Trapped in a Well with a Crocodile (or cancer)

Have you ever been trapped in a well with a crocodile?

 

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ONE FALSE STEP… (Image: http://www.sundayobserver.lk)

Captive in a limited space, confined and confused by the darkness, unable to gain a foothold because you can’t see through the dense thunderhead all around you. Making sense of this foreboding abyss with its slippery walls, isolating silence and icey cold waters is petrifying… and that’s not all.  Somewhere in the well lives a crocodile. It’s in there but you have no idea exactly where it might be. It might be far below  or about to break the surface. It might be about to seize you in a death-roll or look you straight in the eye. It might bite you once then leave you alone.  You know you need to get out and all the while you imagine how powerful that crocodile is, you sense its huge mouth and razor-sharp teeth.  You want to break free yet you know the crocodile might just as easily  swallow you whole.

When I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2012 my relationship with my body changed.  Instead of seeing it as a safe haven, a place where my sentience could frolic, it became the well.  I was trapped inside and in there with me was a crocodile called cancer.  I knew there was no way out of the well and I knew a death-roll with a crocodile was a bad idea.  Losing part of my body was better than losing my life and so, for me, the journey through surgery and chemotherapy was better than letting cancer swallow me whole.

Whenever I could I tried to turn any negative thoughts into more positive ones. Having surgery meant removing the obvious signs of cancer from my body and that was a good thing.  Undergoing chemotherapy (something that frightened me because I’d witnessed my Mother’s experience) meant targeting any remnant – rogue cells that lurked in my body as yet unseen. Although the side effects were unpleasant, the chance to stop cancer biting me again made treatment  worth the time, effort and side effects I encountered.

We all have different views on our bodies, on our femininity or masculinity (because men get breast cancer too). We all have different views on what makes us who we are, which pieces of ourselves we love or loathe, the things that make us ‘normal’ or ‘a freak.’ In Western society it seems so much of who we are becomes entangled with how we look that any affront to our physical wholeness becomes an assault on the very essence of our being.

When faced with cancer the prospect of surgery means facing the prospect of never again being physically whole.  Keeping a sense of perspective when nothing much makes sense is important. I realised quite quickly that my life would  not depend on physical wholeness, but it would depend on eradicating the cancer that had taken root in my breast.  Viewed in this way the prospect of mastectomy also became an opportunity to prolong my life.

As it turned out, mastectomy was the correct choice. Aside from the cancer I’d discovered for myself there were areas of high grade DCIS and atypical hyperplasia, both of which had the potential to become new cancers in time.  Having exchanged one cancer containing breast for a silicon fake it seemed counter-intuitive to retain the “good” breast in the hope that the cancer crocodile would only bite me once.

Two year’s after my initial cancer encounter I was able to complete risk-reducing surgery – mastectomy and replacement of the remaining breast with another silicon fake.  I can honestly say I’m glad I did.  As research progresses we learn more and more and it seems DNA changes are already present in the healthy breast tissue of women with cancer. My family history made having breasts a game of Russian roulette. If anything, I wish I’d fought the system more rigorously to undergo risk-reducing surgery before finding myself facing cancer head on.

Its been a long journey. This summer will be four years since my original diagnosis and my trips to the operating theatre are still not quite complete.  In a few weeks I’ll be in for some revision work, things that need to be taken care of following the original surgery of 2012. In the grand scheme of things it’s very trivial, a small price to pay for the four years of life I’ve enjoyed so far.  I’ve learnt that my body is not invincible, that hidden dangers may lurk beneath the surface and things go wrong even if we do our best to adopt a fit and healthy lifestyle.  I’ve also learnt that I don’t really care about my fake breasts, my Herceptin damaged joints, or my lack of physical strength, I can exist quite happily with all those little niggles.  The things I care for most – my family and friends – can only be taken care of if I’m here so preserving my life was always going to be more important than preserving physically beauty, ‘normal’ femininity or bodily wholeness.

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13 thoughts on “Trapped in a Well with a Crocodile (or cancer)

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: All You Need Is Love? | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

    • Hi Sally, you won’t lose you though I know it can feel that way. It took me a while to get to grips with the realisation that who I am is what’s inside me, the thinking, caring, playful being who doesn’t really like being confined in this ropey physical shell. I thought long and hard and eventually realised even if I ended up being a fragment of my former physical self (and I am barely female given all the parts that have been removed so far) my real self – personality, what I stand for and how I engage with myself and others is much more the real me than arms, legs, breasts and ovaries. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are nice to have but facing cancer I realised they are just window dressing. As someone who is quite creative and artistic window dressing is very important to me but in clothes no one knows I’m any different to anyone else and the only people who see me without clothes see beyond my scars. I hope you get the outcome you want and are able to keep your right breast but please remember if it doesn’t turn out that way you did all you could and you are so much more than your physical appearance, including the things we attach our womanhood and femininity to. Sending you lots of luck and positive outcomes, Tracy

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    • Oh Mae, some days it feels like centuries – you’ll know what that’s like! I am very hopeful that four will become five, then ten and then 20+ I think it is good to have passed 3 with no signs of anything sinister but I stay vigilant. I hope life is treating you well and you are looking after yourself, with lots more happy and healthy years to come 🙂

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  2. Hello, Dear Tracy! I love the analogy of the crocodile in the well, and know that it will resonate with so many others who have struggled down this tortuous path. I always look forward to your posts – so much wisdom, so much compassion, and the admirable skill with which you write that I always come away feeling the words that describe what you have experienced makes me so grateful for having much to contemplate. I wish you years upon years of well-being, of seeing and feeling joy through the lens of your beautiful self, and knowing you have been and continue to be a beacon of hope and love for others who are fortunate enough to meet you. With Much Love, Karen XXOO

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    • Hello dearest Karen. It is always so good to find you here and on my travels through cyberspace. As ever your observation that our path is a tortuous one is so accurate. I think I would add that it’s often poorly understood. I hope by casting some light on it we at least help to educate and inform, and in doing so erode some of the myths and darkness that surround our version of reality (and that of countless others who will unfortunately follow in our footsteps, until we prevent cancer and cure those who’ve already experienced it). Someone asked today how I manage to live my life knowing I’ve been seriously ill and might find myself eye to eye with death at any moment. I said having looked death straight in the eye we now understand and have the measure of one another. One day we’ll walk hand in hand towards oblivion and that will be perfectly ok. But right now I’m here and this moment is the one that matters so I’m not going to waste it fretting on something beyond my control. I’m sure some people will think this a defeatist attitude or perhaps see it as a lack of fight. I see it as grounded realism, a means to cope when life serves up lemons for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We eat them gratefully rather than going hungry. Sending you much love, happiness and wellness dear friend, Tracy xoxox

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  3. Good luck with your upcoming procedure and best wishes for a speedy recovery. Thank you so much for sharing this phase of your life with us. It has helped me to get a better perspective on the subject of Cancer Treatment and be more understanding to some friends who are going through similar problems.

    I agree with Liz, your analogy of the crocodile really makes a powerful lesson for us.
    Ω

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    • Thank you Allan. You have been a rock though we are miles apart and your friendship, support and presence makes all the difference. Cancer really is the Emperor of all Maladies, a thief of always and stuff of many nightmares. Treatment is harsh and remains locked in remedies from many decades ago, though dealing with side effects has improved radically thus making the process much easier to endure. Life is such a precious gift though we are never taught this and seem unable to fully understand its value until facing our end, or the end of another. I hope your friends will find their way through, with your support and compassion the journey for them will be considerably eased. That in itself is more valuable than many of us know. May crocodiles never darken your door.

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  4. Thanks for this I like the analogy of a crocodile, my C demon is much quieter and just creeping silently. You write so well, have you thought of writing a book , your blogs were so helpful when I went through treatment , what you expressed was the closest to my experience though as I didn’t have the known genes I only had a lumpectomy. Take care
    Liz

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    • Hello Liz, demon is right, cancer is a demon and whether it creeps silently or thumps through the house its presence is always unwelcome. I have thought about a book and would, deep down, like to be a writer. I never think I am good enough, or my experience is worthy enough, to warrant a more formal publication. As I have helped you, you have helped me. Knowing someone else is on my side makes such a difference. I wish it was not the case that we are united through cancer, but every cloud brings a silver lining and I like to think we are united in friendship from adversity. My genes will no doubt prove useful in future, if not so useful to me now. As always I send you love, strength and happiness, Tracy

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