Wednesday, 29 July 2015
Facing my Cancer Demons
I went for dinner with a good friend the other night. She took my hand and told me I looked amazing.
"You've handled all this so well," she told me. "You're so Brave! So Inspirational!"
Now, I know that I am not Brave. Nor am I Inspirational. Brave is for people who jump into freezing lakes to save small children. Inspirational is for amazing cancer patients (often terrifyingly young) who face a death sentence and yet go on to raise huge sums of money for research, or follow their dreams or climb Kilimanjaro or something.
Me? I've just coped with a year of breast cancer as best I could. And I'm keeping all my fingers crossed that I won't be called upon to cope with a more serious diagnosis.
On the other hand, it's jolly nice to be told you're amazing and inspirational so I have to confess that I've lapped up the praise.
Then she said, "You must be glad it's all over."
But it's not over, I told her. I'm not entirely sure it will ever be 'over': a close friend's mother has just had her breast cancer return in her lungs 17 years after her first diagnosis. I went for my first year check up the other day without much concern but found myself overwhelmed by the feelings of powerlessness and the inevitability of bad news that coloured my hospital visits this time last year and ended up sobbing in the changing rooms when I got the all clear. (A Scary Mammogram).
That's not me. At least, it didn't use to be me. I'm still struggling with the fall out from Cancer.
I love my friend, she's a super bouncy optimistic, can-do kind of lady, but (like so many of my other non-Cancer friends) she looked anxious when I started to say things that were less than positive.
But you're on Tamoxifen, she reminded me. You've had all the treatment. There's no reason to think the Cancer will come back. You mustn't worry!
This is all true. But it is also true that there is a chance that my breast cancer will return somewhere else. And breast cancer in the breast is, essentially, an inconvenience; breast cancer in a more vital organ can be a death sentence. Surely it's normal to be a least a little bit concerned about that?
It's great that my friends think I'm Amazing Cancer Babe and their feedback has helped me stay positive through all my treatment because the more they tell me I'm so brave etc etc, the more I've put on a brave face and that actually does help me feel much better than letting myself dwell on dark thoughts. I'm a great believer in the power of both positive and negative thoughts (Don't Fall in the Nocebo Trap!)
But I wish more of my friends would accept that, sometimes, I need to face reality and share the dark thoughts too. After all, I'm not just being irrationally negative. So can't I admit to feeling scared without it being a big deal?
I read a great post by Carrie the other day about the roles we play when we have Cancer. She describes how we often put on a mask to the world and act out a role of being brave, optimistic, tough - no matter how we feel inside. It's so true. We do it even when we don't realise that's what we're doing.
I was talking with another friend about hair loss and she was surprised when I said something that revealed how difficult it had been.
"You coped so well with that," she said. "You seemed okay with it."
Seriously? I was as bald as a hardboiled egg for six months and I seemed okay with that? Wow, I'm a much better actress than I thought.
Now that I have been cast in the role of Chloe the Brave, it is difficult to break free. If I start being Chloe the Scared then people often fall into three camps:
The Jolly Campers: who simply refuse to accept that there is any realistic reason to think the Cancer might come back so we end up in some daft argument about the statistics;
The Psychotherapists: who listen to my worries but feel obliged to spend hours working through the issues to 'cure' me from 'negative' thinking so we end up in an exhausting discussion about my mental state;
The Fan Group: who admire my positivity and look disappointed if I start to talk about my fears so I end up feeling as I let them down.
All in all, it's easier to put on a smile even when we aren't smiling inside.
Fortunately for me I have good friends who understand (especially those who have done this Cancer thing in some form or other before me). When I tell them I'm scared about the future, or complain about my Tamoxifen niggles, or simply cry, they just let me get on with facing my cancer demons because they know that sometimes we have to look at the dark possibilities before we get on with being brave and inspirational again.
My friend who endured various forms of Cancer listens to me babble on and then she says simply, "Yeah, it sucks, doesn't it?""Yeah," I agree. "It sucks." And then I feel better.