Little Big Things

I was fiddling about on Twitter recently (as is my wont) when someone from AXA PPP Healthcare asked what were the ‘little big things’ that made a difference while I was going through cancer treatment. The insurance company hosts a pinboard of hints, tips and suggestions on its website from people who have gone through treatment, and their carers.

This got me thinking. I didn’t think much about it at the time, you see. I was just getting through it, in my little bubble. Oddly enough, it’s only now, a full year after my final surgery, and two years after my last chemo in March 2011, that I can look some aspects of being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer in the eye. There’s just enough distance, now, for me to not simply ‘keep buggering on’ but to think ‘OMFG, that was absolute hell. I had CANCER, for goodness’ sake! I’ve had chemotherapy! My personal health nightmare came true!’ And then I have to lie down for a little bit with a cup of tea and a Twix and do some deep breathing.

The terror, oddly, is entirely retrospective.

So here, in honour of, and with thanks to, all the amazing people I had around me for that torrid time, are the Little Big Things that made a difference:

The hour after I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, still shaking, but with a clear, calm belief that I would be absolutely fine, the toast went up from my best friends over an emergency cup of tea: ‘F*ck caaancer!’ This became my mantra, my rallying cry, throughout my treatment. DH got it printed on a pink t-shirt that I wore to every chemo.  This ongoing black humour helped, enormously. A lovely school friend from days of yore sent me 12 cupcakes spelling it out for my very first chemo session – a very, very long day, with four intravenous potions including a new trial drug. As it drip, drip, dripped through, my mummy – who stayed by my side for the entire 11 hours – and the nurses watched me carefully, as if I might do something whizz bang, like Grandma after taking George’s Marvellous Medicine.

Attractive (and very cold...) hat, there, Pinchy.

Attractive (and very cold…) hat, there, Pinchy.

No matter how long those treatment days were – not to mention the interminable scans and check-ups – I had company for the full length of almost every one. New friends, old friends, my sister, my mummy, my mother-in-law and my husband came in shifts. My best friend bought me an M&S tuna salad every time so I could pass on the grim hospital lunch on the chemo day ward – always the last tasty thing I ate before my taste buds were nuked and my mouth went dead for a fortnight.

My sister – my rock – brought sweet lattes, and trashy magazines, and a beautiful Merci Maman necklace with the names of DH, DD and DS engraved on tiny hearts. My brother-in-law lugged Uggs back from a trip to the US so I would be warm and comfortable over that long, dark winter. My mummy bought me a sheepskin bear to cuddle, and made me flasks of ice chips to suck to save my mouth from blistering. Most importantly, she and my Pops, and DH’s parents, took turns to look after DD, who had just started school, and my DS, who was at nursery, and keep life as normal as possible for them.

It would have been an altogether difference experience without social media. The texts and Twitter and Facebook messages on every treatment milestone, from chemo through surgery, radiotherapy, months of herceptin drips and more surgery – became my oxygen. I was truly bombarded with love from all around, transcending time and distance and family fall-outs. It was overwhelming at first – I honestly had no idea how much I was loved – but people just saying they were thinking of me was a little thing that made a huge difference.

My friends saved up gossip and made me laugh, to take my mind off the pain of the canula, and the throbbing freeze of the cold cap, often arranging their own childcare just to be with me. One dear friend, who appointed himself my court jester throughout my treatment, texted me with a terrible joke every single time I was wired up to a drip. My biggest client bought me a real Hermes scarf to cover my bald patch! Another amazing friend handled all the woo-woo stuff I love: driving me to Essex to see a healer, and finding a kinesiologist and an acupuncturist to help with the side effects. Someone I hadn’t seen for years sent me some beautiful crystals. Another lovely friend sent me Figleaves vouchers after my surgery so I could buy some new, smaller bras. And my darling husband was always there: holding my thinning hair back when I was throwing up, gently stroking my sore skin, providing tissues for the constant nosebleeds, ferrying me around and generally trying to make life as easy as possible for me.

Chemo days almost felt like we were waiting for a flight to an exotic holiday, not battling anything – just buggering on through it, with humour and patience and as much dignity as one can muster when one is constantly required to get one’s tits out for examination. Trench camaraderie, maybe, but I’ve always thought of cancer as an interesting journey and my most important lesson, rather than a war against rogue cells.

And perhaps the biggest of all the little things was my loved ones’ willingness to indulge me in this. They never cried in front of me. They never showed their fear. They were never too sympathetic. No-one ever said ‘poor you’, thank goodness. They took my rejection of ‘cancer language’ such as ‘fighting’, ‘battling’ and ‘surviving’ on board.

Whatever they talked about between themselves or felt inside, I was always, consistently, buoyed up with laughs, and love, and extreme care. They let me be optimistic, and stubborn, and cheerful and sociable. They encouraged (or at least didn’t completely dismiss) my exploration of complementary therapies. They let me treat cancer as a terribly big adventure. They let me take the controls.

They let me f*ck cancer in my own way. And so I did.

Anger management

This is going to be a hard post for me to write, I suspect. But you know I’ve never shied away from looking myself in the eye and critically assessing my emotions and behaviour. And when there’s a Big Thing going on in the background, it’s kinda tricky to honestly and engagingly write about anything else. So I’m just gonna blog this one out. Be patient with me, gentle reader.

So. This is the thing. [Deep breath]. I lose my temper.

OK, I can hear a chorus of wry guffaws from other mums there. We all lose our rag, I know that. It ain’t pretty, but it happens. Sometimes our reaction is out of proportion to the crime committed. Often, we feel bad and guilty afterwards. But I’m not just talking about ‘normal’ exhausted mummy roaring when the smalls or their father have just tipped you over the edge. I’m talking about a truly disproportionate, terrifying fury that is extremely scary for everyone involved, including me. I’m talking about Losing It. ‘Seeing Red’, like Lucy, the little girl in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Magic Finger’, who finds sparks flying out of her fingers when she gets cross. Being out of control. Anger that bubbles up from deep inside, on a rush of adrenaline, and then explodes with little warning, leaving everyone traumatised, and weeks or months of relationship flotsam and jetsam to mop up. magic finger

Last May I wrote (Moodswings to the Max) about how hard I was finding it on the Tamoxifen I have to take for a total of five years to prevent my particularly aggressive, hormonally-linked form of breast cancer from coming back. I admitted that I was being a nightmare to live with, very up and down, and had on occasion gone off on one with people I love. I was still in that state, though, and not really ready or able to see things clearly.

What’s changed now is that after those horrendous first nine months or so on this powerful medication, I really did settle down, and the mood swings disappeared. And then something weird happened at the start of this year: I started to feel happy. Truly, peacefully, content. It started on a Thursday morning, on the way back from the school run. I was in the car, close to home, and suddenly had this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as bliss. Like all the love in the world was available to me, and like I could only conceive of expressing myself in loving ways. I know this sounds extraordinary, but that’s how it was.

And it didn’t go away. I had nearly two months of feeling completely marvellous. Work was effortless, and fulfilling; my relationships with DH, my children, my family and friends were relaxed, and loving, and joyful. Nothing really wound me up; I didn’t sweat the small stuff. I stopped worrying about things I couldn’t change. My inner sea was calm, and I was cheerful. I also experienced what I can only describe as compassion for the first time. For someone who has spent much of her adult life in various states of anxiety, depression, resentment and martyrdom, it was a revelation. This was how good life could be, with not a single thing changing other than my outlook! And it was easy, and unconscious! I was happy. Seriously, how cool is that?

All of which loveliness made it even more shocking when a few Saturdays ago, out of the blue, I EXPLODED with anger at a family dinner. No-one saw it coming, least of all me. It was like I was watching myself. I went ballistic, about a small thing, that had always mildly irritated me in the past but which I had never mentioned. I stood up. I shouted. I gesticulated. Doors were slammed. The row escalated – fire was met with fire – and then very soon afterwards I started to feel a terrible sense of remorse, horror, and utter worthlessness. It felt like I had smashed something really precious. I felt utterly drained, wrung out, and like I didn’t want to exist. My thoughts were scrambled.

And then endless apologising, and the validity of the thing I had been trying to communicate negated entirely by the manner in which I delivered it. There were mutterings about me needing to see a doctor, and even mental illness. And then I felt very flat, and very low, for a few days. So sorry. So disappointed and frustrated that I had shattered my own state of calm and happiness. So conscious that the relationships involved would take a long time to get back to normal.

And then I realised that this was the third time since starting on the Tamox that I had done this. There have now been three separate occasions, all with close (safe?) family members, where I’ve been annoyed about some relatively minor bit of behaviour for a while, and then the next time it happens, BOOM. Pinchy, having never mentioned that she was irritated by this behaviour before, throws a grenade into the room. Friendly fire is always the most shocking. There have also been other occasions with acquaintances where I’ve suddenly gone from being Mrs Nice Guy (with a particularly rubbish cleaner, with a jobsworth postman, with a nosy neighbour) to being the Crazy Angry Lady.

And I can only see this now. It’s so obvious, in retrospect, but at the time, on every occasion I really did feel that the other person was to blame, that they had pushed me so far that I had snapped. This gives me hope, actually: I think my Rose Period at the start of the year meant that I was in a good enough place when this last episode happened that I could reflect on and evaluate it in a much more honest way.

Anyway, DH and I went to the doctor (which we both felt was a box-ticking exercise to appease worried family members, to be honest) who was sympathetic, and not at all surprised or concerned given my current chemical make-up. She also cautiously suggested that DH and I go for some joint post-cancer counselling. I have never had any feelings of anger about having had cancer, and feel I’ve dealt fully with my own experience, with outside support in the forms of my wonderful Health Creation Mentor, Kit, and my coach Amanda (not to mention my amazing family and friends). DH has also had his own course of counselling, but we’ve never spoken to anyone together about the hell of 2010-2011. We literally have no idea what the other has gone through. And his tendency to get angry himself when I go off the rails (thus not really helping the situation) may be rooted in his fear of losing me, which we’ve never explored together in a safe place.

I have also taken what feels to me like the most appropriate action: getting some tools under my belt to diffuse anger if and when I feel it brewing. I have just got back from my second cognitive hypnotherapy session with the quite brilliant Teresa Harvey who uses a mix of counselling, hypnotherapy, NLP and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – the ‘tapping’ that you sometimes see Paul McKenna using to help hardwire positive suggestions more effectively). We’ve looked at my memories and experience of anger, in the past and recently. We’ve done some visualisation stuff in a trance state. We’ve looked at how I might, in the future, be able to calm myself down and respond, rather than react, from a calm, assertive, loving place. It’s exhausting work, because I re-experience all the emotions I felt at the time, but it also feels very cleansing, and important, and positive.

So. I wish I could turn back time and not have put my loved ones – or myself – through these episodes. But sometimes things have to get really bad before they get better. Every experience teaches us something valuable. And if I come out of this more able to deal with conflict and my emotions, then that’s got to be a good thing for my children, my marriage, and my relationships with everyone from our parents to our siblings to my best friends to the bloody jobsworth postman. I’ve only got three and a half more years on the Tamoxifen. And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be able to say that I used to lose my temper. And get back to being calm and cheerful again.

Most of the time, anyway: I need to continue to teach my children that experiencing a full range of emotions, positive and negative, is normal and desirable, and it’s how you handle those feelings that counts. Also, I’m not the new Pope, or Buddha, and there’s always going to be some tosser who cuts you up on the roundabout.