So here it is. The anniversary article. The one I’ve personally been looking forward to the most. The one where I get to look back on the last 12 months with wide eyes, aching limbs, a dubious haircut and think “what the devil just happened?”
In May 2015, when I was right in the middle of treatment, I wrote an article for Mamamia entitled ‘The Pragmatist’s Guide to Breast Cancer’ about 6 lessons I’d learnt since being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in January. It was the abridged version – even at the time, I secretly had far more than just 6 lessons under my belt but limited time, audience interest level, word count and a deadline dictated that I reined it in slightly.
I’ve been thinking about the content of this follow-up article for a while and after much deliberation and procrastination, I’m going to attempt to articulate and share some more of the lessons I learnt. Maybe one day they’ll help someone else to navigate these cancery waters…
How to check for breast lumps, demonstrated on a fine set of man boobs. Post continues after video.
1. Friends and family are everything.
They say friends are like walls. Sometimes you lean on them and sometimes it’s just enough to know they’re there. And if friends are like walls, then family is the cement that holds everything together. So build your walls well, marvel at their superhuman strength, laugh at their inappropriate cancer jokes, hug them hard and lean on them to your heart’s content.
2. It’s good to talk.
A friend of mine, shortly after I’d been diagnosed, told me that if he was ever diagnosed with cancer, he would disappear into his flat and not tell a soul. I kind of understood this in a ‘man retreats into man cave’ type way but it can be a lonely old trip along this cancery road, so why make it lonelier? There’s safety in numbers and I’ve found that the more open I’ve been, the more open people have become. Or maybe they’re just smiling sweetly at me and thinking “where has all her decent non-cancer chat gone?” Believe me, I wish I knew.
3. Never judge those who seem to disappear for a while.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or how long to stay. So forgive those who stay away for a while. But never ever forget those who turn up and help pull you through the storm when you can’t see your hand in front of your own face. They’re your tea-makers, your temperature-takers, your bad day maraca-shakers, they’re your best people so keep them close and occasionally smother their stoic little faces with kisses. Or, if they happen to be 18,000 miles away on a different timezone, then just send them 57 love heart emoticons at 3am. Everyone can forgive a cancer patient for waking them up at 3am. Probably.
4. It’s not all about me.
Well, it kind of is but let’s be honest, being the friend or family of a cancer patient is the hardest gig in the world. True story. I know this because I've been the friend, I've been the family and now I've completed the cancer trifecta and done a stint as the patient so I'm officially qualified to comment on this subject with authority.
5. Write it down.
Becca, a beautiful cancer-kicking mentor of mine, told me the day after I was diagnosed to keep a diary. “You don't have to publish it anywhere”, she said, “but I guarantee you'll forget stuff so just get it out and get it down”. And so I started a blog and www.fellowshipoftheringlets.com was born. And thanks to her wise words of advice, I will never forget how I trapped my dead arm in a bin chute, threw 4 day old cat litter all over myself or shot up hormones in a bridal en-suite. Good times.
6. Sometimes it’s good to wallow.
Cry yourself a river. Lose your temper. Kick a plant pot. Send inflammatory and irrational texts to people you love and who (hopefully) love you back. Slither down a wall in dramatic fashion like a 1980's Joan Collins character, sobbing hysterically. You are not Gandhi. Or Oprah. Nor should you attempt to be. And to be fair, even Gandhi probably had days when he angrily threw a flip flop at a passing cat. What's important though is that once you're done, pull yourself together and go for a latte / walk / green juice / lie-down / delete as appropriate.
7. Make plans.
Dream big. Imagine the future. Chuck some mad ideas around. Do stuff you’ve always wanted to do. Remember what you loved doing as a kid, and do more of it. But don't beat yourself up if that entirely reasonable and completely rational idea you had in the middle of the night about renovating a rundown chateau in the south of France with one arm and a dog falls by the wayside for a while.
8. Work the short hair.
It's a goddamn badge of honour. As I now attempt to embrace the Cupid phase of my hair re-growth, having already navigated the joys of The Julius Caesar, The Real Slim Shady, The Jean-Paul Gaultier, The Judi Dench and The Sinead O Connor, every day begins with a sigh of ringlet-related exasperation. But every exasperated sigh is swiftly followed by a quick note to self that it wasn't too long ago that I was convinced I would be forever condemned to managing a Donald Trump-style comb-over. Be grateful, my short-haired cancer-smashing friends, that you are not Donald Trump - stand up straight, get those shoulders back, whack in that hair product and work the crop like a pro.
9. Look on the bright side.
And then the dark side. And then the bright side again. Try to remember that there is always someone worse off than you who's probably moaning less about their own woes than you are. But sometimes at 2am in the dark when you can't sleep and you think your hair is never going to come back or that your hand will always be numb or that your lack of eyebrows make you look like an evil Albino monk, there will probably be no one worse off than you. IN. THE. WORLD. And that's ok. At least till morning, when it's time to chuck the wig on, get that eyebrow pencil out and man up again.
10. Gossip is good.
Personally, I don't like what I refer to as my ‘overflowing jug of secrets’ to be empty. No one with cancer just wants to talk about cancer all day long and we hate it when people don't want to bother us with their dramas because they're supposedly not as important as the whole ‘cancer’ thing. Ugh. We of course reserve the right to raise an occasional 'is that it?' eyebrow at your ridiculous first world problem but that is our prerogative as the cancer patient. Suck it up and make me some more tea, princess.
11. We have more strength than we think.
Mentally. Physically. All of it. But not because we choose to put on a cape every day and become some sort of superhero cancer-fighting warrior legend. There is no “shall I wear my 'brave and inspirational' face or my 'weak as a kitten' face today?” type-choice for any of us caught in this cancery web. You turn up, get your head down, get on with it, hopefully make it through the day in one piece, with limbs intact and repeat. The human spirit is a resilient and impressive beast. Test it and see for yourselves.
12. It's ok to ask for help.
It's also ok to just ignore everyone for a while, lock the door and submerge yourself in 19 back-to-back episodes of Suits. And sometimes it's ok to just howl at the moon, watch the sunrise in a bobble hat on your balcony and eat Pickled Onion Monster Munch till your mouth goes numb and your teeth fall out.
13. Try not to overplay the cancer card.
Do as I say here, not as I do. I am the shameless and unapologetic mistress of the overplayed cancer card and I pretty much own the cancer-related hashtag.
14. Prepare for your new life
Your shiny new life as a raging hypochondriac. Or, as I prefer to call it, a super-vigilant, boob-checking, ringlet-twirling, green juice-swigging cancer survivor.