An anniversary with a difference

Yesterday was my 9-year-cancer-versary.

The irony is not lost on me that my diagnosis came on the 13th… unlucky for some right? But at the time I remember it being something of a relief after being in hospital for a day and night with only the clothes I was stood in, a phone with no battery and no idea what was going on before being told at about 1 in the morning that “it’s serious, it could be something like leukaemia, lymphoma or HIV” by a less than helpful doctor with a below par bedside manner.

9 years isn’t exactly a major mile stone is it? But it feels it as at the time I had just started my fourth and final honours year at uni and my all important and exciting 21st birthday was looming, and this time, it’s my 30th birthday approaching.

Looking back now, I realise a lot of my twenties were tainted and affected by this, probably more than I realised. A time when I shouldn’t have had a care or worry, I had far too many. I’ve always said that having cancer in many ways made me better, stronger. To borrow a phrase from my dear friend Corrie (who also overcame it recently – I know, we’re a rather unfortunate bunch) I’m a “thriver, not a survivor”… but still. It left some ugly scars. Maybe some that I didn’t even recognise till years later. Until now when I look back at behaviours (some destructive) and the shit show of emotions that I had no idea what to do with. Maybe this clarity comes with time and emotional maturity?

At times I have felt like I was robbed. I no longer looked the same, I was devastated. I still joke now that I peaked at 20. I joke, but it’s also a bit of a kick in the gut. Vain? Yeah, perhaps… But it felt important. And so, a lot of my 20’s has been spent readjusting to a new me. Shaped first with cancer and chemotherapy and central lines and steroids and immunotherapy then secondly with pregnancy and babies. The former can feel unfair, But at least the latter is easier to reconcile in my head.

Robbed of time – Long months spent in hospital full time (7 in total) when my friends were able to carry of with their studies and travels and life. But then also diving head first back into ‘normality’ (or at least some semblance of a new normal) once i was released following cure. Real life is tougher than it seemed. All the emotions. All the fear and trauma of what had gone but also what might come back. None of which were dealt with, just packed away in a little overflowing box. Only now looking back, I realise I struggled. The ‘semi-woke’, or maybe just maturer, person in me today recognises that I could probably have benefitted from some help back then and there would have been no shame in that. But ‘throwing myself back in and hoping for the best’ seemed like the best way to cope at 21.

Time has helped. Maturity, and emotional maturity, has helped. A sense of new perspective has helped. I no longer have the same dread looming over my life. For a long time, I had a (somewhat secret) fear of relapsing, a fear of something else cropping up, because of course the cruel irony is that cancer treatment often causes… well, more cancer (that’s great isn’t it?). Sleepless nights spent dangerously scrolling the internet looking at survival rates beyond 1 year, beyond 5 years, the fact that the little cocktail of chemo drugs while saving your life can screw your heart up and shave some years off your old age (if you make it that far in the first place… ) of course, this was mostly kept to myself though because no one likes a hypochondriac Debbie Downer, do they? Over time I have become more able and equipped to rationalise these feelings to find ways of dealing with them and in the past few years, find ways to stop myself projecting them onto my children. AML is caused by a chromosomal mutation, but it’s not genetic. But often, that doesn’t stem the flow of worry after worry… but I’m getting there! Nowadays, I’m less likely to google every damn symptom… When I get a cold. I’m not constantly poised, ready for my body to betray me. I’ve found a sense of peace, which was at first, in the years following treatment, forced, but now just natural.

Most scars have healed. I’m able to look at cancer again. I didn’t want to for a very long time. I can look at other peoples stories, struggles, tragedy and scars now. That’s new. For a very long time, it was still too close and I needed to protect myself. But maybe that was healthy or just necessary.

Cancer has not defined me, but it has changed me in lots of small ways, and I can still see some of those are for the better.

A quick google (lol, as if I actually had to google… it’s not like I’ve not googled it approx 7800 times over the past nine years) tells me the AML survival rate post 5 years averages out at about 20% well, 👋🏽, here I am… and you know what? Some days, just some, cancer doesn’t even enter my head at all anymore (If you’re in the throws of something similar now you might not believe it to be possible. I didn’t)

And so, I’ll be moving into my 3rd decade (and tenth year post cancer diagnosis) feeling like I’ve reclaimed myself. I’ve let go of the resentment I’ve felt for my body and my lost time. Cancer will always be part of me, and the memories will always be there alongside the knowledge that treatment can ultimately be “life limiting”, but I’m not as scared.

So I suppose, in some ways, this does feel like a milestone. Most of all, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been… and man, I’m beyond grateful for life. ✌🏼

Well done making it this far, I don’t half harp on…

Lou x