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'I wrote a letter to the old me...'
I never imagined that life after cancer treatment would be so challenging. I hated the new me and grieved immensely for the person I’d been before. It took a long time for me to develop a more positive mindset so that I could move forward.
I was diagnosed with positive cell carcinoma on the left of my neck with an unknown primary in July 2019. After chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiotherapy I was told that, unfortunately, the tumour had grown, but that it could be removed with surgery. The treatment had already taken its toll on my body, and I wondered how I could possibly survive anything else. I’ve never prayed so much in my life. The six-hour major surgery to remove the cancer was a success, however it affected the use of my left arm due to muscle and nerve damage from the operation. I was completely unprepared for the aftermath – I couldn’t swallow or talk properly and only had the strength to walk a very short distance.
The pandemic made everything much worse
Then along came the pandemic and subsequent lockdown which was a major setback to my recovery. I live alone and quickly became lonely and depressed. I just couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. All I could do was keep myself safe and battle on. Family and friends were really supportive through video calls and dropping off essentials, including a regular supply of homemade soup. I felt lucky to have such an amazing support bubble, but it was a massive struggle.
Turning these negative times into positive was a huge challenge. I felt I needed to focus on my well-being, so ordered a lazy spa online which became my happy place. I relaxed completely in there and could feel my stress levels reducing. As being lonely was a big issue for me, I decided to adopt an adult cat, Minkie, who made me feel less anxious, decreased my feelings of loneliness, and gave me a purpose. She really was my lifeline during those challenging times and is still the best decision I ever made.
For me, connecting with other people who had gone through similar experiences inspired me to keep fighting. I befriended a cancer survivor from the United States on Instagram, Pasha Chaney - an artist, author, and entrepreneur. She had written two books, ‘Through the Scars’ and ‘Rising from Cancer and Living in Remission: A survivor’s story,’ which helped me to gain a deeper understanding of survivorship. As survivors, we all still have many challenges and hurdles to overcome. Pasha and I became close friends and still chat regularly online.
The journey hasn't been easy
I don’t think my friends and family truly understood where I was coming from, although I tried to explain to them that recovering from cancer isn’t only about your physical body, it’s also about healing your mind and adapting to the new you. In remission, I continued to have regular check-ups, but each time would feel anxious all over again, wondering if the cancer had returned.
Sorting out my feelings and emotions seemed insurmountable, but I dealt with them during counselling sessions, which had a massive impact on how I coped with this new way of life. I used to look in the mirror and wonder who the woman was with a big scar on her neck and a twisted mouth. I really didn’t like the new Deb very much and constantly asked, why me?
So, my counsellor suggested I write a letter to the old Deb. I found this so challenging - it felt as if a part of me had died and I was grieving, but I eventually managed to finish writing it. After reading it out loud to my counsellor, she now uses the letter in her group sessions. It definitely helped me to embrace the new me. I’ve found that writing things down, keeping a diary, and continuing to talk to other cancer survivors has had a huge impact on my mindset, giving me the determination and willpower to achieve my goals. The journey hasn’t been easy, but it's been worth the fight. I now understand that my purpose was to live for my beautiful daughters, grandchildren, other family, and friends.
I no longer speak like a Dalek
I have had to overcome so many physical challenges. I was initially told there was no guarantee that I would ever have my voice back, but through exercises and time (and many tears!) I no longer speak like a Dalek. I was only able to eat soft foods, nothing solid, and my consultant told me I’d never eat a steak again. Well, through fight and determination I proved him wrong. I do take twice as long to eat a meal as before, but I’ve now become a major food critic, ha-ha!
I also have physiotherapy once a month and have a daily exercise plan which has enabled me to make great progress in the use of my arm. Fatigue, though, is still a massive issue for me and I have days when I feel as if I’ve been hit by a train. I had thought returning to my work as a Hair and Beauty tutor would be impossible, but I now work part-time and have a routine in place that works for me. On occasion, I’ve had to take a sick day, but work colleagues have always been totally supportive of this.
I’ve also gained confidence by talking to others about my journey – the more I do it, the easier it has become. I hope to be an inspiration to others, as so many others have inspired me.
Debra lives in Tredegar, South Wales (where Aneurin Bevan was born!) and is divorced with two daughters and four grandchildren. She enjoys reading, getting her fitness levels back with short walks, and landscape photography.
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