Fortitude – Facing a force 12 storm head-on in 2012

Porthleven, Cornwall. Beautiful on a still day, dangerous on a wild one. Image credit: Cornwall365.co.uk

Porthleven, Cornwall. Beautiful on a still day, dangerous on a wild one.
Image credit: Cornwall365.co.uk

Today’s theme is fortitude, another of the cardinal virtues.

Fortitude: Noun.  Strength & firmness of mind; resolute endurance; courage in pain or adversity.

It’s fair to say 2012 hasn’t been too far short of facing a force 12 storm head-on while trying to keep everything together, as normal as possible, for the sake of those around me. Even during the times when I’ve been feeling anything but normal.

My call for fortitude began at the tail-end of 2011. My Mother-in-Law died, a difficult and convoluted situation that took a toll on me. I felt sorry for her; her life had been a series of unforeseen misadventures resulting in mental breakdown and institutionalisation in one shape or form since the age of 25-ish.  During summer 2011 she’d been in and out of hospital but was returned to her care home under the auspices of being better.  She wasn’t and died a short while afterwards.  I’m not sure I’ll ever stop thinking she had no real life at all and that’s what made me so sad for her.   I organised things, sorted out probate, helped clear her room all at a time when I was starting a secondment into a more senior role at work.  My boss had found a great new opportunity and his boss announced she’d be leaving by the end of the year too.  All change.

In January 2012 I was more than half way through the secondment, waiting to learn if I’d be confirmed in the role permanently. I had no idea, the months ticked on and I was still none the wiser.  I eventually found out after the secondment expired; I was pleased to learn of the promotion but news coming so late in the day took the shine off things somewhat.  As ever I threw myself into the role, worked my socks off and encouraged my teams to do likewise.  Some of our efforts were appreciated.

I realised from my very early career in Human Resources and my long-term career in Technology that some companies place little value on departments they misconstrue as ‘support’ or ‘service’ functions.  It’s not this way in all industries but some are behind the curve, they haven’t joined the dots yet.  It’s not worth stressing over but can be frustrating for those who see successful businesses holistically rather than in silos.

In April shortly after the promotion I noticed I was tired, very tired. I didn’t feel right.  I thought something looked different, went for various tests and investigations and remained staunchly positive throughout. I suspected the odds might be stacked against me; my family history is too damned predictable but I wouldn’t go along with the odds until they were confirmed.  Core biopsies followed at the end of May.

I’d already booked a week of activities to celebrate my son’s birthday in early June so was determined not to let him down.  I did my best to carry on regardless through this period of uncertainty and doubt. No-one’s 19th Birthday’s should be overshadowed by unconfirmed news that Mom might have cancer.  We had a good time and he has some great memories including his first trip to a West-End show.

On 12th June the odds became reality and for a month the reality kept getting worse.  The tumour is small, less than 1cm, but invasive.  Oops no it’s bigger, 2.4cm as it’s surrounded by an area of DCIS and LCIS (which, by the way, would also become invasive in 3 – 5 years).  The grade is 2 – no wait, it’s 3.  It might not be as contained as first thought, the MRI shows a lot of anomalies. Oh and it’s HER2 positive, that will be tricky.

Hello and welcome to the world of aggressive, difficult to treat breast cancer aged 42.  “This is treatable” my consultant said “and fortunately Herceptin is now funded for all HER2+++ women….  But only if you have chemotherapy.”

Being told you have cancer is never going to be good news but the worst news for me was chemotherapy.  I saw what it did to my Aunt and my Mom and I’ll never be able to shake those images from my mind.  I didn’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want it to happen to anyone.

RNLI Shannon Class Lifeboat. Credit: RNLI

RNLI Shannon Class Lifeboat. Credit: RNLI

After a week moping around, not eating, talking or sleeping I realised no-one was coming for me with a lifeboat.  I wasn’t helping myself either so I’d have to get my arse in gear, muster up some fortitude and ride this humdinger of a storm through.

I researched and researched and researched, went to every appointment with a list of questions and made sure to get answers.  I took along the latest papers, asked for explanations of conflicting findings, weighed up the risks and rewards of each surgery, surgical technique and the chemotherapy regimes I was offered.  And then I had an epiphany moment.

I realised I could just as easily get hit by a truck or obliterated in a car accident (I drive a many miles for work).  In fact there are plenty of other things that could kill me so why focus on cancer alone?  Why focus on any of them?  Life is for living and after the epiphany living is what I set out to do.

This change in perspective was fundamental in shifting my thoughts about myself and others. What really matters, the preciousness of time, finding something positive, inspiring and beautiful every day – even when the force 12 continues to howl all around me threatening mortal danger.  Why make my own life miserable, consumed by negativity and fear? Worse still why inflict that on those around me, why cause them more pain and concern than they undoubtedly already carry.

Of course there have been bad days; there have been some very bad days. This – investigations, surgeries, scars, chemotherapy, side-effects – is no walk in the park on a bright Spring morning.  There’ll probably be some dodgy days in future too because I have more surgeries to come in 2013. C’est la vie.  But finding fortitude – strength and firmness of mind; resolute endurance; courage in the face of pain or adversity – has been a big help. It’s an inner strength that carries me through.

Six months down the line from diagnosis and half way through my various treatments I have no idea what the future has in store for me. Or how long it will last.  But none of us ever knows how our life will map out, we don’t come equipped with a crystal ball at birth we just kid ourselves that we do. Throwing away the illusions, the ifs, whens and maybes lets the beauty of today shine through… even if a force 12 storm is trying (and failing) to sweep me off my feet.

Fortitude – I highly recommend this cardinal virtue.  Try to seek it out, when you find it hold on to it.  Where it comes from I do not know but if I could work out the formula I’d manufacture it and offer it free to anyone who is faced with the onslaught of one of life’s force 12 storms.