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.
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.