As 2016 approaches, everyone’s eyes are firmly on the new year’s horizon - the sparkling glimmer of an exciting future and the limitless possibilities that lie ahead. It’s a chance to move on, to forget past mistakes and hurts - to close one chapter in our lives and start another. The new page is tantalisingly fresh, not yet marred by typos, blots or smudges. I don’t need to buy a magazine or newspaper in January to know that the pages will be filled with advice on this year’s latest diet and exercise regimens, with their promises of energy, vitality and a long, healthy life; as though food and fitness are talismans which ward of the ‘evils’ of illness, disease and ageing.
But 2015 has been a kind year to me - it’s the first year since my first diagnosis of cancer that I have enjoyed stability in my health. And it’s been amazing! I am filled with gratitude to be alive, something of a small miracle considering I have had two bouts of cancer treatment over more than two years, including 11 months of chemotherapy for an aggressive breast cancer, 6 ½ weeks of radiotherapy, more surgeries than I can remember, although three stays in a high dependency unit were memorable for all the wrong reasons! As I sit here writing, I realise that this will be the first new year since 2009 when there hasn’t been treatment or a major decision - about preventative or corrective surgery - ahead of me, with all the accompanying fear and uncertainty.
It’s been a year of milestones, but not ones that are easy to share - it’s been the year that I finally started buying full-size bottles of shampoo (having gone through hair-loss and re-growth twice, hair-care has been a never-ending series of experiments), got to grips with my new, changed, half-breasted body with its lymphodema and early menopause symptoms. It’s been the year that I began enjoying being around babies and toddlers (even baby George) instead of nursing the grief of my lost fertility and where I’ve felt I could trust myself to cry openly at my daughter’s school concerts instead of sobbing silently into my pillow in the middle of the night.
One of the ways I’ve coped with cancer has been to stop looking too far ahead - ‘the future’ has become something to fear; I am always on guard, my defences at the ready in case I need to deal with another set-back. But as much as cancer has taken from me, I have taken something from cancer too - I’ve learned that I am loved, that I am resilient; that I am lucky (as well as unlucky). These were the easy lessons, what I call ‘my silver-linings.’ But, there were bitter lessons too, for instance the discovery that ‘patient’ means ‘the ability to accept suffering without becoming upset’ has been an experience which has taken me to the outer limits of my soul. As Thomas Wolfe wrote from his hospital bed in 1938 - ‘I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close; and I don’t think I was too much afraid of him, but so much of mortality still clings to me.’
Most of us have been confronted with our mortality at one time or another - maybe you’ve been in a near-miss while crossing the road, or driving your car. You are really quite shaken and you tell your friends, maybe your partner, who give you a hug, make you a cup of tea. Maybe your boss sends you home to recover. Maybe that evening, you find yourself thinking ‘what the hell, I’m buying that expensive bag’, maybe you decide to go on that trip of a life-time, or maybe you just want to sit quietly and be thankful you survived. This feeling might stay with you for a few days or weeks, you might be more forgiving of the irritations we all face in our daily lives for a while, but we move on and forget.
For me, living with a cancer diagnosis - without being told I am cured and living with high risk - is a bit like knowing that out there is a car waiting for me. It’s somewhere on the road ahead. I don’t know whether or when it might race towards me; I wonder whether I will see it coming or whether it will come without warning. If I am lucky, it will miss me. I hope. I really hope. Living with breast cancer has meant passing through a doorway into what has felt like a parallel world where my awareness of what it truly means to be mortal is brought into sharp focus. I am afraid of the long voyage and the strange country but I have learnt to accept that my fears are just a small part of the gap between the person I was and the person I am now. Fear isn’t a constant anymore and though it ebbs and flows like the tide, it reminds me that I am a ‘human being.’ So, I won’t be disheartened if I find I have abandoned many of my goals before the end of the month. Instead I will show myself the same compassion I would a beloved friend. I want to try to learn from my mistakes and to be content with my small and faltering steps forwards. After all, New Year’s Day may be a special day, but it’s also only one day amongst 366 other days this year (it’s a leap year) and each one is a new day, a new year, a new beginning and a chance to start anew.