That's kind of how I'm feeling now. One mastectomy, five months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiotherapy, and I'm done. My active cancer treatment (if you count out the last bit of surgery and five years of Tamoxifen) is over. Finished. And I swear I just saw a tumbleweed roll past my bedroom window.
The other day, I was sitting on the sofa with Mum, reading my blog comments. 'I can't believe all this has happened,' she said. 'I know, it's ace, right? All these people I've never met being so nice to me – I don't know what to do with it,' I replied. Mum looked puzzled. 'Well yes, that is lovely, but I didn't mean that,' she explained. 'I meant all of this. Breast cancer. I can't believe it's happened to you.' As it goes, neither can I. It's almost eight months since my diagnosis, seven months since my mastectomy, six months since chemo began and six weeks since my first radiotherapy session. Eight whole months of talking and worrying and crying and obsessing and blogging about cancer. (Forget bridezillas and baby-bores – I represent the cancer-consumed.) All that time to compute the situation, and the reality that I've. got. breast. cancer. still hasn't sunk in. Or it hadn't until Sunday night when, on the eve of my final treatment, I had a panic attack. At least I think I did. I'm not certain I've had one before. Not a panic attack, as such. I've certainly been known to panic. And, if you count the boyfriend who got a public slap after cheating on me, I guess you could say I've attacked, too. Just never at the same time.
I feel like a hostage who's just been released. Eight months of being held captive, and I'm not sure whether I should be deliriously happy that it's over or really fucking angry that it happened in the first place. I'm furiously flitting between hyperactive, party-seeking emancipation and disbelieving, panic-stricken remembrance of the whole hideous ordeal. But mostly I'm numb. Weepy and exhausted and numb. Has the reality of having breast cancer really only just hit me? It feels like I've been thrown straight back into that same black hole I found myself lost in at the beginning, in that awful, helpless time between diagnosis and treatment when there's nothing to do but read frightening things on the internet and try to convince yourself that you're not going to die. And there's the panic. So much panic. When a bomb drops in the centre of your universe and you've got no idea what's coming next, permission to freak out is granted. And on Sunday night I had that same gut-wrenching, pulse-racing, heart-sinking, colour-draining, future-fearing feeling I had back in June. (If cancer ever needs a Pepsi-inspired slogan, I'm happy to hand that sentence over.)
Nothing is worse than the unknown. The wait for my biopsy results was worse than hearing the diagnosis. The fear of what my surgeon would find was worse than discovering how far the cancer had spread. The anxiety of my hair falling out was worse than seeing myself bald. The night-before-chemo terror was worse than being wired up to the drugs. And now I can't help but wonder whether the so-called freedom of being released from cancer treatment might be worse than the treatment itself? Whether not knowing if the cancer will return is worse than finding it? (A wonderful, Bullshit-beating woman emailed this week to say how she 'missed and loathed the treatment in equal measure'. How right she is.)
I want this to be an uplifting story. I want to pick myself up, dust myself down and get on with whatever it is I've got to get on with now. So does everyone around me – whatever they say, I'm sure I can sense their frustration that I'm not quite well enough (physically or mentally, I guess) to bounce back into life as we all knew it. And fair enough – while I've talked and worried and cried and obsessed and blogged about The Bullshit for almost eight months, they're the ones who've had to hear it all. They must be as sick of it as I am. I bet they feel like they're on the receiving end of a proud parent's single topic of conversation. ('Yes, your baby is cute. Yes, definitely the cleverest baby I've seen. Yes, quite amazing how she can gurgle so loudly.') But even more than I want this to be an uplifting story, I want it to be an honest story. And the honest truth is, at the end of treatment there's as much to mourn as there is to celebrate.
I'm not getting over the flu, here. I'm getting over a disease that has hugely affected my life – my appearance, my relationships, my future and my outlook – and left me in a huge pool of doubt about what happens next. There's a terrific Macmillan-run online cancer support community that I discovered recently, called What Now? To the untrained, unaffected-by-cancer ear, that's just a simple, snappy, easy-to-remember title, probably thought up by focus-group volunteers in a charity office's back room, on the promise of travel expenses and good biscuits. But I beg to differ. That title has to have been thought up by someone cannier. Someone who's experienced all of the future-fearing feelings I've talked about here. To anyone who's walked in my size 7s (spot the Louboutins hint), calling a cancer support community What Now? is brilliant, heart-of-the-truth genius. Forget lip-smacking, thirst-quenching, ace-tasting, motivating, good-buzzing, cool-talking, high-walking, fast-living, ever-giving, cool-fizzing Pepsi – What Now? is the sharpest bit of marketing I reckon I've ever seen.