Finally, the day I had been aiming for rolled around. I took my last chemotherapy tablets.
The house was deathly quiet and I was left alone with just my four pink tablets of poison for company. I was determined that my popping of those final pills would be done triumphantly, with defiance flashing in my eyes and a final flick of the f*ck you to Phyllis. I gulped those pills down as Elton John blasted out “I’m Still Standing”. The song that became my theme tune for getting through those dark days.
Ten months after my first appointment with the doctor, chemo has finished (touch wood) and I can now breathe a little. However, it’s not quite as simple as me bouncing out of the chemo chair and moving forward with my life. I can still feel the cancer whispering from the shadows and at night, as everyone around me sleeps, cancer emerges from the dark corners of my bedroom and straddles me, strangling me until I can’t breathe. Last night, I could sense the panic rising as I tried to get to sleep; the doubts seeping into my mind: “What if the chemo hasn’t worked? What if my first scan reveals that the cancer is still there? What if my colonoscopy reveals that there is another tumour hiding in my colon”. This isn’t me being pessimistic or looking for the worst. When my tumour was first found it was already very advanced. Phyllis was a 4a, yet I didn’t feel like I was dying. I was a bit off colour, not quite right, but not seriously ill; that’s where my fear stems from. Last time I think I had a very lucky escape but what if I’m not so lucky next time?
I’m trying to be positive, I’m trying to move forward and I am extremely grateful for the life I have. However, I have to admit that I am going through a little bit of a transitional period. For now, I feel I am tiptoeing through each day because I haven’t quite worked out how to put cancer out of my mind. When Phyllis was found she was happily nestled in my bowel and was gearing up to invade my body. How long had she been in there? Who knows? All I do know is that I am incredibly lucky to still be here. There is still that unknown though. The cancer looks like it could now be in my blood and that means it could pop up again in 6 months, 2 years, 5 years. Pick a number, any number because it’s like a lottery, but not a good lottery. There is no cash prize: It’s my life that is at stake. However, it’s also important to remember that the cancer might not pop up again as we just don’t know and that in itself presents challenges I never expected to be facing.
Overall, I’m not sure how I’m feeling. On the one hand I am incredibly relieved, elated, triumphant, jubilant and joyful but on the other hand I am navigating this new life and I feel lost and lonely despite being surrounded by people. There are the reminders of cancer; the flash of thoughts that suddenly stop me in my tracks: “You don’t know if the chemo has worked. You will never know now that it’s in your blood”. I try to block these feelings out but then I am cruelly reminded how indiscriminate bowel cancer can be. I learnt that someone I got to know when I was first diagnosed with bowel cancer has died from this bastard disease. I want to rage at the unfairness of it but my children are sitting next to me on the settee. Instead, I escape to my bedroom and I silently howl. I’m crying for her but I’m also crying out of fear. The sheer fear that this disease might rob my children of their mum.
Unable To Find The Words
I don’t talk about it with my close family as I find that I can’t articulate my emotions. At times I almost don’t know how I am feeling because my emotions swing backwards and forwards like an out of control pendulum. Elation one moment followed by fear the next. I may not be considered to be in remission but, as I remind myself, I am still here and I’m lucky that I have finished chemo (fingers crossed).
It’s now that I can finally take a deep breath that I can look back and reflect on this year. Facing your own mortality definitely makes you take stock of your life. You hone in on what’s important. You realise with a sudden clarity what makes you happy. Cancer changes you; it changes your relationships too. When you are first diagnosed you are talked through the many physical side effects of chemotherapy but no one talks to you about the emotional aspect.
Chemo Isn’t Easy
There is no denying that cancer treatment is gruelling. There are times when you can’t keep your eyes open, you can’t finish a sentence, you are writhing in pain because your arm hurts so much and you are crawling up the stairs because you can’t use your legs. On a good day you can find the humour and laugh about it. Sometimes you have to really look bloody hard for that humour. The days when it felt like your insides were falling out and you didn’t make it to the toilet in time and you ended up sobbing as you sat in your own sh*t. That time where you woke up in the middle of the night and ended up vomiting spaghetti across your duvet as your husband frantically tried to help you to the toilet. The days when both you and your husband collapsed exhausted in bed after another appointment with the oncologist, clinging onto each other, scared about what the future might bring. Even on those days I was able to find a glimmer of hope because I had Mr C, the girls and my mum helping me push forward. I also had you, my friends and family in my phone cheering me on too.
Cancer Hasn’t Just Changed Me
My marriage has had to adapt in order for it to survive cancer. We went from a partnership that was equal, to one that wasn’t. For a while we both floundered in our new roles. Neither of us expected those marriage vows “in sickness and in health”, that we had said so flippantly on our wedding day, to suddenly mean so much. It’s no secret that the marriage survival statistics for someone going through cancer are not good. Statistically they are even worse in the cases where the woman is the one with cancer. I could comment on that but I feel like that’s a whole other (ranty) article. There is a period of adjustment when it comes to your initial diagnosis because both of you are thrown into roles you didn’t expect to be in. Mr C was suddenly dealing with a sick wife and I was suddenly dealing with being more dependent on him. It took time but we got there.
This cancer has also changed the girls. I was worried that it would mean that their childhood was over but I don’t believe that has been the case. If anything it has brought us closer as a family. They no longer seem to take things for granted, they seem more appreciative of things, they still argue but they argue less and they are quick to make up. They are very close and clearly adore each other. They were always caring and kind but more so now. I feel very lucky to have our little family and I have been amazed at how strong they have been and their continued resilience.
Then there is my mum. She has mucked in to help us as a family and put her own life on hold to support us through this. We couldn’t have done it without her. She was the only one who knew what my stage was from the beginning because she stumbled across my initial letters from the consultant. I can’t imagine how that must have felt for her. Yet, she always puts on a brave face. I have only witnessed her cry a couple of times. I know that I get my strength, determination and grit from her. I’ve always known that she was a strong woman and this year has just reinforced that belief. I know that this cancer has changed my mum too. Her having to witness me go through chemo has made her realise that life is short and has made her re-evaluate her own life and the people in it.
Then there is me. Obviously cancer has changed me. I might still be finding my feet but it’s very early days and I know I have a few hurdles that I need to get over before I can properly push ahead. My emotions are a little all over the place but I think that is perfectly normal and I’m still recovering from the cancer treatment. However, I am excited for the future and I am formulating a plan to get my fitness back and to run some races next year as I want to fundraise for Bowel Cancer UK, so watch this space.
It’s not going to be easy, but I can do this.