Today I’m taking a break from Thursday Tidbits, just so that there’s a chance to let all that stuff sink in. It’s huge trying to work out your thinking, break it down and challenge it. We need a bit of time. So keep practicing! Because I’ll totes know if you’re not. I’m waaaaatching you (feeling creeped out enough yet? I’m good like that). I think we often get so scared about bad shit happening to us, trying to picture what it might feel like in the situation, but never really quite gaining the full picture. So this is all about looking from ‘the other side’, seeing what it’s really like to go through some bad shit. And when you’re confronted with it, how the hell you deal.
I ‘met’ the amazing Sam from The Annoyed Thyroid whilst stumbling my way through my feeble attempts to start up blogging (actually still feebly attempting as I type this). Instantly I was blown away by her warmth, her spark and her enthusiasm. She’s infectious- in a good way. Not like rabies or that bad rash in places you can’t speak of. Anyways, I think when it comes to thinking and feeling good, Sam’s a total pro. You’d think life has been one effortless breeze for her with the happy-go-lucky nature she exudes. But you know the corker of it all? She’s gone through one of the toughest things we could face in life- that dreaded ‘c’ word. Not Christmas (though that’s pretty rough too- we’ll learn all about that soon enough), but cancer. And not once, but twice. Holy.shitballs. Puts things into perspective, huh? When you’re faced with your own mortality, that shit can have a little bit of a sway on your thinking and feeling. Sam has kindly agreed to share her story, and how she’s managed to bounce back from such a scary time in her life. And by reading it, hopefully you too can resonate with Sam, and know that you’ve got that strength in you too. It’s right there. You just might not know it yet.
Finding out I had cancer
So in early 2011, I found a small lump at the back of my neck. I was sure it was nothing but got it checked out anyway. It turned out the lump at the back was nothing, but at the front of my neck, I had a tiny malignant nodule on my thyroid. I had cancer. Because the lump was so small, and I was in denial, I called my lump Adam, because Adam is a much nicer name that cancer and it was located in the same place as an Adam’s Apple. After a partial thyroidectomy, Adam came and went and I was cancer free.
Six months later, I’d turned 40, was living life to the full and I planned a big trip to the UK to celebrate my cancer free status. I had a routine “check up” 3 days before I was due to leave on my homecoming tour. It turned out that there was nothing routine about my check up at all. Adam was back and he had brought friends. My thyroid was riddled with cancer which had spread to my lymph nodes. This time it was business,
The first time, when the doctor said those words over the phone, for a moment, it was as if all the lights and all the volume went out in my world. Then, when they came back on, all I could think was, I’m not even 40 and I am going to die. Then… how am I going to tell my husband. I won’t lie, it felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world.
Strangely, the second diagnosis, although a lot more serious was much easier to bear. I remember thinking, oh crap, here we go again. And then, what about my holiday?! It was a road that we had travelled before, and although it’s a road no one wants to travel down once, let alone twice, it was strangely familiar to me and I knew if I could do it once I could do it again.
For me, being faced with two cancer diagnoses in six months was quite the emotional roller coaster ride, experiencing extreme highs (“you’re cancer free!) and bottomless lows (“the cancer is back and it’s bigger.” ) At nights, I would often be gripped with fear, contemplating my own mortality. Even though my trusty surgeon told me my prognosis was excellent, I would still surf the net through the night and scare myself shitless. According to the inter webs, I only had 3 years to live. The moral of this story is don’t google stuff, just don’t. If you have a question ask your doctor and if they don’t know the answer, find a doctor who does. There was anger too, because having cancer was just so frickin inconvenient. It was really getting in the way of life. It stopped me from going on holiday, working, running to name but a few of my favourite things. Most of all, it was hurting the people I loved, and that really ruffled my feathers. Talking of people I loved there was a lot of guilt too. I hated to see what my illness was doing to my friends and family. Even though they put a brave face on it, I could see what my illness was doing to them and it broke my heart knowing that I was responsible for their pain and suffering.
Most of all, I felt really helpless, like there was some alien growing inside me and eating my body from the inside out. The thing that freaked me out the most was that this situation was totally out of my control. Being a bit of a control freak who loves to plan, schedule and be fully au fait, with what comes next, this was the worst case scenario. Having cancer is a steep and speedy learning curve, I soon realised that although I couldn’t control my cancer, I could control the way I dealt with it.
The fear of the unknown was a one of the biggie struggles I faced after being diagnosed. I found that knowledge was power. I had so many questions and I wanted all the answers. I used to carry around a notebook and keep it next to my bed at night so I could write down all the questions. I would attend every doctor’s appointment with a long list. The more answers I had, the better I felt. Questions would range from the mundane as to times and dates of appointments to details of treatments or procedures. The more I knew, the better I felt. But a big part of this was accepting that I couldn’t and wouldn’t know everything and that’s ok.
Looking at the world differently
Having cancer changed the way I saw the world immeasurably and irrevocably. For a start, I stopped sweating the small stuff and tried to live more in the moment. It’s really hard to describe without sounding like a cliche, but life before cancer was like a good photograph; in focus and good quality. Life after cancer is the same photograph; but with some kick ass filter and greater definition. I don’t take anything for granted, (or at least I try not to,) and now I really do see the bigger picture, right down to the little details.
I also take great delight in looking for the flip side because even the darkest cloud really does have a silver lining (sometimes you just have to work a little harder to find it.) Looking for a positive in a negative situation was something I had to do a lot when I had cancer, and I still do it now. For example, if I hadn’t had cancer I wouldn’t have blogged, if I hadn’t blogged, I wouldn’t have met Dr Sash!
I used to love making long term plans and would have a diary full of dates for months and even sometimes years to come. Diagnosis and treatment scuppered lots of my dreams and plans for the foreseeable future and the disappointment I felt was more painful than any procedure or treatment I endured. For that reason, these days I prefer to live in the moment, making plans on a day by day or week by week basis. Life moves pretty fast and living in the now and being more spontaneous allows me to enjoy and savour the present.
I remember telling the hubster that I had two choices, I could stand up and fight or I could crumble like a cookie. And I wasn’t going to be no cookie! In so many ways I felt that cancer took over my life, and that it was defining me. Cancer slowly infiltrated every area of my life, my health, my energy, my relationships, my job, everything seemed touched by cancer.
I learned that in life, there are some things we can’t control, and that’s when I had to learn to let go. I hated not being able to control my cancer, so I took control of my life instead. I was kind to myself. I realised my limitations and did what I could. I spent more time doing things I loved. Doing what I loved made me happy.
People would marvel at my positive attitude. I marvelled at why they were marvelling. Slapping a smile on my dial was the best medicine. My therapist helped me to look for the best in every situation and having a positive outlook was such an important part of both my mental and physical wellness. There was shit going down, but I was sure as hell not going down with it. I smiled, laughed and piss took with wild abandon. I got cancer but I wasn’t going to let it get me.
I surrounded myself with a medical team who I trusted and who supported me. I loved my surgeon, my GP was amazingly supportive and I had a straight talking Endocrinologist too. When you have cancer you spend a lot of time at doctors’ offices. I can’t stress the importance of having doctors on your side. After the second diagnosis, I also visited a psychologist. Best thing I ever did.
I redefined my normal. I tried to stop comparing my life BC (before cancer) with my new life. Comparison is the thief of joy, ain’t that the truth? Instead, I invested my energy into adjusting to my new reality. It wasn’t better or worse, just different.
I was lucky enough to have a medical team who I trusted and got the help I needed when I needed it. I was lucky to be treated by an amazing group of medical professionals, if I hadn’t been happy with them at any stage, I would have changed them in a heartbeat.
I visited a psychologist. Cancer attacked my body physically but it also impacted my mental health. Taking care of my mental health was a quintessential part of my recovery.
I exercised. Inbetween treatments I ran. As much as I could. Running made me happy. I did a lot more of things that made me happy.
I started a blog. I had so many thinks inside me that I had to get out. Blogging allowed me to connect to the outside world. I still blog and to this day, it’s probably my most favourite “cancer perk.”
hate to sound like an extra from “Frozen” but I learned to “let go.” I let go of what I couldn’t control and enjoyed the things I could.
I set goals, not long term ones, but things that I could achieve on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. I loved the challenge of having something to work towards and having things to look forward to. Everyone needs a purpose, right?
Cancer and them feels
Cancer had a huge impact on my mental health. I think it’s naive to think otherwise. It was glaringly obvious that I wasn’t coping so well when I got my second diagnosis and asking for and getting the help I needed, was the best thing I ever did.
My mental health plan and my psychologist saved my bacon. The counselling I received was as important as any of the physical treatment, surgeries or medications. Those counselling sessions helped me along the road to recovery and have led me to the happy place I’m at today
My head was so full of stuff and a lot of it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t want to offload on my friends and family, they were going through enough, and I didn’t want people to give me the answers they thought I wanted to hear. Counselling gave me a safe place to brain dump and a trusted professional who heard me out and helped me to work things out in my own time, in my own mind.
Cancer has left me with physical scars, you can hardly see them now, but there are emotional scars too, and guess what, you can’t see them either. Having cancer has changed my life and the way I live it. I tell people that cancer made my life better, it’s richer, it’s fuller, I’m happier. They look at me like I had part of my brain removed and not my thyroid. But it’s true.
I’ve recently been “discharged” from therapy because I’m too joyous, something, I’m weirdly proud of. However, if my cancer comes back and bites me on the butt, I’ll be back to my therapist in a heartbeat and I know her door will always be open.
One piece of advice
It’s so hard to choose one. Can I choose two?
Get your tribe together! Cancer is not for the solo traveller, it’s a group excursion. Get your family and friends on board and a team of medical professionals on board. Surround yourself with specialists who you trust, GPs who listen and get a mental health professional on your team too. Because you’re worth it!
As Viktor Frankl said “those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Live life with purpose, set goals (size really doesn’t matter) and let yourself achieve them. From getting out of bed to jumping out of an aeroplane, yes, you can!
Sam loves to bake, run, eat dumplings and make magic in her thermomix (but not all at the same time.) When she’s not baking, running or eating, she likes to kick cancer’s butt and look on the bright side of life.
Have you ever faced a huge health issue in your life? How did you get through it? And is Sam not the most happiest lady on Earth? x