Tuesday, 24 June 2014

3. How do you cope?

We had the most beautiful funeral for my mother yesterday, full of roses, tears and sunshine.

We arrived back in London this morning. Tomorrow, I have an appointment with the surgeon to hear the pathologist’s verdict on my cancer cells.

Here is something people keep telling me: “You are coping so well… I don’t know how you do it.”

The thing is, I really don’t know about this. I have no idea what coping looks like, and come to think of it, I have even less of an idea what not coping looks like. The truth is, you just go through life from day to day, because what else can you do?

It is 12 weeks since I received my cancer diagnosis, and I have spent most of those weeks sitting around, staring at life. 

Is that coping?

I have prioritised the few things that I felt were absolutely necessary in order to keep me sane:
Sitting at home. 
Spending time with my family - but not necessarily interacting with them (sorry kids).
Helping to look after my mother and organise her funeral.

Sometimes, my priorities may seem strange. 
Trying to sort out the guitar chords for the funeral hymns, and gathering enough strength to play and sing yesterday - that was far more important than worrying about tomorrow's test results. 

(Quite frankly, I haven't really thought about the impending results at all. In fact I declined the surgeon's offer to give me some preliminary results last week. I needed to get through the funeral week first.)

I need to hear myself say this out loud, over and over again: 

I am a cancer patient. 
I am a one-breasted woman. 
I am mother-less. 

I can now say it without crying. Practice makes perfect. 

Sharing these words, they become real. Perhaps writing this blog is part of that effort to make things real, scary as it is. 
You, who are reading this, will then be able to speak those words to me too, confirming my new status in life, normalising what still feels new and abnormal. 
Helping me.

Then, I can start laughing about it all - and yes, there are plenty of laughs to be had, I can assure you. I feels like I've shed enough tears to see me through the whole of 2014, but I have also laughed and laughed about the ridiculous details of breast cancer. 

Is that coping?

Last week, I attended the outpatient clinic to have some of the excess fluid drained of my chest (the drain that was left in after the mastectomy had become blocked a few days earlier and had been removed – a rather painful episode I won’t bore you with). 

The breast care nurse, holding an oversized needle and syringe at the ready, asked me: “Are you back at work?”

It was only nine days post-mastectomy. The trip to the hospital (which also happens to be the place where I have my office) had used up my quota of energy for the day. I hadn’t been able to do any work at all, not for weeks and weeks and weeks. 

My wonderful, understanding GP was already licking her pencil to sign me off work for at least another month, “to be getting on with”. 

The nurse’s innocent question made me feel utterly inadequate. This nurse has followed my cancer journey from the start, and also knows about my mother. 

Are other women back at work with a breast full of fluid? 
Perhaps I am not coping, after all…?

If I have any answer to that question of coping, it is this:

I am coping because of my family and friends.

More than anything, I am coping because of the solid, utterly reliable support of my husband whose love is never in doubt.

I have wordlessly abdicated from my family responsibilities, and my husband and children do not question this: they bring me tea, sort out the washing, get on with their homework (mostly).

My questions would be: 
How do you cope when your cancer is so advanced that a cure seems optimistic?
How do you cope when you have children under tea-making age? 
How do you cope when you don't have a partner to hold your hand and pick up all the pieces you have dropped?
How do you cope when you cannot afford to take time off work? 
How do you cope when you do not have so many wonderful relatives, friends and colleagues rushing to the scene with supportive words, thoughts, and acts of kindness?

It may sound cheesy, but I really do feel carried on the wings of everyone’s love. 
I think that's why, and how, I have coped so far.

It’s a strange thing: these months have been awful, and I know there is quite a lot more to come. And yet, I cannot remember a time when I have felt more deeply blessed.


  1. That nurse needs to know that it was the Wrong Question. Physically and emotionally impossible, especially with your bereavement on top of everything else.

    1. Most hospital staff have been absolutely wonderful, understanding and compassionate. This particular nurse has not been known for her tact and insight though, and has managed to upset me on several occasions... It's amazing how one seemingly off-the-cuff comment can have quite a devastating impact on a vulnerable patient. (There's another blog story there, I suspect). I am learning a lot here and will, in years to come, be a better nurse for it I'm sure!

  2. Je gaat om met de dingen die er in je leven komen.
    Je gaat er mee om zoals jij er mee omgaat en dat is goed.
    Mensen kunnen veel meer dan ze van tevoren denken.
    En groot verdriet is niet alleen maar ellendig, maar ook een verrijking van je leven.
    Het relativeert alles wat daarvoor belangrijk leek te zijn.

    Dat neemt niet weg dat het soms moeilijk is.

    1. Dank je Karel. This is such a lovely comment, particularly coming from you, having gone through your young son's very tough cancer journey. (For anyone who is interested and can read Dutch: my cousin wrote a beautiful blog at the time http://hetoogvanp.nl/)
      You are right: we all have to cope in our very own way. If we had known beforehand what awaits us, we would probably say that we couldn't possibly go through all that - but then, when it happens, we do, and we find that we can. Somehow.