The nagging fear

Last night, I read that Olivia Newton-John’s breast cancer has returned, and spread to her spine, twenty five years after her initial diagnosis. I don’t know what to think about it, really. I watched Grease so many times as a child that she’s practically an old friend. On the one hand, I think that twenty five years is a pretty great run. Can I see myself surviving for another twenty five years? Perhaps. I certainly don’t take it for granted that I will. On the other, it makes me angry, that cancer is so sly it can lie in wait for a quarter of a century and then hit again. I imagine after twenty five years, you might have stopped expecting it. Perhaps.

Just as my body isn’t back to how it was before the cancer (and I don’t just mean the scars, I mean daily aches, stiffness and tiredness), my mind is forever changed. There’s no getting back to normal, I don’t think. You have to redefine normal, and start from there. I’m scared. It’s as simple as that. I’m scared all the time.

It’s about the children, mostly. About leaving them without a mum, leaving Paul to bring them up on his own. It’s about the potential of missing out on stupid things, like watching them splash eachother in the bath or reading Roald Dahl to them at bedtime. It’s about never finding out what they love: sports or music, sciences or arts. Never knowing whether either of them will be a reader or a writer, like me.

There’s a more selfish side to the fear, too. If I don’t get a book published, I’ll be hugely disappointed. I’ve wanted it for so many years, and I’ve worked hard. Like so many people before me, I want to leave something behind. I want something of me to live on. And before, I felt like there was still time. These days, I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, I went to an appointment at the opticians. I visited my sister. I walked to nursery and back twice to drop off and then pick up the kids. I watched Britain’s Got Talent. I listened to quite a bit of of Luisa Omielan’s What Would Beyonce Do? I did some washing. I edited a blog post for a friend. Are these the kind of things I should be doing? The kind of things I would do if I knew, for certain, that cancer was going to come back for me? Some of them. But you can’t just live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, can you? Not when you have a family and a house. Washing, for example, is non-negotiable.

I mentioned Jackie in my last post, the one about the incredible women I’ve met through having cancer. She let me know recently that her cancer has come back. That it’s in her bones. Not twenty five years after her first diagnosis, but three. In her typical fashion, she seemed more concerned when breaking the news about scaring fellow breast cancer survivors than about her own situation. She is doing what I would do: looking at her life and making decisions about what is and isn’t worth her time. She’s doing more writing. Making the most of her family. But I’m sure she’s doing her fair share of washing, too.

Life goes on, doesn’t it? Until it doesn’t. I might have fifty years ahead of me, I might have one. But that’s true of anyone. Nothing is promised, nothing certain. I will keep writing, keep reading, keep washing. I will teach my children the important lessons and try to laugh with them every day. I might be lucky. I might still be lucky.

The incredible women

When I was first diagnosed, it never crossed my mind that cancer would bring a parade of incredible new women into my life. I knew a fair number of great women already, and I was – and continue to be – grateful for them. My existing friends and family took care of me, wrapped me in their kindness and love, and it helped enormously. But there were things they couldn’t do, things they didn’t know. Having been through breast cancer herself, my mum was able to answer some of my questions, but she hadn’t had chemotherapy, hadn’t done it all with two young children, hadn’t been plunged into surgical menopause in her thirties.

But there are women who have. And I was lucky enough to find them. I found them in the amazing Facebook group Younger Breast Cancer Network (YBCN). I found them at Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together event. I found them through this blog.

There’s Rachel. I saw her this week. She lives seven miles from me and was also diagnosed during pregnancy, four months after I was. We share an oncologist and our treatment plans were similar in many ways. Rachel finished active treatment the day before I saw her. Her hair is about half an inch long all over and she looks stunning. Her baby boy is a happy and healthy eight-month-old. In September, she’s modelling for Breast Cancer Care’s annual fundraising fashion show and in October she’s running a half marathon to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

There’s Emily. I reached out to Emily online after she posted a photo of a Jon McGregor book on her chemo tray table. I found out that she’s a short story writer. She didn’t tell me but it gradually became apparent that she’s a pretty successful one; the kind who wins prizes. She won a copy of Jon McGregor’s latest novel, Reservoir 13, in a Twitter competition, and she posted it to me while I was in hospital having my double mastectomy, ahead of its publication. The kindness of this gesture is etched on my memory.

There’s Jackie. Jackie’s another writer. She’s published a memoir, Tea & Chemo, the proceeds of which go to breast cancer charities, and a novel, Glass Houses. I asked her for some advice about publishing a while back, and she sent me a long and thoughtful email packed with useful information. She’s also shown a lot of kindness and compassion towards me in regards to my sister’s stroke, and has shared the story of her own daughter’s stroke.

There are others. Carie, who lay on the floor beside me during a laughter yoga workshop while tears of joy ran into our ears. Bethan, who I recognised at the Younger Women Together event and later realised I knew from my course at university but hadn’t seen for fifteen years. Amy, who lit up that same event with her green hair and her warmth, and who later set up a group for us to share our journeys back to fitness. Marianne, who has said so many kind things about my writing that have lifted my spirits, and who sent me a book, which is the quickest way to my heart. Adi, who had her mastectomy surgery a day after me and became my much-needed recovery buddy. Laura, who lives locally and who I’ve run into twice at the supermarket, where we’ve chatted over our trolleys about this shitty disease.

These women are fierce and I’m proud to know them. They fundraise, they fight, they raise children, they work, they live. I would never have met them if it wasn’t for the breast cancer that unites us. And while I don’t think I’ll ever be pleased I had it, I’m certainly pleased I have them. They’ve shown me so many things: that there’s no right or wrong way to handle this; that there is life (so much life) after a diagnosis; that there is beauty in courage and in weakness. I want to thank them for their kindness and their time. I want to wish them well. I want to let them know that I think of them often, that their stories are in my heart, that I am here if they need me.