I am now 16 days into the fifth year of my life ‘since’. Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That dividing line drawn on that day where everything comes ‘after’. Where life changes in an instant. Except you don’t know it at the time. This time of year when the anniversaries come thick and fast – diagnosis, surgery, more surgery… decisions… second opinions…. and so on. The time of year that’s my favourite time of year; the growing light, the signs of spring, our wedding anniversary, and now it’s all messed up – with thoughts of dying.
Because four years later I didn’t know what to expect.
The words from Rumer’s song ‘Take me as I am’ come to me:
“Is there a place where all I’ve lost will be returned to me?”
And that’s what I expected really. That my life post-treatment would be about finding everything that was lost. But over the last months I am finding it’s not about loss… those things are gone, not lost – they are stolen. That’s different. It feels as though they are irretrievable.
Lately Ronnie and I have been having conversations about the future. Oh, that I would dare to do that. To think that I might be alive in five or ten years. That we might have a future together. The possibility of that is cracked, tainted. It might not happen. Ronnie is my husband and also my business partner. So, did I ever imagine we would have discussions about our work and money and Ronnie would say, ‘We don’t know how much time we have.’ And that’s true for all of us, except for me and Ronnie the statistical possiblity is miles higher. That’s why we talk about it. It’s not done morosely, it’s just pragmatic. Because we’re realists. Trying to plan for a future where I might die, or one where I don’t. Or hoping for the one where I don’t. How do you do that?
And the thing about the last year for me that’s really hit is the sense of flatness. I’ve called it feeling down. I’ve called it being low. But the reality is, that even though I shirked when my doctor suggested it, in plain English, it’s depression. It’s like a creature that slinks behind me. I think of a black panther. But I never see it, for when I turn round it has disappeared, with a snarl. I just hear the growl, and then it slinks into the shadows. So it’s a demon I never get to see. I am just weighed down by it.
I keep active. It helps. I run, I swim, I practice tai chi, I play squash. My scars always remind me of what I’ve been through. They ache. I swing wildly in and out of menopause, still. I am changed. And yet, I try and regain something for me.
I played squash last week wtih a friend who I’d not talked to for a while and as we were warming up she asked me how things were going. That open question where I never know whether people really mean it, or whether they just want you to say, ‘I’m fine.’ So I was brutally honest. I said I was depressed and had been on and off for months, that I didn’t know it would be like this. She just stopped and turned to me, with a look of complete empathy, and told me she’d suffered with post-natal depression for several years after the birth of her third son, now 14 years old.
She talked about abandoning her shopping trolley, full of food, in the aisle in the supermarket and just walking away. She talked about driving and not knowing where she was going, with three young kids in the back of the car. She talked about her parents coming round for a Sunday roast dinner, only to find her sitting on the kitchen floor, surrounded by the food, uncooked, for the meal and sobbing uncontrollably, completely incapable of making a roast dinner. She just simply could not do it. And I identified with all of this. The way she spoke about her inability to do things and having no control over it.
I think about the days I’ve been unable to work out what clothes to wear, so stayed in my pyjamas. Ironing that doesn’t get done for weeks. The bag of wool and knitting books I cleared out months ago to give to a knitting group, but they’re still in the corner of the sewing room. The total inertia. The effort I have to make to force myself to do some cleaning, or to do a simple task like replace a light bulb.
My friend knows what I am talking about. She is the first person that I have talked to like this. I ask her how she got out of it, how it ended. She tells me she had a few amazing friends that stuck with her and eventually she managed to get out of it. She says they are still her friends today. I say, ‘You hadn’t spent the previous three years being treated for breast cancer so you still had a support network, mine collapsed.’ I say this without feeling sorry for myself. ‘Right, she says, ‘let’s get some of this angst out,’ and we resume playing squash.
And yet in this time there have been enormous highs for me, launching the book, national publicity, going to the European Parliament. People tell me that I appear so confident. Yes, that may be so. I’m good at giving that impression. Determined, strong, angry. Ronnie says that makes it even harder for me. I feel that I am somehow letting myself down.
Even though my doctors tell me this is ‘normal’ for many people after the trauma of illness. Even though I know other cancer patients experience this too. I feel that somehow it is a taboo.
Dana Jennings wrote about depression after his treatment for prostate cancer:
“Cancer is clear biological bad luck. But depression, no matter how much we know about it, makes part of me feel as if it’s somehow my fault, that I’m guilty of something that I can’t quite articulate.”
Yes, exactly. This is my fault, I ‘should’ be able to do something about it.
I am starting to recognise now the things I can do that help. Physical activity. Being outside. Not trying to burden myself with doing too much. Spending the day in bed if I need to. And, remembering spring is my favourite time of year, so gardening starts to become a delight again.
This week I’ve made more time to be at the allotment. Weeding. Tidying up a plot which has been semi-neglected for large periods in the last four years. It’s been sunny and bright this week. At one point I stood up and looked down at what I’d done. I look at the magnolia tree, the fat furry buds starting to reveal the luscious pink petals. I look at the red stems of the dogwood, the vibrant new green leaves like tiny fingers clutching the buds of the flowers, looking like they are about to explode. A blue tit flies into the hedge. I look up at the sun, feel the warmth on my face, 10ºC today (that’s 50ºF). And then I burst into tears. It just happens, a catch in my throat and then I am sobbing, unable to hold back the gasps, like trying to breathe after being underwater, coming up for air.
What happened? And then I realise. I feel happy. I had missed the feeling for so long it caught me unaware. I didn’t know something so ‘simple’ could be so hard come by.
It’s sunny. I have my iPod on. Sigur Rós never sounded better.