'Once upon a time' - these magical words evoke childhood memories of being safely snuggled up in bed, listening enthralled to stories of faraway lands and fantastical creatures like giants and mermaids. These stories teach us that the world isn't always safe; that life involves suffering, but that goodness is rewarded - Red-Riding Hood escapes the wolf, Cinderella the drudgery and callousness of her wicked step-mother.
Being diagnosed with cancer is like being catapulted into another world - the Land of Illness - unlike Mordor, the landscapes are bleached and bright, but just as dangerous. It's a world ruled by men and women wearing white coats, speaking a foreign language, with unfamiliar rules - bad things happen to good people. Unsurprisingly, we are desperate to leave.
During my treatment for breast cancer, "I'm fine" became a stock response to the kindly-meant question, "How are you?" On a particularly bad day I might say, "Not too bad" (not too good). I was mostly frightened, exhausted and in pain. On the inside, I was far from fine, I was frozen and mute:
I was looking at myself through a glass that could not be broken, I could not touch me, I did not know me, I did not know how to reach me. Everyone knew me as a positive and optimistic person, always smiling and strong, full of opinions and vocal. But in a paradoxical way, the fear, the agony and the pain felt somehow to my strength, I could identify with them. They seemed to lessen when I listened to them and accepted them. They are part of me, but they are surely not me.
Many people return to the Land of Wellness gleaming with gratitude and triumph, but some of us find ourselves in a strange hinterland, where, like a displaced people, we no longer belong. We've learned that not all hurts get healed and some symptoms can't be remedied. We return with scars and suffering from debilitating side-effects which are at best irritating, and at worst life-changing, requiring us to re-evaluate our lives:
I realised that I had to look forward, not back, and build a new life. I wasn't going to be able to return to the old one. I wasn't the same person, physically or mentally. I had already left my stressful job, so I didn't have that to go back to. I was doing a bit of training, meeting friends for lunch, spending a lot of time alone, reflecting, ruminating. Slowly I was emerging from my winter cocoon, but I was a long way from becoming a butterfly.
We need our stories about illness to have a happy ending. We want to hear women say that their new breasts are better than their old ones (I'm chuffed for you if they are), after all, it's like getting a free boob job on the NHS isn't it? We want to hear about so-and-so who had breast cancer and climbed Kilimanjaro, or dare I say it, won Masterchef? (Sorry. Jane is wonderful it's just that my heart breaks for women who won't ever hear that most magical of words - 'remission'):
There is often the expectation that the only option in these circumstances is to always think positive......but I can give myself permission to be sad and grieve for the life I had and for my young family's future...this is normal behaviour in the face of adversity. I am allowed to feel the way I do now and again when the waves of devastation crash over me. What I have learned is that on those days I know I can make it out the other side and pick myself up, and that as long as I do, our family unit will survive for now. Slowly, quietly, never giving up. I cannot fix this but I will carry it.
Don't get me wrong, these are important stories, but standing alone, they reduce the experience of women living with breast cancer to a 'single story,' perpetuating a myth about illness which can be just as devastating as cancer itself. Panning for Gold was launched on World Cancer Day in February 2016 to provide an inclusive platform representing the many voices of women with a breast cancer diagnosis, a space not only for sharing our stories, but for listening and, by listening, to bear witness, and begin to heal.
Around 57,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year. We are all women everywhere. Our blog has featured a model, a runner, a poet, an artist, a photographer, a song, ducks, Buddhists and big pants. Some stories don't end with the words 'they all lived happily ever after.' But we go on. Even when we think we can't go on, we go on. We go on slowly. We go on quietly. And we never give up.
Tamsin Sargeant and Vicky Wilkes
Research Centre for Building Psychological Resilience in Breast Cancer
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