Profit and loss – Cancerversary reflections

Last Friday was a fairly ordinary day.  I woke before the alarm, looked out of the window and was pleased to see that the dusky daybreak sky had only a few clouds.  That meant that my dawn swim was possible, always guaranteed to give me the best start to the day.

So why, in the mid morning did I become aware of a sense of gloom?  I was aware of a blanket of sadness slowly wrapping itself around me.  I could feel unprompted tears, behind my eyes as they became watery at various points throughout the day.  The only reason I can think of is that I am a bit overwhelmed by the immediacy of my landmark days, especially what I can’t help thinking of as the Big Cancerversary, followed rapidly by the anniversary of my major surgery.  This is probably not helped by the fact that this comes at the beginning of October and the internet, particularly Facebook and the blogosphere have dizzying numbers of messages, promotions and snarky posts swirling around.

It is 2 years ago today from hearing Dr W tell me “this is highly suspicious of cancer”.  It is 2 years since the world as I knew it shifted irreversibly.  October 2 is the day I mark as my “cancerversary” because it is the day I started to live life through the Breast Cancer lens. I have noted the irony previously or being diagnosed at the start of October which is a sure-fire way of raising awareness in one’s immediate surrounds.  And self.

This deep sadness is mixed with a feeling of ingratitude and guilt.  Why am I not more appreciative?  I am still alive, 2 years after hearing the earth shattering words.  I am presently, until the Big Check next month, living with NED.  Apart from the usual concerns I do not have a specific reason to believe that the cancer beast is back.  So why am I not more upbeat and chirpy?  And to be honest, I really don’t know.

Last year I approached my first anniversary season without this sadness.  And of course it was such a big milestone, one I had truly believed I would not reach and which had seemed so distant in the thick of treatment.  I wrote a cathartic “letter to cancer” as part of the process.  I had a quiet and reflective day.  and blogged about it all of course.

I thought about writing another letter this year, but that didn’t feel quite right, or really what I wanted to do.  Part of me doesn’t want to give cancer the added attention, even though it has plenty of my attention. And to be honest I don’t really have anything new to say.  And cancer certainly has nothing new to say to me.

What does come to my mind though, is just how much I have lost and how much I have gained because of cancer.  I am afraid I have no gratitude to cancer for making me a “better person”, or more appreciative of the good things.  I think I have always appreciated the good things to be fair.  I have always been a carpe diem kind of girl.  If someone presented me with a remote control and said I could re-wind to my life before cancer, I can’t think of anything I would truly have done differently.  But now I find I have a deep sadness related to my diagnosis which is just kind of there.

This lack of appreciation, however, does not mean I am not thankful for some pretty wonderful gains.  The fact that family had literally dropped everything to cross the planet and be with me, bringing the most thoughtful things which I could not get in Thailand and which I didn’t even know I might need always brings a wobble to my lower lip.

I have also “met” a host of incredible people through purely because of cancer.  This has been through blogs, facebook and a small number of “real life” women too who have been diagnosed and treated in my neck of the woods.  These have developed into close friendships and invaluable support.  That would simply not have happened without the diagnosis and my life is enriched through knowing them.  I have been blown away the warmth, humour, attitude and smartness of my new ”thanks to cancer” friends.

I have also learned a whole heap of stuff, particularly about cancer and the real nature of the beast.  I had really lived in ignorance and understood very little about it.  I have also particularly learned about the reality of metastasis and that it can happen even when cancer has been detected at an early stage.

On another vein, I am probably at my fittest for longer than I care to remember (although I certainly do not look like it, ironically) thanks to daily exercise.  I make no secret that this discipline is related to my taking control of the few factors which are in our hands relating to recurrence.  Gym or recurrence?  Not a lot of choice really!  Not that I take it as any guarantee, but I do know that if the day comes when mets are found, I can put my hand on m heart and say that I have done what is in my hands to reduce risk.

I am more proactive in trying to have a more healthy work life balance.  I protect my leisure and creative time.

Another thing which I have gained in a sense, is a lessening of anxiety and fear of hospital procedures.  (Is a reduction of something a gain?  When it is a good thing then I guess it is.)  I will never be fearless when it comes to needles, scans and surgery but they are less daunting these days.

So I have truly gained a great deal.

That is what I must seek to balance against the losses.  I have also lost a fair amount.

In the immediate and tangible, I have lost one breast.  That is the most striking, daily ever present loss, and one which I feel physically, emotionally and practically.

I have lost movement in my left arm thanks to cording, evident in the existence of Twang Arm.  My range of motion is quite limited and although we have a level of fairly peaceful co-existence, it is painful and uncomfortable as well as less than fully functional.

Connected with this, I have lost the ability to do some very basic, taken-for-granted activities, like shopping.  I am no longer able to easily wear various styles of clothes.  Tops which go on over my head are too much trouble and discomfort.  Tight sleeves are out.  It is amazing how much that restricts what is available.  And I don’t even need to start about trying to get suitable, comfortable bras especially at a price which does not mean selling all worldly goods!

Perhaps more striking however, are the intangible losses.  Being very weak during chemo when travelling between Yangon and Bangkok for treatments stripped me of my independence and confidence to do things which had been a regular part of life.  It hit me hard that I could not easily travel independently, as well as many other activities.

Connected with this is losing the readiness to plan in the longer term.  I plan in increments of 3 months, relying on getting through the next round of checks before I plan anything significant.  I have a sense that it is “tempting fate” to plan beyond the checks and lack confidence to make firm plans far ahead.

I think that the greatest losses are in fact, connected with the gains.  Specifically with the gains of new friends.  Before diagnosis I knew of only a very small number of people who had been diagnosed with cancer.  I had never known someone who was actually going through cancer treatment, particularly chemotherapy.  Now I have a number of personal friends who have been diagnosed and many, many more online friends for cancer is a big presence in their lives in a variety of ways. Where friends have been brought into my life by a combination of cancer and the internet, some have been stolen by the same benefactor.  I was distraught to learn of the Bad Fairy’s death last year, the first time one of my new cancer given friends became a cancer stolen friend.  Every cancer theft is one too many and hits hard.  And as well as the grief of losing someone, there is the added dimension of being blatantly reminded of our own particular vulnerability and mortality.

This cancerversary might have a sombre mood this year, but I do take considerable note of the fact that after 2 years I am indeed still here.  I am feeling well and strong.  And if the next checks reveal nothing worrisome, my prognosis improves statistically.  While I might not be able to bring myself to say “Happy Cancerversary” I can take enormous appreciation that I can say “Cancerversary” and aim for many returns of the day.

20 thoughts on “Profit and loss – Cancerversary reflections

  1. Perhaps sombre is simply where you need to be this year, Phillipa. The first year anniversary is so about being through treatment that the full impact of everything you’ve experienced was not apparent. And it is a mixed bag.

    I love that you’re a “carpe diem” kind of girl. That will return. You’ll never forget cancer. The daily reminders (I’m so sorry about your arm, I have some of the same problems) will always be there but now they’ve all meshed into who i am now and not “before” and “after.” It does all come together.

    Thanks for another lovely post. I enjoy your writing tremendously.

    • Thank you for the really lovely comments and support. I’ve been away plus had connectivity challenges so not been able to respond earlier.

      Jody, yes I think that I have to go with it, and thanks for highlighting that it does gradually shift. Thank you for your warm encouragement too.

  2. Completely relate to your feelings. The gloom at anniversaries. I think survivor culture encourages us to be jubilant about these milestones… whereas in fact personally I’d rather not be having them at all. Whatever you feel is OK I think Philippa. It just is, and as Jody says, it’s a mixed bag.
    All best to you and for the Big Check next month.

    • Thanks Sarah – yes, we feel obliged to be jumping with joy when it is all quite overwhelming, and has its sorrowful moments. As well as other moments too as you say. Thanks for your wishes.

  3. Staying healthy is so important. I’ve also ramped up my physical activity. Anything we can do on our end to lower the risks makes us feel empowered. I’m thinking of you on your Cancerversary. Your writing both intrigues and inspires me.

  4. Your quiet eloquence is always moving. When you described your feelings, I thought, “maybe she’s grieving.” No idea if that’s true, but I know my Mom seemed to go on auto-pilot when her treatments started, and appeared to be in remarkably good spirits throughout that first year. It was only after the chemo and radiation and quite some time had passed when she really mourned her loss – not just of her breast, but of her basic sense of well-being, of ‘routine’ doctor’s visits, and to make future plans without a second thought. For her it was part of the process, and did not last long, but I think she really needed to do that. Once she worked through it, she seemed better somehow, like something had been clarified for her. I wish you the same peace of mind and serenity as you walk this difficult path.

    • Thank you so much for your support and insights, and yes, you describe what I (and many others) very much feel. That sense of just getting on with it when the treatments are ongoing and then finding it strangely sombre afterwards. I also realise that the stress of next week’s tests are bound up in how I am feeling right now. They do a big hunt which is great, but so so scary!

      On another note, I am very happy to see the itinerant termagant take shape and look forward to following adventures 🙂

  5. Wow. It feels like you could be writing about me. I feel so many of the same things you do. Sometimes I, too, ask myself why am I not more upbeat and chirpy? There is so much to balance post cancer. It seems to me you are doing a pretty good job figuring out your own particular balancing act. Thanks for your great insights and friendship. And a dawn swim, now that is impressive!

    • I know what you mean N – I often think the same when reading what others are going through.

      A dawn swim is much easier when you live in the tropics (easy for me to say, coming from Scotland where it would be nigh on impossible to drag me from my bed 😉

  6. Thanks for your great post, Philippa. I’ve had a number of these anniversaries and have Always Always Always had, at best, mixed feelings about them.

    Sarah said this so perfectly in her comment above:

    ” I think survivor culture encourages us to be jubilant about these milestones… whereas in fact personally I’d rather not be having them at all. ”

    I think there’s something very positive (such a loaded word, now, isn’t it!) — maybe I should say constructive — in being able to see both sides of the situation like you do: What you have lost, and what you have learned/received.

    If Mainstream survivor culture were more realistic it would recognize the bittersweet nature of such occasions. Your post just gave it something to think about!

    All my best,

    • Thanks, Liza – it is great to hear you have had many anniversaries, and I wish you many many more 🙂 It’s true, survivor culture places a burden on us, where the reality is indeed bittersweet.

  7. As my husband, James, would always say to me when I’d worry about my upcoming checkup or maybe a recurrence, “You have no evidence of this!” I bet he said that to me 100 times, and so, I pass that along to you. “You have no evidence” that you won’t be here, and healthy, past three months, so I hope you can get to the place where you give yourself permission to live your life without looking over your shoulder for “it” to return. “It” will be with us, regardless of whether we die from “it” or we live to be 105 and die in our sleep. Don’t let “it,” that ugly neoplasm, rob you–and me–of our lives.


    • Thanks so much Brenda, how wonderful that James was able to strike that perfect balance between valuing your feelings and worries yet being able to rationalise them away. Thanks for sharing his wisdom with us.

      I know I am in a strange place just now, before the checks, and just have to work through it. If I lived to 105 then I would be nearly half way there now – what a lovely thought 🙂 🙂

  8. Sawadika Blue Gecko –
    I read a quote recently from John Paul Sartre who was commenting on that moment when we went from not knowing to knowing – “once you have lost eternity.” I think he was referring to the time we went from having a future stretching out before us in a less complicated – or at least non-cancerous way – and then – well, not.
    I think sadness is part of many of our new normal.
    I get angry when often well meaning people try to dam it, stop it, trivialise it or in some way refuse to acknowledge this aspect of our new reality. So I am one of the feisty one as well as one who acknowledges her sadness. It does not mean we will become stuck in sadness, although the potential is there.
    Breast cancer has not made me a better person, I am not more spiritual compared to before. I definitely do not appreciate having had it. I just can’t summon up that level of pretence – too exhausting pretending to be what I am not and energy levels these days need to be harnessed and spent on things I consider worthwhile. Social conventions be damned!
    Stay safe and dry in your baan during the big deluge.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment and your insights. Your words really resonate – I am usually upbeat and smiley, but sometimes I need to be sad and that needs to be validated. I think others often find it uncomfortable and difficult when we are in a less positive space. Yes, focus on what is important, we can’t get these days back!

      Thanks – I did manage to avoid the floods before they got too bad. No I am back in Yangon where rainy season is (hopefully) reaching its end, the skies are more blue than before and the north is bracing for a tropical storm, expected to become a cyclone. Hmmm.

      Take care and thanks for your comment.
      Philippa 🙂

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