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After Cancer

I've always been fascinated in how the human mind deals with crises. How we gather the necessary tools and resources needed to fight our way through the most challenging of experiences, how easily we adapt to new circumstances once we've grown accustomed to them, and how, after the event, we can feel shockingly overwhelmed by what we have just been through - as though we have been forging through a wild storm, battered by the wind and falling debris, unable to lift our heads and take in fully what's going on around us; then, when the storm passes and the winds die down, and we are finally able to take stock, what we see all around us is startling, too much to process in one go.

This is what it has been like having breast cancer. Head down, focus, stay positive, be mindful...and then, post-treatment, the cautious raising of the eyes, glancing around at the landscape of my life...what is the same? What's changed? How do I feel now that breast cancer is part of my history?

It's taken a couple of weeks to gather up the answers to these questions, to feel familiar with my life again. No more trips to the hospital other than for annual mammograms, no more nail biting waits in the run up to consultations over treatment options and lymph nodes and results and operations. No more ploughing every single ounce of trust and faith in my own survival into people who are basically strangers to me: a doctor, a surgeon, a radiographer, a nurse. No more feeling as though the rest of the world is getting on with their lives while I am treading water, being sick, recovering, holding on, waiting.

The aftermath then looks like this:

  • Physically, I have been so lucky. I had a lumpectomy and, now it's healed and the radiotherapy redness has started to fade, has left things looking pretty much how they were pre-cancer, albeit with the addition of a triangle of three tiny tattoos that marked out where the radiotherapy machine should target my body. I quite like these, they are little reminders of this time in my life when so much changed.

  • Mentally, I'm stronger. I learnt so many valuable lessons during these last six months, the most important ones being:

1. I am my own best friend. I have all the tools and strength I need to get through anything. I'm always tougher than I think.

2. I have accepted my own mortality. Properly. I'm at peace with the fact that I will die one day. That's ok, I am no longer terrified of death.

3. We have choices in how we wish to perceive anything and everything. There is always a more helpful way of framing a situation, if you look hard enough to find it.

  • Emotionally, I'm at peace. I'm grateful, full of love, I'm so much more present. I am balanced. The present moment is such an amazing place to be, especially for someone like me who has spent so much of her life struggling with inner demons and self-destructive tendencies. Now, to put it simply, I do not sweat the small stuff. I know what matters. I am not distracted by meaningless nonsense that drags me away from what really counts in my world, which is: People. Nature. Sunshine. Family. Exercise. Good Food. Health.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer has ultimately been a turbulent rollercoaster of self-discovery. The last six months have been profound and I wouldn't change them or delete from my past, even if I could. How strange to think that the one thing I was most petrified of in the whole world (finding out that I had cancer) has actually brought me multiple gifts, a renewed sense of gratitude and mindfulness, strengthened relationships with those closest to me, and the eradication of the fearfulness I have been plagued by for all of my adult life.

In times of darkness, I will always remind myself of these lessons - that, following the storm, it may take a while to clear away the chaos but eventually things will look even more beautiful than they did before.

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