Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago today? Were you at work, or could you have been on a trip? Do you remember how you got there? What if I were to ask you what you were wearing? Can you recall what you ate?
June 17, 2009 began as an ordinary day. The weather was cloudy, warm. I remember putting on jeans and my lucky jacket. I tried, and failed, to eat a piece of toast for my breakfast. I remember being annoyed with my partner when it became clear that we were going to be late. Why didn’t we ask his mother to arrive earlier to look after our two-year old daughter, I complained? I remember being a sweaty, stressed mess by the time we arrived at our destination. I was self-conscious about my bra – an underwired bra made of pale pink lace, the kind of bra you wear on a date, not to see a doctor – sticking to my skin.
For around six hours, we sat in a waiting room at our local hospital. First, we waited to see the registrar. Then we waited for me to have a mammogram. I remember sitting next to a minor celebrity while we both waited nervously for an ultrasound scan. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Then, suddenly I wasn’t waiting anymore. Somehow, I was sitting opposite a Consultant in a small, private room. “You have breast cancer,” he said.
I look back in time at these images. I see myself at a crossroads. This is the moment when everything changes. I see myself disintegrating – everything I believed about who I was, everything about my place in the world and all the certainties which I held as truths are being burnt away. I want to be able to reach back in time to that woman, to whisper words of comfort to her, to reassure her, to say to her: “You will live.”
In the years that followed, I learned that I had a BRCA mutation. I made what felt like an agonising decision to have a bilateral mastectomy in the hope that it would reduce my risk of developing breast cancer again. Fate had other plans for me. There was more chemotherapy to treat a recurrence of my cancer and more surgeries than I can count.
I have travelled to the edge of myself.
There are other images which flash before my eyes: a woman with black lines drawn around her breasts in readiness for the surgeon’s scalpel; a woman in a wheelchair, too weak to walk, being told she has breast cancer again. There have been so many times when I felt helpless, hopeless or horribly alone. I have likened the task of articulating the emotional experience of having cancer to trying to describe music to someone who cannot hear and even now, after all this time, it is hard for me to talk about cancer. This is what it means to live with the trauma of breast cancer.
In the years that have followed, I have waved goodbye to my daughter on her first day of nursery. I have been there for her first day of primary school and secondary school! I have got up to her in the night when she has been ill (something I could not do when I was poorly). I have watched her at school concerts and sports days. My gratitude to be here with her is without limit.
I have thought about how my experience of breast cancer has changed me. There are days when I feel wiser, kinder, more assertive. I take more risks – I have appeared on the radio. I speak up about injustice. In small ways, I campaign for women with breast cancer. I write about the psychological and emotional impact of cancer. I am proud that I have managed to maintain my ability to work, despite all my difficulties. My kisses are wetter. I hug my loved ones a few seconds longer. I no longer ’sweat the small stuff”, as the cliché goes. There are days when I feel indestructible and there are days when I feel as tender and fragile as a new-born baby. This is my post-traumatic growth.
Insight, I’ve learned, is not something you can take back. I cannot return to the person I was before. Cancer runs through me like a river. I see it in the scars that cover my upper body. I feel it in my fatigue, my aches, my pain, my menopausal symptoms. When people ask me what I’ve done to my hand and arms (I wear unsightly black compression sleeves to control lymphoedema, a long-term effect of my aggressive treatments) I mumble something about swelling and quickly change the subject. There are still days when I avoid looking at my reflection because caught off guard, the sight of my breastless body takes my breathe away. These are my losses.
How is it that a date so significant to me can go by completely unnoticed to everyone I know?
I don’t have the answer.
June 17, 2019 is an ordinary day. The weather is cloudy, warm. My partner is at home. I wash up. I go to work. I feel the sun on my face. I listen to my colleagues. I help them with a difficult task. I treat myself to a coffee and an early finish. When I am home my daughter tells me that even though I am annoying, she loves me. I relish the sheer ordinariness of the day. This is my life now. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes it is hard. I am alive.
You can find Tamsin at the BRiC Centre (Building Resilience in Breast Cancer), which promotes resilience in women with breast cancer