THE BLOG
18/01/2019 16:27 GMT | Updated 18/01/2019 16:27 GMT

Time Becomes A Riddle When Living With Breast Cancer

Uncertainty can be fearful, but it can also make us smarter in some ways, seizing opportunities and embracing our moments richly

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The wheel of emotional circles makes it difficult to centre a beginning and an end to our experiences. When we ruminate about the past, or worry about the future, we somehow manage to merge both and miss the present. Our present becomes ambiguous and elusive, but this ambiguity gives rise to fantasy, to aims, to ambitions, and also to fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty, fear of helplessness and lack of control. After all, how much control do we have over our future?

As I write this piece, I am reminded about tomorrow and the past simultaneously. Tomorrow is when I was diagnosed with multifocal breast cancer back in 2013. Tomorrow, reminds me of the past, of the painful past, and the fearful future, if there was indeed one to be fearful of, as I couldn’t see. In 2013, the only thing I did see was my daughter, plain and clear, just under three years of age, fearing what a hairless mummy would look like through chemotherapy. “Annie Lennox?” is what I told her. Today, the fears are not so much about the hair, but if I will be here in five years’ time: “Mummy, will you die of cancer in the next five years? Don’t worry if you do, because in heaven it’s really nice. I would look forward to it if I was you. It’ll be good.” Her reality is clear. Mine is not.

I am an unidentified entity, on the go, by the ticking of the clock. No time to waste. I should keep going as time is not guaranteed, life is not a given. I am terribly busy, or so I say, in work mode. There is always something to see to. What I would like though, is a bit of time to grieve, to be sad, to cry, to raise my tears to those who could not make it the next five years, who unlike me still here, got unlucky and had to leave. The many who did have children as young as mine, but could not protect them any longer.

So, why am I still here? Survivor’s guilt. I am reminded intensely by my mother telling me: “You can do this Naz, I know you can,” when I was undergoing chemotherapy, and when I was summoning up my courage to support women like myself. My mother never got to see the unfolding of my work, because she left us suddenly on Jan 15, of 2018, five years to the day when I told her that I had breast cancer. A coincidence perhaps, but to me it signified the beginning and the end. To say that I miss my mum every day is an understatement, because she is everywhere I look in everything I do. I circle this wheel and her shadow spins rapidly encouraging me to keep going: “you can do this” “you are strong” “you can do this”, “I know you can”.

While cancer anniversaries are hard to entertain, they are reminders of who we are and how far we’ve come. The past becomes the present, stepping into an uncertain future determined in part by its past and an ambition to survive to the best of our ability. The fight to survive becomes more pertinent, as does the necessity to practice resilience, exercising flexibility and adjustment. This is not an easy task because living with debilitating treatment side effects, sometimes for years, is a reminder of how vulnerable we still are. We are reminded that we are more than our cancer, our cancer does not define us, but it does determine how we go about our living, the options available, and stepping into our future.

Living with uncertainty can be fearful, but it can also make us smarter in some ways, seizing opportunities and embracing our moments richly. Embracing our vulnerabilities can stretch our horizons, gain us perspectives and make time beyond our limitations. We are ever learning, growing in ways that surprise us, the challenges we take on show that we can. With vulnerability comes strength, the fuzzy sort of strength, the timely sort of strength, visible to the eye of the beholder.

I do not know if I will have a 2020 anniversary but perhaps that doesn’t matter, because my plan is to start all over again with every given moment.

Professor Nazanin Derakhshan is the Founder of the BRiC centre, which promotes resilience in women affected by breast cancer.