You know that thing I said a while ago about not feeling any fear when I was diagnosed with breast cancer or throughout my treatment? Well, turns out you can only Keep Buggering On for so long before the big ol’ scary monster, Fear itself, bites you on the arse and one has what I will delicately describe as a Wobble. (You don’t want to know the extent of the tears and associated snot, frankly).
Friends who have been through health crises of their own or with children tell me this is entirely normal. It works a bit like post-traumatic stress disorder, from what I can work out. The big thing happens, you get through it (no choice: it’s happening whether you dissolve into a puddle or not, and the human pysche is astonishingly resilient), you survive. All is well. You stop being intimate with consultants and surgeons. Then, a while later, a thought pops into your head. An insidious, sneaky, betraying thought that starts ‘what if…’
Exempli Gratia: ‘What if that pain/twinge/ache/tingling/weird colour is because Something Is Really Wrong?’ The body has let one down before with a poor performance, after all. Quite dramatically too. Specifically, in my case (let’s be brave and look it in the eye, shall we?): what if that annoying ache in my back is because I have secondary cancer of the liver (rather than another bout of sciatica)? What if that discomfort under my left rib is because I have secondary cancer of the pancreas (rather than getting so excited about my new health discovery, chia seeds, that I overloaded my gut with sudden, massive amounts of soluble fibre)?
If something really is wrong, do I really want to know? Do I want to be prodded and scanned and take the gamble of a) being completely reassured and feeling like a happy idiot or b) being told devastating news that means I will be compelled to write birthday cards in advance for my darling babies and husband for the next couple of decades?
I had a quite intense session with my awesome health creation mentor, Kit, this morning, which prompted me to blog about this. She’s had first hand experience of The Wobble: she was diagnosed with ‘incurable’ cancer in 1992, is in fine fettle, and still panics before every annual check up. She reckons fear is just an acronym of ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. She asked what the thought was that I was thinking, and where it had come from. I know exactly. It was a feature in my beloved Grazia magazine about three weeks ago. It was from the fiance of a young woman who had just died from secondary breast cancer, in her liver, after recovering from breast cancer treatment and then getting a pain in her back. He had been hoping she would make it to their wedding this month. She didn’t quite get there.
This very sad story would have given me the jitters by itself, but there is a twist worthy of the Whitbread first novel prize (ooohhh….). It wasn’t the first time this beautiful girl had been in the magazine. She had written her own story in 2010, just after being diagnosed and having her first chemo. I remember, graphically, reading her feature, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I read it in bed, just after finding the lump in my breast for the first time, two or three days before fessing up to DH and booking an appointment with my GP. I remember the gut-liquidising chill as I read it: I already knew, deep down, that I was about to follow the same path. Chemotherapy in particular, before I had any idea of what it actually entails, was one of the most terrifying things I could imagine enduring.
And so when I read that she had died, my thought – the thought behind all of this fear over the past few weeks – was this: ‘What if my life is mirroring hers?’ Almost instantly, I started to notice twinges and discomfort all over my body, all of which also have perfectly innocent explanations. No back pain at first, but I worried so hard about it that, sure enough, some back pain manifested itself. I worried so deeply, I’ve given my immune system a bashing and am currently fighting a rubbish chesty cold – the first for years (I really don’t get ill, apart from the obvious…). I panicked about my alcohol intake. I spent an entire evening, last Friday, crying on DH as I explained why I was scared. For, like, five hours (poor sod). Hot, salty, really big ploppy tears. They just wouldn’t stop. It was remarkably cathartic, actually, because to be honest I haven’t really cried specifically about caaancer at any point.
Then on Saturday afternoon I decided to take action. I had heard rumours of the mind-clearing benefit of exercise, though as a largely sedentary, distinctly non-sporty person, I had little experience of this. Regardless. Strapped on dusty trainers and, if I can just shock you, dear reader, I went for a run. Yup, you read right. Pinchy made like Forrest Gump and just….ran. And then walked for a bit, before running, and walking again, round a quiet local residential area, accompanied by an interesting selection of tunes on DD’s borrowed Shuffle. Among the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and Kylie there are a fair number of Disney themes. Turns out The Climb by Miley Cyrus is a perfectly acceptable running track…
Do you know what? Those rumours are true: moving your body really does clear your head. In the stressy age of extreme juggling we live in, that in itself is far more of an argument for getting off one’s fat arse than the nebulous idea of ‘getting fit’. Kit suggested that the universe sends us loving lessons, and maybe the message embedded in my fearful state was my own need to take proper control of and responsibility for my health: my diet (already pretty good, but I have made some more tweaks and am liking James Duigan’s Clean and Lean approach. I will learn to love kale…), the amount of wine I get through (38-year-old working mum levels. You know what I’m talking about), and my lack of any exercise other than 60 kettlebell swings most mornings.
My instinct is that she’s probably right. And she’s also right that I need to pick up the phone to my oncology team and say I’m not comfortable with waiting until next February to be checked over. Being signed off for a year is AMAZING, obvs, and I’m sure my consultant wouldn’t have done so if he wasn’t entirely sure that I’m fine, but six months in, I’m also miles further from medical attention than I have been since I was diagnosed. Which may also have something to do with The Wobble.
Other action: do some yoga cat poses to sort this damned sciatica out. Stop with the chia seeds for a bit (already done; gas levels no longer on the red-for-danger bit of the dial). Most importantly, apply the four questions that make up The Work of Byron Katie to that pesky ‘my life is mirroring hers’ thought:
1. Is it true? (I don’t know)
2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true? (No)
3. What happens when I think that thought? (The Wobble)
4. Who would you be without that thought? (Fully enjoying being happier, and more myself, than I have been at any point in my life, ironically).
Then turn it around: my life is not mirroring hers. We are completely different people, with different diseases, different treatments and different outcomes. I am safe, and free, and all is well.
And a final reminder to myself and everyone else: MOVE AWAY FROM GOOGLE if you or anyone you love has a question mark over some aspect of their health or what’s happening in their body. American health forums filled with fear-filled posts by the ‘worried well’ seriously Do Not Help. Ever. Now, I must ring my oncology team. At some point.