Breast Cancer Blog - Episode 4: I am NOT that cancer woman

Updated: Apr 4


We all know the seven stages of grief, right? Well I now know that there are also The Five Stages of Dealing with a Cancer Diagnosis. I'm not sure why there are only 5, not 7. Getting a cancer diagnosis is pretty much full of grief, believe me, but we only get to have 5 stages. Maybe it's like Grief Lite, because nobody actually died, or maybe they're saving the other 2 for later, as an extra bonus. Right, I'm going to google it, in case I'm getting short-changed.


I have put the results in a table, because that's who I am. Deal with it.


OK so here they are:


Denial

Hmm. So I don't mean to rip someone's work to pieces, but whoever wrote the 5 stages of cancer diagnosis clearly didn't put as much effort into it as the person who wrote the 7 stages of grief. First off, shock is pretty much standard, so definitely needs to be alongside denial, on the cancer list. No one ever in the history of ever has had a cancer diagnosis and truly said "yeah, I know". Until you hear the C word (no that C word, the other one) from your doctor's mouth (if your doctor ever uses the other C word, you pretty much ought to leave) everything in your brain has been telling you it's a mistake, it's a benign lump, a cyst, a (insert other random google diagnosis) anything but cancer. No one truly believes they have cancer until someone else tells them. Hence the denial. Tick.


Pain and guilt? In the grief list (G list), but not the cancer list (C list). Guilt maybe not so much, although I bet most people with a cancer diagnosis will feel they could have done more, checked their lumpy bits more often, gone to see their doctor sooner, had a healthier lifestyle, not smoked, drunk or sunbathed. It's part of working out the 'Why me" question. But I was bought up a catholic, and me and the guilt thing sorted out out issues a long time ago. I won, guilt is stupid. Pain? Well that's almost certainly coming up on the horizon at some point, but the emotional impact of being told you have cancer is pretty similar to a juggernaut crashing into your chest at 70 miles an hour. So pain and guilt should probably both be there to, but maybe with some re-working.


Anger and bargaining. Yes, agreed. Although why they are together on one list and separate items on the other is confusing. Feels to me like the C list was padding itself out a bit, having not spent enough time on its homework. Extra marks to the G list for putting the effort in.


Some of you won't be astonished to hear that I hit the anger bit quite quickly. I don't always take direction well (Side note: a previous Headteacher once wrote this about me on a reference. I got the new job, a big pay rise and he got stuck in a mediocre school but hey, what do I know?). So when someone tells me that a lot of horrible things are going to happen to me, I'm pretty much going to retaliate. And I did. Less than 12 hours after diagnosis I was already ranting that I was NOT going to be that cancer woman.


I am NOT that cancer woman

I am very clear about who I am, it has taken me quite a long time to get to this point, and actually, I'm quite happy with it. I'm a bit loud on social media, I bang on about schools and education a lot, I'm a staunch feminist, I eat too much cake, I never iron and I have generally prefer animals to people. That is who I am.


What I am not, is the woman you see on the cancer adverts. I do not go to coffee mornings, I do not run marathons, I do not go walking around London at night wearing a pink bra, raising money. I do not wear turbans, I do not have kindly smiling eyes and look earnestly into cameras, and I do not, most definitely not, reject cake and cheese in favour of a vegan diet and spinach smoothies. Not happening. Not going to happen. Not ever.


I am unlikely to sit compliantly in a chair for hours receiving chemotherapy, learning how to crochet. I have never struck up a friendship with anyone in the next hospital bay, seat, bed whatever the fuck they're called (obligatory sweary bit) and I have no interest at all, in discussing which are the best creams for sore nipples. I'm assuming there will be a sore nipple part at some point, Or is that pregnancy? I don't freaking know. You see? I'm totally and utterly mis-cast in this role and therefore cannot be a cancer patient because I have absolutely none of the required credentials.


But no matter how hard and furious my rant (and it goes on for two solid days) the diagnosis sits there on the table and looks at me, like a contract for the worst gig ever, demanding my signature. My name is clearly written on it. The address is right, the date of birth, even my NHS number. It looks like they haven't got the wrong person after all. I got the part I never auditioned for. Seems like I've got no option but to accept my fate, read the script, and pitch up to my first day's filming. Pretty sure it's going to be a shite film though. Just sayin.


Anyway, back to the list.


Depression vs sadness and depression. OK, I'll take either answer. Don't care, not interested. Moving on. We're not dwelling on the negatives in this blog. Sadness and depression can get in the sea. We've got a job to do.


The Upward Turn

Right, now here's why I start getting awkward again. Are you telling me there is no upward turn with a cancer diagnosis, but there is when a loved one dies? That's bollocks. You don't get from depression to acceptance without having a bit of a meander through your emotions on the way. Come on C list, think it through. Finding a way of uncurling from that tight ball you put yourself in, to protect your physical presence, whilst you sob your heart out at the news that you have cancer, is the most important bit. Otherwise we'd all still be there, crying our eyes out and almost certainly needing a wee. There is only so long you can lie on a bed and feel sorry for yourself. Eventually, you reach out. To a person, to the internet, to your medical team, to a reference book, but you will reach out to something. And that's when the working through happens.


Reconstruction and Working Through

You have to physically absorb the effects of the shock, I held mine tightly and couldn't speak about it. I swore my husband to secrecy and only told one other friend. But slowly, when you realise that the first blow was the only one that's coming, for now, you relax a little and start to uncurl. You breathe, you look around, you start to regroup. Questions fill your head, you need to know what just kicked you so hard, so you can kick it back.


So C list, you dropped a ball there. Maybe have a look at G list's work and see if you can learn anything from it. There's a very big gap between sadness and acceptance. A lot happens in that bit.


Acceptance and Hope

As you uncurl, you realise you need to do 2 things. One is to get some support from your friends and family to help you carry the great huge pile of crap that just got dumped on your doorstep, and two, to find out as much as you can about what you're up against. I reached out to a close circle of friends, and then in the most public way possible, by posting this blog, and have been utterly overwhelmed by the love and support I have been shown. From the true friends and family who I knew, utterly knew would be there for me, to the friends I maybe didn't know so well, but who have since marched up to my virtual front door, shoved their way past me with a lasagne and a bottle of wine in hand, sat down at my kitchen table and rolled up their sleeves to help. The messages, the cards, the gifts and the flowers have been like a continual air drop of aid into a camp that's preparing to go to battle. Every single one is hugely needed and appreciated.


And then the most surprisingly, and perhaps the most wonderfully, the new friends, who have made contact on social media, to offer support and to make contact by reaching out a hand. The past survivors, many of whom I never even knew had travelled the same path as me before. Amazing women, offering advice, sharing their tales of past treatments, tips for managing the crappy bits, the questions to ask, the fears to address and bringing with them the steadfast acceptance that this is a long and tiring journey.


I have also had the joy of finding other women on the same path, recently diagnosed or starting treatment, who have come to stand alongside me, so that we can walk together. Each unsure, nervous but yet determined to fight with pride, resilience and unswerving good humour (remind me to tell you about the smurf thing later). Our army is pretty damn terrifying, I can tell you, and is particularly well supplied with high quality, sturdy undergarments. If cancer thinks we're turning up to the battle with Asda pants and mismatched pyjamas, it can bloody well think again. This is not a budget supermarket cancer battle, this is an M&S cancer battle. And we've bought the whole goddamned arsenal.


And then, finally, there's hope. Such a small word, but so utterly essential to everything. It's in the final stage of the Guilt list, but doesn't even get a mention on the Cancer list. But if there is one unswerving thing that cancer patients have, need and bring, it's hope. Collectively we have so much hope that there must be a shortage of it, somewhere else in the universe. Hope is the thing that gets us up in the morning, drives us to the hospital appointments, and keeps us laughing, smiling and connecting with each other.


I'm definitely adding hope to the list, in giant sparkly marker pen, and I don't care what you say.


And remind me about the smurf thing. Don't forget.





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