I’ve only recently added this up; In Australia, my home country, a dead mother in the year I turned 11. A dead father by 13. That weird epilepsy phase in London in my 20s that, before I was medicated, involved tonic clonic (“grand mal”) seizures in really awkward situations, like when crossing the road (I once launched myself into slow, oncoming traffic in Fulham, a car broke my fall) or whilst running to work in Knightsbridge, (I landed head first on the pavement, you always land head first during a seizure, but on my chin this time, judging by the size of it afterwards, rupturing my ear drum in the process). A couple of miscarriages in my early 30s, and two births that probably would have killed me in medieval times. And now, with a breast cancer diagnosis in my early 40s, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d be on the wrong side of natural selection were it not for the grace of modern medicine.
I was diagnosed in February with a 4.7cm Grade 1 invasive ductal carcinoma, lymph-node positive, and like many in the post-treatment phase, sitting with the lows and trying to wrestle fear to the ground, the fear of incurable metastatic return in another part of my body. It’s proving to be a tad tough, shall we say.
The goal, the sweet spot to aim for, after cancer treatment, apparently, is to live like you’ve had a massive wake up call and switch your mind off to the ‘what ifs’. This brush with death is often positioned as a gift. Fast-tracked enlightenment. A crash course in Buddhism with suffering built-in to the offer.
The thing is, because of that other stuff on the list (y’know, ‘the past’), I’ve always had a keen sense of my own mortality. But I didn’t live in fear. In my 20s and 30s, I lived hard, fast and full, often choosing to do things that took me to the keen edge of fear. Bungy jumping. Crossing the Bay of Biscay, notorious for storms, in a small yacht. Hiking a section of the GR20, a high altitude walking trail in the Pyrenees, on my own and without a tent. (In truth, sleeping wild was partly because I couldn’t map-read well enough to find the mythical Shepherd’s Huts along the trail but that’s another story). I’ve always felt lucky to be alive.
I didn’t really know it at the time, but packing it all in like that was also a pretty handy avoidance strategy. The relentless pursuit of fun and happiness, no time or space to think or feel. Humans are hardwired to avoid pain and I made a shining example of one showing how it’s done.
It wasn’t until my late 30s, happily married with two gorgeous children, living in the idyllic Cotswolds, surrounded by incredible friends that, in kind of oblique ways at first, I started to unravel. Always fine fine fine but with an intolerance to anything but, and always finding ways to rationalise dips, and always always able get myself out of them. I WAS HAPPY, DAMMIT.
What I couldn’t quite explain were those occasional ‘appearances’ from my parents in my consciousness – I’d find myself, on a Tuesday afternoon say, whilst putting away pants, suddenly blindsided by a memory from child-me, seen through the mind’s eye of adult-me, now a mother, and I’d lose my breath. Bouts of the lows got closer together and went on for longer, in retrospect possibly a low-level, high-functioning, humming depression. Bouts of anxiety that I didn’t recognise as anxiety at the time, all the while feeling happy but never feeling enough, and all the while becoming increasingly detached, disappearing into myself as I tried to work it all out.
At the time, It felt a bit like ambling into a gentle, mild-mannered, early mid life crisis and I tried to solve it in all the predictable ways. Work. Running. Volunteering. Yoga. Projects. Hobbies. Parties. Work. Parties. Eventually, when I got stuck, when I was doing all these things and didn’t have the answers any more, when there was nothing to do but hide in the study and cry, without any understanding of what I was crying about, my little girls, then so little, on the other side of the door, I sought out therapy.
A random chat with someone at a party eventually got me to the right kind. She mentioned Psychodynamic therapy – a talking therapy where you look to the past to understand your present. A penny clanged loudly somewhere over there. Ah. Yes. That. The past. Maybe I should go there.
Fast forward to Breast Cancer. The most shocking thing about the diagnosis when it came wasn’t the cancer – it was that I felt I had predicted my own death.
The diagnosis came at the tail end of a year of weekly therapy sessions where I had divulged something to my therapist, something I’d never told anyone and wasn’t sure I’d even actually thought it out loud before, It was more of a feeling, a feeling that I might not have been able to find and grasp in my hands were it not for the ferreting around that comes with psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that you trip over, incidentally, as is often the way with therapy, the feeling that I was going to die young.
Talking about it meant I was able to untangle the impact, chiefly, a growing detachment from my daughters and my husband – I was pulling away, protecting them, and me, from loving too deeply by way of preparation for my inevitable death. I had even, during really dark times, thought of leaving. It would be easier on everyone that way.
It turns out that my experience, this feeling, is extremely common among adults who lost their parents as children, particularly as you approach the age they were when they died. My mother was 46 when she was switched off very suddenly by a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage. I was 41 when I started therapy. By degrees, I was able to to accept that this feeling was a function of my past. The invention of the grief-addled inner child, the same one that, before her mother died had wondered what it would be like if Mum died, had even played it out in her mind, and for many years after, lived with the feeling that she’d killed her mother by thinking it first. Shit. I don’t think I’ve even told my therapist that bit.
When it came to finding the not-a-lump in my breast (because it wasn’t a lump, but an ‘innocuous’ thickening of breast tissue, even my husband couldn’t feel the importance), there was a fair degree of wrestling with myself before I went to the GP. For a time, I convinced myself that what I was feeling was a physical manifestation of what was in my head. That wasn’t a 47mm tumour, it was paranoia. That already quietly invasive carcinoma was my dead mother.
As the cancer reality unfolded, as the meetings progressed and the diagnosis became clearer, the idea that this was the beginning of the death I had apparently predicted, felt so absurd, absurdly cruel in fact, that I readily dismissed it. Instead, it became a dark coincidence of such magnitude that it deserved to be laughed at. “I spent a year in therapy persuading myself I wasn’t going to die, then got diagnosed with cancer”. Ha! Like, I mean, seriously? Apart from anything else, I was truly determined to live. My mind diverted its attention to treatment and survival, and I rode that wave with gusto and positivity, which is exactly how the world wants you to face cancer.
But there was a corresponding idea that came with my diagnosis, an idea that swam up in my own mind early on which I, again, kicked into the long grass, but one I could also see in the eyes of those who knew about my past and that traumatic first year of therapy, the year where it roared out. It hung in the silence on the phone when I told them. That I had given myself cancer by being broken. Thirty years of deeply buried grief, had poured into my breast and made a tumour. This cancer was the ‘error of my feelings’.
A cancer diagnosis outs the ‘truths’ people hold. Random cellular mutation isn’t enough. In the absence of a satisfactory explanation, humans feel compelled to fill in the gaps, particularly if you don’t look like a walking risk factor. “Her cancer was caused by stress”, a friend said of her Aunt, and “cancer is caused by childhood trauma” said another, as I tried to hold my face still, wondering whether I should ask her to elaborate, very specifically, ideally with some science, on how my dead parents gave their future daughter cancer. Tragic.
Now nearly seven months since diagnosis, first-phase of active treatment behind me, that early gusto and positivity that carried me through has evaporated and I am settling into that ‘new normal’ that is often spoken of, a new normal that accepts fear of a return as par for the course, a normal where the ‘gift’ of that brush with death hangs heavy in the hand.
These are the things we all deal with. But we all also have our own personal narratives to untangle. How you deal with cancer, what it throws up in your mind, is bound up in what came before it. And the mind can be a terrible thing, especially at night.
For me, it’s about rebuilding trust in myself whilst simultaneously fighting off the inevitability demons. When things are really bad, mine comes in the form of a near-comedy Grim Reaper telling me that this is written. My death was foretold. And if not, I made it happen by subconsciously feeling its possibility. But it’s the fear that grabs at you in daylight hours that’s in many ways, worse. Like the Dementors in Harry Potter, those dark hooded creatures that feed on human happiness, the fear drains you of joy and hope.
I know what needs to be done. I need to conjure my own version of the Patronus Charm to ward off the Dementors and re-write that narrative that gnaws at me in dark corners of daylight hours. Even if I die of this cancer, I refuse to let that be my story. I don’t have the answers as to how to do this yet (apparently the Patronus Charm is particularly hard to master), but I do know that it is daily work and that writing about it is part of it.
Occasionally standing in an empty field and roaring “FUUUUUCK OOOOOOOFF” at the top of my lungs is also very helpful.