my pillow night after sleepless night, thinking only of my two-year old child. I wanted to be a mother, not a warrior.

The anguish I felt when I needed to decide whether or not to have a bilateral mastectomy two years later was agonising. A BRCA1 mutation meant I had between 60 - 90% chance of developing breast cancer. I felt like a cancer-bomb and was told that surgery was 'a no brainer.' Yet I hesitated. I was not, I discovered, one of the legendary tribe of Amazonian women who cut off their right breasts to make themselves better archers. I didn't want to have parts of my body amputated or to feel the pain I knew that surgery would entail.

I had the surgery anyway.

Fast forward to 2012 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer again. No longer the inspirational figure who had 'kicked cancer's butt', I was embarrassed, as if it was somehow my fault that my body has turned against itself again, as if I could stop my mutated, mutinous cells in their tracks through thinking positively or will power alone. Struggling through chemotherapy treatment for the second time, I realised that, despite having had cancer once, I'd never known it was possible to be so seriously ill. Well-intentioned advice to allow cancer to "heal my life" horrified me.

More setbacks have followed. I was devastated when I 'lost' - like misplaced keys - both reconstructions. The physical scars are a constant reminder of my vulnerability. I try to see myself as one of those Japanese bowls whose fractures and breaks are filled with molten gold to make them whole again. I feel instead like a porcelain plate with cracks so fine they are barely visible. No one can see them.

More than 50,000 women in the UK will be told that they have breast cancer this year. We experience a psychological, as well as physical, odyssey and we struggle to find words that accurately express our experiences and feelings about what is increasingly referred to as 'a journey' (another controversial cancer cliché). We hear the experience of cancer described in public discourse as a 'battle'. We are urged to 'stay positive' and 'keep fighting.' But what happens if you find you can't see your body as your enemy? What do you do at those times when your hope is failing and you can no longer live up to the 'positive' persona that has been forced upon you (or that you've created for yourself)?

Susan Sontag cautions against the use of illness metaphors but for me there are only metaphors. The task of articulating the emotional experience of having cancer feels like trying to describe music to someone who cannot hear. My body was an instrument of pain for eight long years and there were times when my soul could not inhabit it. When I finished treatment, I was like a piece of broken flotsam washed up on a barren, rocky shore.

I am still learning to say the words "I had breast cancer" (although perhaps it would be more truthful to say that breast cancer had me?) Ultimately, it was this absence of a language to express my inner world that has led me to try to write - something, up until these blogs, I hadn't done since I poured out my heart in the angst-ridden diaries of my adolescence. To borrow the words of the feminist and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, "I had known the pain and survived it. It remained only for me to give it a voice."

I ask myself who am I now? I look in the mirror and see my broken beauty. I see that my flaws are as much a part of me as my grace. I see the sacrifices that I've made to live. I see the ghost of my former self lingering in the background and I know I must let her go. It's time to start thinking about the future. There have been so many times that I thought I didn't have a future, when it was all I could do to be in the present but now I must learn to live as though I believe I have a future. I need to develop what Susan Sontag called, a "double consciousness". Whoever I am and will be, cancer did not make me a warrior.

Find Tamsin at the BRiC Centre where you can follow #pathways2resilience, a month-long project highlighting the different ways that women with primary and secondary breast cancer practice resilience for #BreastCancerAwarenessMonth