I may have told you a fib the other day. (I'm now anticipating those spots on my tongue that Mum always said were the cause of telling lies. In which case I fear I've fabricated my entire life story, if the volume of spots on my tongue during chemo were anything to go by.) I didn't mean to tell you a fib. It wasn't consciously done. (Pleeease let me go out to play?) What I told you was that I didn't think I'd ever had a panic attack. And, at the time, I didn't think I had. To me, a panic attack meant palpitations, tunnel vision, dizziness, sweating, difficult breathing and sending yourself to bed. And nothing less. Only if you could check off everything on that list could you say you'd had a panic attack. And whether or not you or I believe that to be true, what's certainly the case is that I've been having some pretty unpleasant panicky moments. Moments that overwhelm me, make me shiver and reduce me to tears in the rare times that I'm not keeping myself busy.
The busy thing is key. For an inherently lazy lass, I'm always busy; even when I'm not. Even if I'm on my arse (which, let's be honest, is most of the time), I'm always doing something. Blogging, writing, emailing, Facebooking, tweeting, making lists. (Current favourite: SS30th guest list. Seven months in advance of the do. Excited? Moi?) My mind exhausts me. It's continually active and burns up an unfeasible amount of energy – if it were a person it'd be as lean as Madonna. (I fear my body's more Maradona.) It's an occupied state I like to keep myself in, purely because – in light of all the panicky stuff – I can't afford not to be busy. Which is precisely how I've been since radiotherapy ended.
I used to love doing nothing. I've spent many a happy hour lying on my back, happy with my thoughts. I once lived on my own, too, and loved every second (until some Evertonian moved in and removed all the red clothes from my wardrobe – not that it stopped me marrying him, mind). I was always good on my own. Perfectly happy in my own company, doing sod all. But now I'm never doing sod all, nor am I ever on my own (at the risk of sounding like Liz Jones, I consider Sgt Pepper company). I'm never silent unless I'm asleep (another time when the panic gets to me). And even when I am silent, my mind's plugging away at something or other. There's always a song in my head (currently playing: Coldplay, Rule The World).
The trouble is, though, the more you sit on the shit stuff by staying distracted, the more it'll come back to bite you on the ass. The anxiety remains, bubbling under the surface, forcing its way out like angry steam from a boiling pan in 101 unhelpful 'what ifs'. What if the cancer comes back? What if the treatment hasn't worked? What if there's another tumour I didn't know about? What if there are cancer cells I'm not aware of? What if I've only got a short time left? Which is how I ended up in such a state this evening.
Today has been a red X on my calendar for months now: the day on which the end of my active treatment would be neatly bookended with a visit to the consultant (Curly Professor's Glamorous Assistant, for those of you who've been here for a while). In my wildest dreams (and I'm just the kind of idiot who believes their wildest dreams), I was going to walk out of today's appointment having heard a joyous clasp of hands and a sentence that began, 'Well, your treatment was a resounding success' and perhaps even the word 'remission'. Idiot indeed. Instead, the information I've been left with – along with a sledgehammer of a reminder of how serious my diagnosis is (was?) – goes something like this:
- The gift of 'remission' is at least five years away. Five years. After the London Olympics. After the next General Election. Christ, Miley Cyrus will have done a stint in rehab, made a sex tape, squeezed out an illegitimate baby and written her memoirs by the time I'm in remission. My daily Tamoxifen is considered active treatment – thus I can't be moved from red to amber alert until such a time as I've stopped taking it.
- I begged for a CT scan. (Honestly, begged. I don't like being reduced to this, and it wasn't pretty.) I'd assumed that a clear CT scan would be the little bit of closure God knows I've earned after the last few months. Turns out it won't tell me a sodding thing. If there are random cancer cells floating about my veins or organs or wherever else the little fuckers get to, a CT scan won't pick them up.
- Even if a future CT scan picked up on a recurrence of my breast cancer, it wouldn't affect the outcome. Because if there ever is a relapse of The Bullshit, there's not a damn thing they can do to cure it. They could manage it, and hopefully slow its progress, but never cure it.
So here I am in my dressing gown on a Friday night, having cried all I've got to cry and watched or listened as my husband and parents do the same. Here we are again, back in the dark beginning. If only this were just a disease that you discover, get upset about, treat, then get over. Someone once told me that, upon her diagnosis, her consultant said, 'I don't want to frighten you, but you need to understand that your life will never be the same again.' And here we all were, gunning for the finish-line of the end of treatment, eager to get back to the lovely life we all once knew. But of course we can't. Life has changed. And of course there's no finish line. Cancer doesn't end neatly. I realise now that when I got my diagnosis, I had no idea what it meant. Of course cancer doesn't finish just like that. We've only just reached the second half. (And yes, I know that with five years of Tamoxifen, the second half is considerably longer than the first, but I was never any good at maths and, stuff it, it's my analogy.)
Stage three breast cancer doesn't leave you with a short haircut, several scars, a missing nipple and a false boob. Stage three breast cancer leaves you with a lifetime of uncertainty, a loss of naivety that never alters. And while it's really fucking upsetting right now, we've got to find a way to work with it. Normal life must resume. A new kind of normal, granted, but normal nonetheless. So, after several miserable hours at the hospital and several subsequent miserable phonecalls, P and I came home and folded the washing. And you can't get much more normal than that.