Cancer: companion not friend

Being diagnosed with cancer a second time seemed at best careless, and at worst a renewal of the original death sentence. Had I not learnt enough from the first round of 15 months of treatment to give me a free pass at least for a few years? Obviously not. Clearly, the world still wanted me to learn something that I was stubbornly ignoring. Not that I was aware that I was ignoring it, mind you.

It is said that going through chemo a second time is much worse than going through it the first, and whoever said that deserves a medal for their honesty; I agree. It’s true that you are better prepared and know how to get all your resources ready: food, entertainment (a code word for passing the time), practical help, emotional help. And ginger. Yes, ginger deserves its own entry for its anti-nausea qualities and its ability to spice up anything you eat or drink when your taste buds are shot to bits.

But being a chemo second-timer, you also know that what lies ahead are long days, even longer nights, blood tests, appointments and drugs. Toxic drugs that make you feel sick and tired and irritable and depressed and out of sorts. And other drugs that try to stop you feeling sick and tired and irritable and depressed and out of sorts. And then further drugs that help counter the effects of the toxicity on your blood counts, on your nerve endings, on your sore mouth, on …. That particular list can be a long one depending on the chemo in question.

I was in an absolute state when I was told that the cancer had come back and that I had to go through chemo again. It didn’t help that the first two doses of this new chemo were way too high for my body to cope with and that I was super nauseous, super tired and super depressed. My lowest point was being turned away yet again for treatment because my blood count was so low and which only served to push further away the time when I could re-start my life. It was proof that my body was not coping at all. And when the body doesn’t cope, so the mind follows.

Eventhough my mental state had followed my physical state into the abyss, conversely it was a shift in my mindset that helped me cope better physically. Furthermore, I believe that this shift of mindset and with it, my ability to take control again, made a significant contribution to making the chemo work better on the cancer it was targeted to attack. Within the space of a few days, the physical sensations I had felt from the tumour began to subside. Critically, a better mental state created a better physical state. So, what was that mindset shift that turned things around?

What changed was how I thought about cancer. Rhe first round of 15 months of treatment a couple of years before had felt like a hurdle that I had to ‘get through’ or ‘get beyond’. Eventhough I was active and engaged through those months, I was always aware that I was in the Treatment Phase, and that there existed a Non-Treatment or Post-Preatment Phase beyond it. In the way that one might talk about ‘time before or after’ a big event or holiday, so I saw that there was time before and after treatment. Treatment had become a period of time, a static phase that was ‘bigger’ than just the medical interventions. All I had aimed for was life beyond the Treatment Phase.

If that was how I had thought about cancer before, now I was beginning to create a different relationship with cancer. Not just ‘cancer’. But my own cancer. I began to acknowledge that my cancer will always be around. It will never go away. Whether I’m actively in treatment or in ‘remission’ (strange word that one), cancer will be with me forever in some way. There is no point in fighting or longing to be ‘beyond’ it because I never will be. It will always be part of my life and in that case, I might as well walk with it by my side. I began to acknowledge that cancer is a companion that accompanies me as I walk and run and skip and dance through life. A long life by the way. Having cancer, I concluded, is like having a lifelong chronic condition that can’t be ignored but that requires respect and attention.

With that shift, I began to see my current chemo regime as simply activities along the way, and I lost the sense of a boundary of time when the treatment will be finished and when everything will be OK again. With this refreshed outlook, I began to cope better with the roller coaster of chemo cycles and I brought into the present, that everything will be OK. I became more grounded and calm, more confident in myself, and more sure of my goals not to work frenetically but to trust that I can build the right kind of life to support work and friends and most importantly, my beautiful son. I realised that I had been unconsciously trying to replicate the frenetic nature of my pre-diagnosis life, and that I hadn’t wholeheartedly committed to living a more balanced life. I held my hand up to the world: yes, I did need to learn that.

When I got the all clear, I cried and cried with happiness and joy. But I get it now. Cancer is my companion – not a friend who I invited to be there – but a fellow traveller that I can’t ignore or leave behind. And I’m at peace with that.

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