15 years ago on Monday Tim Williams, my lovely surgeon, spent 2 and a half hours removing 2 aggressive tumours from my right breast and armpit. It’s strange to think that none of the cells that were ‘me’ on that day are still alive any more. I am physically and materially a different person; emotionally and spiritually too. I’m also strangely, stubbornly, surprisingly just the same.
The main advantage of being 15 years past the point (apart from being here typing this) is that it gives me an overview of the things that have worked for me. Today seems like a good day to share some of them with you. I’ve written them as a set of bullet points but in reality it’s one, holistic state of mind. Forgive me for a longer post than usual.
Refusal to buy into conventional thinking
I think this is the most important point: since no one understands cancer, I won’t accept anyone else’s viewpoint as fact. That rules out believing in pessimistic forecasts. I’ve seen far too many wrong predictions in the last 15 years to believe that the doctors have the remotest clue whether or not you personally will survive. The chances of you reading this blog among all of cyberspace are infinitesimal. But here you are reading it. The reason you’re reading it is a complex mix of your interests, your health, your nationality, your gender, the amount of time you’ve got available right now… random. Your chances of surviving cancer are similar. Totally random and yet mostly determined by you. I had an unshakeable belief that, since only a very small number of my cells were misbehaving, there were always trillions more to keep order. It’s a great visualisation. Imagine a small group of naughty people in a crowded Olympic stadium. It would be easy for the others to overpower them. That’s how I saw my body. It helped me, at least psychologically.
Taking personal responsibility
No matter how wonderful your doctors, the buck stops with you. Unless you are prepared to give it all you’ve got and fight for your survival, you won’t persuade others to join in. You need to take an interest in your treatment (why are they doing this, what’s the evidence, what are the odds, why these doses and not those??) I’ve always been a bit of a fatty and when they were planning my chemo I came across some literature suggesting that body size was a significant factor for dose. I asked the right questions and together we decided to up my drugs by 10%. Of course, I can’t tell you categorically that made a critical difference but it might have done. It certainly gave me more faith in the treatment and an active involvement.
Putting my own needs first
You also need to understand that your medical treatment is a small part of the picture. It is designed to eradicate any active cancer in your body, but when you finish your treatment you will be weaker than when you started. You need to give your body a chance to recover and work at changing the conditions in your cells to make sure it doesn’t come back. That involves taking an unblinkered look at your life and lifestyle ‘before’ and working out what was causing you to be out of balance.
“Having cancer is God’s way of telling us that we’re delicate”, as Mrs Overall might say. We all live in a stressful world, with limited ability to nurture our bodies in the way that nature intends. This has consequences for our health. Some people seem to be more resilient than others. If you’ve had cancer it’s a fair indication that you are one of the less resilient ones. Sometimes the bravest decision of all is to prioritise your needs a little more: the need for sleep, relaxation, dreams, peace, good food, less alcohol, supportive relationships, fulfilling work. All of these things have a bearing on your health. When they’re off kilter it can affect your chances of survival.
Planning a future that’s better than the past
If you want to live you need to create a life worth living. I strongly believe that creating a happy life sends a great message for your cells every day to thrive and survive.
I blame my schooling for my habit of treading water. At boarding school you are part of the herd. There’s no one to look out for you. You’re not special and you need to get your head down and get on with it, even if you don’t like it. I was an unusual child – academic, not sporty, thoughtful, not playful, challenging, not conforming, I endured it rather than enjoyed it. Eight years of that left me with some patterns that I needed to change. I was too willing to put up with things that I wasn’t happy with: a stressful job, no free time, too much responsibility, financial pressure. I hadn’t realised, and no one had ever told me, that you are allowed to change things that you’re not happy with. It needn’t upset everyone else. It can even be easy. When I first started to ask for what I wanted and make changes in my life I was scared that it would all fall apart. But it didn’t.
Finding out what I’m really here for
One of the first steps I took was to join a painting group. I literally painted my way through chemotherapy. It was fun and freeing and felt alarmingly self-indulgent. Once I got my strength back I tried going back to work, but I was pretty sure that the work I had been doing – and the associated stress – had been part of the cancer picture. I wasn’t happy and felt a strong urge to do something different, something more life-affirming. So I decided to go back to school – or to college to be more precise – to study the things I was really interested in. They turned out to be nutrition and human behaviour. The world opened up for me in new ways. I also discovered my friend and guru, Neil Crofts, who taught me my ‘life purpose’ and changed the world again. This new me had things to do, people to meet, places to go… and a whole new set of motivations for creating a long and happy life.
Changing the soil
Cancer is a cellular abnormality that thrives in very specific conditions; it’s a disease of altered metabolism. Although we still don’t fully understand what the perfect conditions are, I clearly understand that I had unwittingly created them in my body. In effect I had given cancer the chance to build a home. I set about changing that. In my mind, I was changing the soil: adding nutrients and oxygen, clearing toxins and rogue hormones, creating a healthy environment that was inhospitable to cancer so it wouldn’t want to live here any more. I now understand that we create that environment with our thoughts as well as our nutrition so I’m on top of that one too these days.
I was convinced, still am, that diet had a profound role to play in my health breakdown. Even though I have never eaten a ‘bad’ diet, and I’ve always cooked from scratch, I had never really found a way to eat that suits me or one that stopped the upward pressure on my weight, a known risk factor. Being overweight creates a pro-inflammatory environment that helps the cancer along.
Since becoming a nutritionist I’ve tried vegetarianism, veganism, dairy free and wheat free diets, going teetotal, avoiding tea and coffee, taking supplements… you name it, mainly to support my health (in 15 years there has been a lot of research to support different theories) but also with the underlying aim of reducing my weight.
The only health story that has grown and grown in the last 15 years is the need to keep glucose under control in the blood stream. It is the culprit behind obesity and diabetes, and it seems it may have a significant role in cancer too. My sugar consumption has fluctuated during the last 15 years but has remained way below average, and much lower than ‘before’. It’s not unreasonable to assume it may have been a contributory factor to my survival.
Learning to love myself – warts and all
Making all this effort to survive depended on the premise that I was worth it. Having been brought up as a Christian, and hence a ‘miserable sinner’, I struggled with that one to some extent. Part of my recovery involved getting comfortable with my place in the world, with my right to be here, just as much as anyone else. That took more work than I had guessed. So this journey has been a spiritual one as well as physical and psychological. I’ve come to terms with who I am and I have a new sense of my spirituality. Without placing myself in the centre of the universe I have nevertheless understood that I have a right to be here and a job to do, that I’m a valuable human being with a worthwhile contribution to make.
Sorting my own baggage out has enabled me more closeness and honesty with other people in my life. Perhaps that’s the greatest joy of all. I feel more ordinary but more connected. I’m more firmly in the world and living a more authentic life that I would ever have been if I had escaped cancer. There are blessings, too many to count, but the biggest is being here to see my daughter grow up.
Those are the things that I feel were critical to my survival. If you’re only 2 years into your journey you probably see me as home and dry but for me that sense of complacency has never arrived. I’m still aware that my body, having once malfunctioned, is capable of doing so again so I keep on working at health and happiness in order to combat the negative influences of my dodgy genetics and the inevitable process of ageing.
But I’m more certain than ever that it’s the quality and not the quantity of your life that matters, so I’m committed to creating a life that feels good every single day – not just on our annual holiday or at some dream point in the future. I think that’s an important point too.
Every year of survival makes it more likely that I would survive if it came back. The world of cancer care is very different now to back then. And our understanding of the wider factors that influence the generation and spread of the disease are deepening all the time.
I have so many people to thank – my husband who cared for me, my daughter who motivated me, my parents who were beside me, my friends who supported me, the medical team who did their best for me and the many people who joined forces with me emotionally, spiritually and rebelliously, to allow me to believe I could beat this thing.
I firmly believe that you can too.
If you need some help – call me.