Friday, 29 August 2014

Perspective (Or, "You go out there and have yourselves a fucking good life!")

I've just found a note where I had written down some of the descriptions of cancer given in Siddhartha Mukherjee's book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer.
  • a lethal shape shifting entity
  • the emperor of all maladies, the king of terrors
  • an all-consuming presence in our lives....infiltrating every thought
  • the most relentless and insidious enemy
  • stretches out the encounter with death.... dying, even more than death, defines the illness.
I was reading the book earlier this year. (It's excellent  by the way, although I admit it is currently in the massive pile of books I have started but not yet finished.) These descriptions definitely sum up what cancer was to me. I felt like I was being stalked by an enemy that was just waiting to attack, but it wasn't going to be a fair fight. Me: small, weak, blindfolded, weaponless. Cancer: big, looming, omnipotent, invincible.

I realise now just how dark my thoughts were. It's no wonder I had various people encouraging me to go for counselling to help me deal with the double whammy head fucks of bereavement and genetic testing. At the very end of 2013, to shut people up, I did just that, and I'm so glad that I did, because I think it saved me. (I have been going to counselling at Coping with Cancer, a local charity that I can't speak highly enough of.)

One of the things that was really messing with my head was the idea of being diagnosed with cancer, and suffering through x many years of destructive, painful, miserable cancer "treatment" which would stop me living my life and doing the things I want to do, knowing full well that death from cancer was inevitable and just a matter of time (the experience of everyone in my family who has had cancer, which is almost everyone in my family). I desperately wanted to make the most of my life while I was well but I didn't know how. I didn't know the answer to the question "what is the meaning of life?", or "what is the purpose of my life?". I'm not religious, I don't have children, I felt like I had ended up where I was more by chance than by choice. I wanted my life to have a meaning, and a purpose, so I could focus and aspire, achieve, be happy and be fulfilled. There's a line in a song that really resonated with me: "all this breathing, and the truth that's in your last breath, don't it make you wanna cry?" I was thinking about end of life a lot, and couldn't bear the idea of reaching a point where I knew I was about to die, and was looking back on my life regretting not doing things, or not being the person I wanted to be (or worse, not even having figured out who I was.) Despite this, I was stuck, and afraid of change, because I didn't know what changes to make. What if I made the wrong decisions? 

My counsellor suggested I read the book Feel the fear and do it anyway. I'm sceptical of self help books, but I think my counsellor is an absolute legend, so I went and bought it and started reading it the next day. It's actually ok! But there was one part that really, really hacked me off, to the extent that I took the book in the following week, read out the offending passage, and had a massive rant to him about it. Jeffers basically goes on about how when something bad happens you shouldn't think "that's terrible", you should think "it's a learning experience". She then says that's the case even if you have cancer. She knew because she had had cancer and it was a great and wonderful experience for her. I was fucking furious, having just witnessed my mom's slow and painful destruction by cancer. How could someone be so stupid and thoughtless to suggest that cancer could ever be a good thing?

Fast forward to the present day. I've had my own cancer diagnosis, I've started chemotherapy, and I feel happy, clear-headed and alive. Yes there are moments when I have a freak out, or when I'm in a bad mood, because I'm human. But I mean overall, the overwhelming feeling I have is positive. It's been puzzling me but I think I've reached a point where I've realised I am going to have to admit that (for the first time in my life) I was wrong.

Physically I'm going to be going through some horrible shit. My human body has let me down massively. (Bad body!) There's no denying that. But mentally and emotionally I'm good, and the strange thing is I think that's because of the cancer, not despite it. There are several contributing factors.

My surgeon gave me an earnest and convincing speech about how while they are both labelled "breast cancer", what I've got and what my mom had are two completely different things. What happened to her will not happen to me. I'd spent a week at that point knowing I had cancer but nothing more. I'd felt like I was dangling over a black hole (of death), with my sweaty little hands trying desperately to cling on to the edge, but they were losing their grip and I was slipping. Then Mr Big Strong Surgeon came along, leaned over, and pulled me up and back on to safe ground in one effortless move, and then threw the fear that had been plaguing me both before and since diagnosis (that I was destined to the same horrible fate as all the women in my family before me) into the black hole instead. The key thing here is that in addition to dealing with the cancer I've got, I am now eligible for the risk reducing measures that I wasn't before so I can actually look towards a future without feeling every day like my body is a ticking cancer time bomb, waiting to go off. I can actually see a future for myself now. Before the cancer diagnosis I couldn't.

I feel braver! I wrote about bravery before. I said that people keep telling me I am brave, but that I'm not. I still stand by what I said in that post because when people have been calling me brave it's been specifically in relation to "dealing with cancer". I think my fainting at the sight of a cannula shows that in that respect, I'm not! Here I'm talking about something broader. Cancer has opened my eyes and made me really see how very precious time is, and I don't want to waste it. If I want something I'm going to go for it. If I fail, or get rejected - and sometimes I will - so be it. I'll pick myself up and move on. But I reckon that more often than not, the bravery will pay off. (I like this J K Rowling quote: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case you fail by default.")

My perspective and priorities have changed. Since being diagnosed with cancer, I'm just not worrying or stressing about the small things. And I now view most things as the small things. I can now see what really matters to me.
  • My health.
  • The people who brighten my day.
  • Experiencing and enjoying being alive.
That's it really. So now, if I consider the question about the purpose of my life, I'm very happy with the answer "To make the most of life and fucking enjoy it."

I will end by insisting you watch a video which a friend shared with me. I actually first watched this the evening before I found out I had cancer, and I thought it was brilliant then. He then reminded me of it on the day when my hero/surgeon informed me I wasn't going to die, and I watched it again with that whole new perspective. It's Rik Mayall's speech from when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter. He absolutely nailed what matters in life. It's amazing! Please watch it!

"It is your future, yours to create. Your future is as bright as you make it..... You go out there and have yourselves a fucking good life!"

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