As I take my seat the woman smiles, leans forward and gently touches my knee and says: “Before we start I just want to tell you, I think you are a wonderful woman”. I haven’t spoken a word, so how she knows this is beyond me. Rarely does my appearance in a room elicit such flattery.
Why am I here? After a long time on a NHS waiting list I have been offered counselling. It’s been a mighty long wait. You see I haven’t been coping. Last summer I was shortlisted by a local Women’s Group for an award. I was nominated for “pinging back from serious illness to transform our thinking of cancer through writing and blogs”. The irony here is that I have not “pinged back”. I don’t even enjoy table tennis. My active treatment for breast cancer ended some time ago, but I am still struggling. After a snot infused meltdown at a routine oncology appointment when I came clean about my anxiety, I was given a referral for counselling. A follow-up phone call was made to inform me that despite an assessment for counselling I should take a course in CBT; not because it was deemed the right solution for me, but because they were concerned for my well-being. It transpired the counselling waiting list was akin to waiting for an eligible man of mature years with a penchant for one-titted women to ring my doorbell.
I don’t blame the woman providing CBT for what happened next. But the provision of photocopied worksheets peppered with clip art entreating me to change my thinking patterns because bad things don’t always happen, served to enrage me almost as much as discovering my ex-husband is living with his new woman opposite my local Homebase. I might have lost my cool. An innocent question about how I was feeling as I was talked through an exercise to unravel my “un-founded” fixed belief that bad things do happen, could have been the trigger. A few years ago, in a matter of months my father was diagnosed with dementia, my husband had left me and I discovered I had an aggressive breast cancer. This has been fuel for some catastrophic thinking. It’s true that I am now relatively healthy and try not to think about cancer ALL the time, even if I do have to peel off my left tit each night before I go to bed. I didn’t bang my fists, I didn’t shout or walk out, I just glared at her and started to cry. And so I found myself back on the waiting list for counselling.
During and immediately after active treatment for cancer I was given some remarkable and welcome emotional support. I needed it and didn’t feel any shame about asking for help. Since treatment ended I have been feeling less comfortable speaking about my ongoing anxiety. It feels indulgent when some of the women I met along the way did not survive or are facing a terminal diagnosis. During the tsunami of medical appointments, scans, surgery and offers of support there was little time to take stock of what was happening. With good intention I was urged by friends and family to cast other worries aside and to concentrate on “beating” cancer. But after the tsunami I find myself faced with the debris and destruction. Having “kicked cancer’s butt” there are fewer appointments and I presume life is supposed to return to “normal”. But that’s just not what has happened to me. I am glad to be alive. However, though it might seem ungrateful I am no more demonstrably glad to be alive than the next person. Apart from my yoga teacher I rarely hear those of my acquaintance counting their blessings each day they breathe in and out.
My life is good, I am fortunate in many ways but I still feel that cancer has stolen from me. I have lost confidence in my body and my health, life feels fragile. Debate still goes on about whether chemo-brain is real, but I don’t feel so sharp and worry about my performance at work and I recently at home found a discarded diet coke can in the microwave and not the recycling bin. Some of this is most likely due to age but also to the cocktail of painkillers I take each day to handle the permanent pain in my hands and feet thanks to the nerve damage I suffered during chemo. I try not to live in fear of a recurrence but it’s there, like a small voice each time I have a persistent headache or pain in my back. It doesn’t take much these days to tip me into a depression or trigger anxiety. Each visit to my ageing parents and sick father leaves me anxious about how to cope with my own future declining health now that I live alone and cancer has put paid to my confidence in my ability to stay disease free. A recent follow up phone call after discovery of a relatively harmless carcinoma on my lip parachuted my brain back to the terror of that first day in a chemo chair. Previously I was an out and proud cynic but would now welcome more than a mere glimmer of optimism as a permanent personality trait.
And so here I am, in a room with a stranger who, before she even speaks to me tells me I am wonderful. I am not. I have been finding the pressure as a cancer “survivor” to live up to this impossible ideal of being both brave and wonderful has served to keep me quiet about how I really feel. So please indulge me, I am not going to shut-up.