The Joy And The Sorrow Of Living With Breast Cancer

Even though rationally I know I can never go back to be the person I was before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, emotionally I confuse the path behind me with the path ahead
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Nine years ago, on the 17th June 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There’s a portal in my mind that allows me to travel back in time to the consulting room where the words “you have cancer” are still said in the present tense. At that moment, I would have sold my soul to the devil to be where I am today. Not for my sake, but for my beloved daughter, my baby, aged just two and a half at the time.

There’s been so much joy in these nine years. It is easy to write about the gratitude, the elation that comes from a clear scan and the glorious jubilation of crossing the finish-line of active treatment. There are not many days when I don’t hug myself and say “thank you” to the stars. I never forget that my survival is a miracle. The sweetness is mostly bound up with my daughter’s milestones - her first day at nursery, her first day at school, her sports days, her first gig, cheering her on in her successes, consoling her in her struggles. Having a life-threatening disease has taught me what really matters, that there is joy in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, but that’s a story for another blog.

There’s been sorrow too and writing about it feels hard. I can trot-out my medical history: two cancers, two year-long stretches of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiotherapy; four mastectomies (yes!); multiple surgeries; three stints in high dependency care and the surgery to remove my ovaries, a postscript to cancer.

There are images which flash before my eyes: a woman with black lines drawn around her breasts in readiness for the surgeon’s scalpel; a patient in a hospital bed undergoing CPR; a woman in a wheelchair, too weak to walk, being told she has breast cancer again. I have written before that articulating the emotional experience of having cancer feels like trying to describe music to someone who cannot hear. In the strange world which I jokingly refer to as ‘Planet Cancer,’ we live in a constant state of intense fear and heightened anxiety. There were so many times when I felt helpless, terrified or horribly alone. Not wanting to burden the people I loved even more, I screwed these feelings up into a tiny ball and buried them deep within myself, hiding my vulnerability behind a mask of positivity. For a long time, without language to describe the music of my emotions, I became mute and lost to myself.

Several years into my diagnosis, I became interested in the experiences of other people diagnosed with cancer. I could not find what I was looking for in these extraordinary stories of hope and inspiration: an account of an ordinary woman struggling to come to terms with the realities of a disease that refuses to be ‘beaten’. In her book, “Smile or Die”, the American writer Barbara Ehrenreich, herself diagnosed with breast cancer, likens the relentless pressure to ‘be positive’ to a “perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, an inescapable jingle.” We live in a culture which places too much pressure on the sick to be relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. The roles available to us - victim, survivor, warrior, whisperer - are often accompanied by unrealistic expectations and can make us feel inadequate when we find that we can’t live up to them. Believe me, coping with the physical and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis is hard enough without feeling like a failure.

The urge to suppress the trauma and turn away from the painful emotions associated with cancer is strong. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I foresaw two possibilities - either I would pick up my old life as if nothing had happened, or, I would die. Instead, like anyone living with cancer, I face the not insignificant mental challenge of learning to embrace the chance to live without ever having any certainty about my long-term health. Alongside this, there is the task of processing the trauma I have experienced and my struggle to find some kind of acceptance. I wonder if I will fall apart if I accept that I was one person before my diagnosis, and after it, I am another. My scars, pain, fatigue, menopausal symptoms and lymphedema are a fact. Rejecting them is pointless.

Even though rationally I know I can never go back to be the person I was before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, emotionally I confuse the path behind me with the path ahead. Mine is not a story with a neat plot. I am a disappointing heroine and a poor narrator, repeating myself as I go over and over the same problems without making any progress.

I glimpse the sight of a third path in the distance. It is a longer and harder road, one which takes me down into the well of all my sorrows. It is a place where I might learn to acknowledge my fears and mourn the things that I have lost. It is the place where, to borrow the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” It is a place to show myself compassion and to greet my vulnerability like an old friend. It is a place where my feelings of joy and sorrow can co-exist, and where, if I can accept my weakness, I will become strong.