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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Thoughts among the flowers

I love flowers.  All colours, all species, scented or unscented.  It makes me happy when I see buds on the plants outside the window because I know in a short time the garden will be awash with blooms.  I was lucky enough to receive some beautiful flowers recently so the house is surrounded by blossoms inside and out.  Flowers buoy my spirits simply by looking serene and picture-perfect, the work of Mother Nature at her very best.  If they smell nice that’s a bonus and the bouquets in the house smell delicious.

Though I am far from picture-perfect (and definitely not delicious) I remain reasonably tranquil, so much so that the newly qualified nurse who carried out my pre-op assessment was amazed at my lack of concern regarding tomorrow’s surgery.  She was a nice person, kind and empathic.  She frowned about my experiences, they corrupted her sense of right and wrong.  This happens to too many good people she said.  I reminded her cancer doesn’t stop to consider whether you’re good, bad or indifferent, it just happens and we have to get on with it.  My way of dealing with it has been to generate some space, a gap between the me who exists today and the me who went through all that crap.  The little distance I’ve created – as much as a completely different life, 4″ scar, bad joints, skin, nails and hair allow – is enough to categorise that as past.  She was inspired by my positivity and resolve.  I smiled.  I never had any other choice.

She asked if I was worried about another operation… how did I feel about a further invasion of femininity after enduring numerous procedures, major surgery and follow-up treatment for months on end.  I smiled again and laughed. At this point she might have considered I was a little insane, shrugging my shoulders like an unruly child who is yet to gain a sense of mortality and would pay it no heed when she did.  No, I am not worried and I won’t be a quivering wreck in the morning.  After all the things that have happened  there’s nothing much left to fear.

I know I should probably be just a tiny bit concerned.  Reason tells me so because there are always risks with general anaesthetic, infection and such. Surgery doesn’t bother me though – like breathing it will happen and I’ll know nothing much about it. As for femininity, it doesn’t feature as highly on my list of priorities as avoiding cancer, keeping clear of more chemo, or facing an imminent death.  With those things on my priority list femininity gets demoted into the ‘nice to have but not essential’ category.  I always knew there’d come a point in my life when my aptitude for logic and unerring pragmatism would prove useful.  Looks like I’ve finally found it.