The scars, brain fog, nausea, fake breasts - the list goes on when you have cancer
Columnist Roisin Pelan writes about her life 'living with cancer'
I never expected to be one of those people I had so often read about ... “living with cancer”.
I grew up in a family of six children and it’s true what statistics tell us - one in two of us will be affected by cancer at some point in our lives. Four out of eight in our case. My mum, my brother, my sister and me.
We’ve all had our day in hell and it’s not somewhere we ever want to go back to. I spend a lot of time reading, researching, desperately hoping for something monumental which means I can stay. While I don’t have any cancer in my body currently (and I intend it to stay that way), I can never really get over the fact that a consultant and a very advanced breast cancer nurse told me I was going to die.
So I do absolutely everything in my power to make sure I keep proving them wrong. I’m obviously not medically trained, I’m not a herbalist, nor a nutritionist, but I do feel that I am the boss of my body, lover of my life, and I won’t ever leave it in the hands of anyone.
I think it is fair to say that the things I do besides conventional treatment help but I definitely feel having some sort of knowledge about natural treatments helps me personally. Not only do I feel way better than I did from the side effects, than I did the first time I had chemotherapy in 2014, but just the simple fact I am trying something extra gives me that feeling of hope.
If it isn’t doing me any harm, why not? Hope makes me feel more positive about the possibilities and that, in itself, gives me ammo to fight the fight day after day.
So what’s it like to live with cancer? It’s living in a nightmare, waking up and praying it wasn’t happening. It’s going on holiday and wondering if you’ll ever see that place again. It’s imagining your family carrying on their life without you. It’s hearing your child screaming for you, and you not being there. Aside from the mental turmoil, it’s the nausea, the multiple surgeries, the vein pain, the weekly bloods, the daily chemo, the monthly infusions, the six-monthly IV treatments.
Then there’s the body changes - the dry skin, the absence of breasts, the fake breasts that are hard and don’t move and aren’t remotely sensual. There’s the scars, the ageing, the fingernails dropping off, the numb hands and feet and then the massive brain fog. The brain fog. It drives me absolutely crazy and I’m pretty sure I come across to strangers as pretty much bonkers!
Sometimes, for example, someone could ask me the time, or directions or what I did last night ... and I have to repeat it in my head and then out loud. What did I do last night? Where am I? Why am I halfway through a sentence and I have lost the ability to talk?”
Speaking of the joys, here’s what else it’s like living with cancer. It’s illuminating, it’s living your life in HD, it’s smelling things all over again for the very first time - freshly cut grass, bread baking, hot cup of coffee, your child’s skin, your lover’s hair, your mum’s scarf when she hugs you.
It’s no longer existing, it’s full-on LIVING. It’s sitting in the garden and hearing the birds, it’s feeling the rain on your skin, it’s feeling laughter in your heart. It’s late summer evenings, the sound of kids playing, friends laughing and glasses chinking. It’s the taste of a juicy orange and the sound of guitar strings. the exhilaration of being able to really laugh again, the type where your jaws hurt and your tummy aches.
It’s being spontaneous and it’s about enjoying doing nice things, not having nice things. It’s having no inhibitions and going for the things you’ve always wanted to do. I feel it all and it feels so good. Sometimes I think it would be good for people to be able to experience the hell that comes with a cancer diagnosis, if only to experience the thrill of being alive.
If you could take one bit of advice from your dying self, believe me, it wouldn’t be “I’m glad you did all that overtime at work” or “good for you buying that nice house and car”. It would be “I wish I had more time with my family and friends”. In those darkest days, truly nothing else on earth matters. Use your time wisely.