When I started this blog a year ago tomorrow, I was scared. I had been told I had breast cancer just hours before. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I was scared that as soon as my brain began to unwind I would become consumed with thoughts of my own decline and death and how that might be frighteningly closer than I ever imagined. As Chris slept next to me I never felt more alone.
Being diagnosed has been a profoundly isolating experience. Not that I think anyone could have done anything to change that. When my family and friends banded around me and smothered me with love when I was diagnosed and throughout this past year, it really helped. But the profound feeling that me alone is on this path through to whatever conclusion is probably the hardest part of having cancer. That, of course, is life, not cancer. But the cancer has made that reality so much more acute.
The thing I have tended to say more than anything when I’m overcome with it all and sobbing in Chris’ arms is “I want my life back”. I feel that less today than I did six months ago. I am reclaiming my life.
I’m so glad of my Dad’s steady voice in my head on Day 1: telling me to keep a diary. And I’m glad my gut told me it would be better to make that diary a blog. Starting the blog was one of the best decisions I have ever made. While it kept my family and friends in the loop, the real benefit for me was exploring and ordering my thoughts, emotions and decisions. I also hope it might help others who are diagnosed and want a contemporaneous account of what to expect along the way.
I’ve also, as the blog dragged on, tried to include some stories about my life. More than anything I hope one day my kids and grandkids will read it and get a better understanding of who I am. I hope I am around to show them myself. My early diagnosis would certainly point to that being likely but in the pit of my stomach I confess to feeling the cancer will get me at some point.
That doesn’t mean I’m not positive or strong. I’m proud of the way I’ve handled the past year. Really proud. I’m not sure I was sufficiently self-aware beforehand to predict how I would handle such a diagnosis. I’ve continued to give my best to my family, friends and work. Even when my best has been less than my normal standards. I hope I’ve set a good example to my kids and everyone who knows me.
There have been some highs this last year. Traveling to the US. Wandering around New York. Seeing my Harvard friends. The creative element of writing. The balm that is music. The feeling of recovery and gaining strength after a major debilitation. Beauty. Laughter. Love.
Some thank yous.
To my kids. Despite the strength I have shown I’m scared I have scarred them for life. When my Dad unexpectedly picks up my daughter from school she automatically asks what’s wrong. They will remember this year always. The hospital visits. The scars. The tears. The disruption. I hope they too can learn about life from what we’ve been through together. I love them both so much.
To my Dad. Everyone that knows him knows what a lucky person I am to have him as my father. He has stepped in and worked so hard, doing all the household chores and being my chauffeur whenever he’s been needed. I can’t imagine how harrowing it has been for him to go through my breast cancer diagnosis after it took Mum. But he’s never shown anything other than strength, even when he’s been wiping away tears. I simply don’t know what I would do without him.
To my sister Rachel. It’s been particularly hard for her because, of course, the shoe could have so easily been on the other foot. We have always been close, especially after living together for seven years in our twenties. She has been a real confidant during this year and words cannot describe how truly grateful I am to have her in my life.
To my friends Kirsten and Brett. You have gone above and beyond. Looking after me, and my family, with so many wonderful meals and invaluable support.
To my sister-in-law Amal. She dropped everything to come take photos of me and my real boobs before the first surgery so she could create charcoal drawings for me.
Two special mentions to fellow travelers. To Ellen. You have guided me from the very beginning. Thank you. To Tammy. You liked my post on day one. No one knew I had even started a blog. I didn’t have the courage to read your blog for months. You always have a friend in me.
Final thank you goes to Chris. I always said he should enjoy my boobs while he could. I really don’t think either of us took that line seriously. It’s been a hard job, being my partner this last year. He’s the reason I started a blog not a diary. I knew if it was a diary I would just complain about him. And he certainly would never deserve that. He always says “I don’t know what you’re going through”. I love that. He’s run with me. He’s tried to understand, even when I didn’t even know why I was crying. We’ve been together for 24 years and he’s without doubt the best person I’ve ever known.
I’m reluctant to single out others. The phone calls. Messages. Flowers. Meals. Music. Words that have given me great strength, comfort and courage.
Some people with cancer seem to lose a few friends during the tough times. I don’t feel like that. If anything, I feel I’ve gained some. One friend I know through work messaged me one night shortly after my diagnosis to tell me about a whole lot of my work he had just done on my behalf without me even asking. He said “…your blog is great. My mum had the exact type of breast cancer you have and told no-one. Not even her siblings. You start a blog on the first day. That’s awesome…”
In the end no one knows what their future holds and I am no different. I’ve always lived my life well. Travelled. Indulged. But still done the responsible stuff like buy a house, save and have a few kids. Dad’s life advice has always been the same and I’ve tried to honour it. From Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “As Polonius advised his son Laertes as he was leaving for France, ‘to thine own self be true'”. I’ve tried to write honestly. I’ve trusted my instincts throughout it all and I haven’t felt let down. I’ve fought to get back on my feet and I’m almost there. But the person who has emerged is different. Not to most people. But I know I am, although it’s hard to put my finger on how (other than the obvious).
The obvious is two tear shaped silicon breast implants under my re-orientated pec muscles with reconstructed nipples (how could I not mention them in my final blog). My nipples are made from my breast skin and fat and a full thickness skin graft from the site of my old caesarian scar. I have two tiny tattoos under my arm pits that mark where the surgeons took my sentinel lymph nodes. I record the detail because I still find these physical changes surreal.
The physical differences are not overly noticeable to anyone but me. On the day of my diagnosis I put on my favourite little black dress, went to my local beach and took the picture that’s on this blog. Today I recreated that photo, despite a lack of beach weather. You can judge for yourself.
So here’s a fond farewell to my blog. While I created you, I owe you. I’ll do a few postscripts about the Reconstruction Party, the medical tattooist and the Mother’s Day Classic. I’ve had nearly 25,000 visits, from 51 different countries. Thanks to all the readers. Silent and otherwise. I love you all.