When I received my diagnosis of secondary cancer I found that there were no words to describe how I felt. I tried to write, but all I could do was sit in front of an empty sheet of paper, no words seemed to fit, nothing seemed to fit.
And then I drew this.
This seemed to describe it
A black gaping hole of something I couldn’t understand or accept. It filled every aspect of my thoughts. It affected every corner of my life, absolutely nothing was unaffected by this news. I couldn’t turn or look anywhere without it being there. There were no distractions, no respite. There was nowhere to turn to escape this awful news. It reached out and filled right out to the corners.
Then I saw an article on the internet about dealing with grief and the counsellor drew grief in exactly the same way!
I was intrigued, she explained that when you experience grief it fills your whole life. And then she drew another line around the one filled by the chaos. This she said, is the new life you must build. The grief won’t get any smaller, but by building around it, you learn to live with it, it will always be at the centre of your life, but your new life around it will have space for other experiences.
This made so much sense to me. So I drew myself another picture.
I realised that cancer wasn’t going to go away
What I had to do was build a new life around it, accommodate it, live with it. It’s not easy and sometimes that black chaos fills my life again, but at other times it diminishes into a smaller part. It is always there, maybe not always in the centre. Sometimes it makes me cry, sometimes it makes me angry, sometimes I laugh at the strange twists and turns my life has taken since my diagnosis. Strangely, sometimes it brings me joy – I would never have believed that a few months ago, but it sometimes it does. Either way, there is only one way forward and is to build a new life, a different life and try to enjoy as much of it as I can because I never know when that black chaos will fill up again.
In the life before cancer I would whirl along
Rushing to get everything done, I didn’t take time to stop and truly look after myself or stop and appreciate what is around me. In this new life I am more appreciative, I stop to look at the sky, at nature, at the sea. When I’m out for a walk I stop and feel the breeze, watch the world around me. I listen to the sounds. By learning to be still in a busy world I start to find a calmness within myself.
But it isn’t all solitary healing.
My natural instinct is towards introversion. I like my own company and feel uncomfortable at parties and big social gatherings. It’s not that I don’t like talking or engaging with others, but I get my energy from quiet, peace and solitude. I keep my professional and personal life quite separate. I’m quite a private person. But I have learnt that sometimes you need to reach out and make connections. Cancer has made me a bit braver. It has made me push against my boundaries and reach out to others…..and I’ve enjoyed it.
I’ve reconnected with old friends and colleagues and I’m richer because of it.
I’ve volunteered and taken part in things I would never have done before. Just because I have cancer doesn’t mean that I can’t live and enjoy my life. Ok so I can’t run a 10km anymore, but I can volunteer and have a great time. When friends ask if I want to go out for lunch or meet up for coffee, I say – Yes. I stop and talk to people I see when I’m out with my dog, I know so many more people in my village now because I smile and say hello instead of rush by. I’ve made new friends. Through shared experience, I made good friends with a group of ladies I met at the cancer support centre. And one connection leads to another, responding to a Facebook post about a run and talk group, I now go to a Pilates class.
Facing the black chaos has made me more open
I tell people that I have cancer and it is amazing how much I have received in terms of support, love, company. As I have reached out to others, they have reached back to me and given so much in return. The triathlete I met when volunteering who turned out to be a cancer research nurse, she told me to hang on in there because new treatments were coming think and fast: the lady I met at a yoga retreat who turned out to be the director of a cancer support network. My circle of friends has grown many times since my diagnosis.
Don’t get me wrong, if I could turn back time and change things, I wouldn’t choose to have cancer.
But my life now has a richness, a calmness and a meaning that I didn’t have before. Yes, there are still tough times and I know that there will be tough times to come, but as I sit here today I feel blessed to be here.
Ruth is a qualified coach and experienced team facilitator with over 20 years’ experience of working in health care. Earlier this year she became a patient when she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.
She lives in Yorkshire, England and is married with two teenage sons.
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