First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
A cancer diagnosis can feel like a restraining order, but I have also found something unexpected: liberation.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer last June. After a routine mammogram, things moved quickly. Within one week I was scheduled to meet the surgeon for the results of a biopsy. When I presented myself to the receptionist, she handed me a clipboard with a questionnaire to fill out. I refer to this as the "So You have Cancer …" questionnaire. I looked at my husband and laughed: if there had been any hope that this was all a big misunderstanding, all doubt had surely gone out the window now. I was given a thick, spiral-bound resource booklet that contained lots of helpful information, but was also too real and terrifying to read. I didn’t sign up for this journey. I wanted off!
Several tests and procedures followed, including a lumpectomy with some lymph nodes removed for good measure, and the subsequent hand off to oncologists. A treatment plan was presented. This satisfied my need for routine and order in what became the new normal: weekly calls from the hospital, instructing me to be at this place at that time, something like what I imagine my life might be like as an international spy. I learned to plan my life one week at a time, and to be okay with that. This adaptability came in handy when, one week before Christmas, I was hastily scheduled for surgery to remove more lymph nodes after a biopsy confirmed we’d missed something. Back to the beginning we go.
Once the daily radiation treatments started, I cut my work hours in half. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was told that the fatigue that comes with cancer is not like any kind of fatigue I’d known before, and boy, were they right.
Then the magic happened.
I started to realize that this life change had brought with it an unexpected gift of sorts. Not for a minute do I think I am the only person with cancer to have had this epiphany, but it caught me by surprise. Liberation: Unencumbered by expectations. Permission to say no. The usual pressures of life gave way to a different kind of stress, but it came with self-discovery. I do what I can and care not about the rest. I am humbled, more compassionate, less judgmental, less self-righteous. I thought turning 50 would be a turning point in my life, but never did I see it manifesting in this way. I thought I was untouchable, healthy, strong, powerful. For that the universe gave me a swift kick to the arse.
Decisions come more easily with clarity and perspective, and things I’d previously weighted more heavily no longer matter as much. I don’t need a perfect home. I’m not intimidated by those “No. 11” wrinkles between my eyebrows. What does matter now is having family and friends and a husband who can be strong enough to shoulder this new responsibility with me. I look forward to simple things like my garden this spring, and commuting to work on my bike when frequent appointments at the hospital are no longer my thing. I eagerly anticipate the joy of getting my quiet, modest life back and I’m grateful that these are options for me. But I’m also really okay with where I am now, receiving excellent care, having permission to slow down, and feeling like this happened for a reason. That reason was not something I could point to, control or plan, and maybe that was the whole point.
During treatment, I learned about terrible side effects that can prevent some cancer patients from eating, and feel strangely lucky that my experience so far has not been that extreme. The dietitian reminds us that our cells are being killed off, that we are losing muscle mass, and that now is the time for high protein, high energy foods: cheese, ice cream, milkshakes, extra calorie nutritional supplement drinks. My husband exclaims, “Cancer diet is the best!,” to which I reply, “Not your turn, buddy.”
I feel like on that fateful day last June when I was diagnosed I pulled a Harry Potter and walked through the brick wall on platform 9 3/4, never to return the same person. I am part of a world that has, up to now, been invisible to me. I have discovered the Hogwarts of the health care system. It’s awe inspiring, it’s big, and there are lots of people there. And the professionals are really good at what they do. I feel kind of special having been invited to this place. And again, lucky. The oncologist says my prognosis is very good. He turns his tablet toward me to show that when my variables are plugged into a program, there’s a 91 per cent chance I’ll still be alive in 10 years. I feel like I’ve won the cancer lottery (just not the kind where you win a house or a car).
I used to wonder how it would feel to be told I had cancer. I didn’t think about it too much because it was too scary and besides, all those other stories were not my story (see aforementioned feelings of invincibility). Sure, my initial reaction was fear, panic, sorrow, anger and all that other stuff. Then I found my resilience. The fear is still there, but to my amazement, I am handling it. I am indeed stronger than I thought. “You got this,” people say encouragingly, but who knows? We would never suggest that anyone who does not survive cancer lacked “sticktoitiveness.” I can’t will a tumour away. I couldn’t tell my lymph nodes to be cancer-free. I could not decide what stage I might be, no matter how determined I was. And while I celebrate those who announce their cancer-free status on social media, I simultaneously wince for those who can’t say the same, and don’t think I would want to tempt fate with my own declaration.
Speaking of other people’s stories, back in 2017 I marvelled at how American author Amy Krouse Rosenthal could summon the strength and write her heartbreaking New York Times essay, “You May Want to Marry my Husband.” She was dying of cancer and this was her final flourish, a love letter of sorts in the form of a dating profile for her husband. I could not imagine how she felt, facing the end of her life, wanting more and very publicly giving her husband permission to start a new life with someone else. Yet, she was steadfast in her determination. I know now that strength and resolve are the products of our greatest challenges, liberating us to do what we never could have imagined ourselves doing before.
Leslie Elliott lives in Ottawa.