Thursday 18 December 2008

And in the end...

I thought therapy was going to be a giggle. A good excuse to talk about myself for an hour without having to worry about the effect on whoever's listening. An opportunity to go to a hospital appointment where I don't get stripped, prodded, drawn on and examined. And, if I'm totally honest, I thought it'd end up being a bit of a pantomime, in which I'd play the part of screw-up cancer patient, be made to talk about my parents and end up strutting out after two sessions with my nose in the air, declaring that I'm above such wanky nonsense. Simple, right? Oh no it isn't. (Did I really just use a pantomime pun?) As it turns out, Brain Training isn't quite the cakewalk I'd anticipated.

Even the waiting room is an endurance test. Actually, it's less a room, more a corner of a corridor that's so small you pretty much brush knees with whoever's sitting opposite you. It's the kind of closeness that forces conversation, however much you might rather stare at your Converse. And, in the psychiatric department of a cancer hospital, there's only really one topic up for discussion. Both of the women in there with me this week were cancer old-hats, dealing with the recurrence of cancers they'd already had within the last five years. Twice in five years? Shit, some folk just can't catch a break.

Which is half the reason behind me pursuing the Brain Training in the first place. In short, I was worried about what would happen next. Once I've checked off beating cancer on my to-do list, then what? After such a monumental bump in the road, what follows? Or at least that's what I thought I was worried about. And I'd have gone on thinking that was the problem, had I not met Mr Marbles. He's the Columbo of therapy. He leads me off in one direction, and just when I think I've spewed forth everything I have to offer, he plays the 'just one more thing' card and yanks out the real issue quicker than you can say trenchcoat (or corduroy slacks). So there I am, having a guilt-free whinge about not knowing what to do next when he turns school careers advisor on me and asks where I'd like to be in six months, a year, two years and five years. I talked about the fun I'm going to have at Glastonbury, the pubs I'm looking forward to meeting my mates in, the funky haircut I want, the work I'm anxious to get back into, the holidays I'm going to plan, the house I'd like to buy, the book I intend to write and the butterfly-like change from being the girl who has cancer into the girl who beat cancer. Or, better yet, the girl. (Is it still okay to call yourself a girl when you're 30?) And there it is. Case closed. My concern wasn't my ability to make a life-plan (that exercise was proof enough that my arrangement-making skills are as good as ever), but that cancer forces might conspire to cut short the plans I do make. By the end of my quick-fire life-planning with Mr Marbles, I'd burst into tears. 'Forget all that,' I told him. 'In five years, I just want to still be here.'

The trouble with cancer (ha, that should be the title of my book) is that, as soon as you're diagnosed, everyone's talking about your chance of survival. And, as though the diagnosis weren't frightening enough, the five and ten-year survival rates make for pretty grim reading. (Despite the size and spread of my cancer, my number was 'about 70%', thanks to my age and the most kick-ass cancer treatment NHS money can buy.) But then the whirlwind of drugs and hospital visits begins, and everyone suddenly stops talking about your chance of survival, opting instead for the can-do attitude of when rather than if. And you get swept along with it. Frankly, you've got no other choice: everything becomes about putting one foot in front of the other, and five-year survival seems light years away when you're more concerned with getting through the next 24 hours. But now that the chemo horrors have thankfully come to an end, and I'm squinting in the face of the disco lights at the end of the tunnel, I've been back to worrying about that 30%-ish chance of not being around to stick a middle finger up to the statistics.

I don't often get angry. I like to think I'm pretty que sera sera (if you brush aside refereeing decisions, misplaced apostrophes, X Factor single releases and the BBC's insistence on wheeling out Heather Small to sing at sporting ceremonies). When it comes to the big issues, my feathers aren't all that easy to ruffle. But the fact that I've had to confront how long I've got left at the age of 29 is a pretty fucking difficult pill to swallow. It's unfair and it's painful and not just for me. And, for those very reasons, I've done my darndest to avoid talking about it. But better out than in, I guess. Like Mr Marbles said, I've always spoken of breast cancer as an equal battle of body and mind. I've been brutally honest about the physical issues that The Bullshit has thrown up, so why not apply the same principle to the mental issues? Hell, I've spoken about my bowel movements and my missing nipple, so why not my mortality? Well, because I'm British. And we just don't talk about death, do we?

Death is the ultimate unmentionable. It's the elephant in the room that we're all tip-toeing around. It's what you immediately think of upon being told you have cancer (well, with me it was hair first, death second). And yet, as soon as the diagnosis is done with, nobody mentions it again. The reason I've not previously said all of the above – and below – is that I don't want to upset my family (now, I'm hoping that some kind of relief will come from the fact that I've finally spoken – nay, blogged – about it). To bring it down to crude basics, if I die, I die – I'd not have to deal with it any more than that. Which is why it's more difficult for your family and friends to have to think about. And why, for me at least, it's harder to consider the death of someone I love than it is to consider dying myself. But if that's the case, so be it. There's not a damn thing I can do about it, other than to keep doing what I'm doing. What will be, will be.

The strange thing is, I've often thought that having cancer has felt a bit like experiencing all the best bits of dying, without me actually having to pop my clogs. ('The best bits of dying'... sheesh, I don't half have a dark sense of humour.) And, always keen to find a bright side to these things, I actually reckon that makes me lucky. I've smelled the flowers at my own funeral. When someone dies, they don't always get to know how loved they were. But I've been left in no doubt. I've been told 'I love you' more often than I ever expected to hear it. It's still not made me pleased I got cancer, mind, but without it I wouldn't have appreciated the number of terrific people in my life. The beyond-compare best mates who've walked every step with me. The marvellous mates who've made their presence known. The friends-of-friends and their kind words. Even the total strangers who've restored my faith in the man on the street (bloke outside KFC, count yourself out of that). And my family. (Lordy, this is reading like an Oscar acceptance speech.) Actually, I've learned nothing about my family. Never in my wonderful life have I been in any doubt about their magnificence. They have, of course, been peerless in their love and support, and I'd fight to the death anyone who said they were anything short of perfect.

It's not often you get to look back on your life (so far) in this way. And while on one hand the realisation of how good I've got it means that I have more to lose, on the other hand it gives me so much more to fight for. When I put it in terms of the happy, fulfilled life I've led even before I've hit 30, the issue of 'the end' somehow seems a bit less scary. Not that I plan on letting the five-year (hell, even 50-year) survival stats get in my way. There's a lot left on my to-do list. I've got to see Derby County win the Premiership, for one. I've got festivals to get drunk at, books to write, houses to decorate, a husband to grow old with and a blonde wig ready and waiting for my octogenarian years. Old fashioned it may be, but I dare say it'll look a heck of a lot more hip than a blue rinse.


Anonymous said...

You'll be here that's all just you'll be here. Love you. xx

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've found that talking about your own mortaility can be the ultimate taboo, but if someone does take the time to listen, you realise they're one of the best friends you can ever have, who actually want to be bothered about the smallest things that go on in your life.
By the way did Mr Marbles get a christmas card?
Hehe! xxx