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Music helped my mental health

KEITH HEADSHOT

There’s a Pink Floyd song called Time, in which they say, ‘You didn’t hear the starting gun.’ The period after finishing cancer treatment felt a bit like that for me. I had permission to start living again but I felt adrift and confused.

I remember thinking at the time that, ok, I didn’t need any more treatment, the consultants were happy with my physical progress and had told me to go back to work when I felt able to – but what did that mean? I was working for an American company prior to my diagnosis and the job was pretty stressful, involving global travel and long hours. I’d returned after treatment ended, but then was made redundant, and at that point everything completely fell apart from a mental perspective. I had a breakdown.

Family support meant everything

Mentally I collapsed and was unable to work for a year. I just couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me and I lacked motivation, clarity, and focus. Without the support of my family, I wouldn’t have got through those times. In a strange way the whole experience seems to have brought my wife, sons, and I closer together.

keiths quote

However, there were some relationships which fell by the wayside. Some friends seemed not to want to acknowledge I had cancer and were reluctant to discuss it with me. The one thing which made me particularly furious was anyone saying, ‘I didn’t contact you because I didn’t know what to say.’ I think that’s really arrogant. It’s a cliché, but you certainly find out who your true friends are. You don’t, of course, choose your family, but you do choose your friends and you soon realise when you’re sick which ones are going to be there for life.

Outside help would have been great too

I really wish Mission Remission or something similar had been available back then as it would have been a massive support for me. I'd still have had the breakdown, I’m sure of that, but I think having some help specifically targeted for cancer patients would have been a much better safety net. Physically I looked and sounded fine, and I could get through the day, but once the hospital appointments stopped it felt like I'd fallen off a cliff. No-one can see what’s going on inside your head. I still get that black dog of depression occasionally and I have no idea when it’s going to arrive, or how long it will last. I now have the confidence, however, that I’m going to get through it.

The fear of reoccurrence never goes away completely, even after fifteen years, but I don’t think I’d change much at all. I genuinely don’t wish that I’d never had cancer, and I’m sure many survivors feel the same. I don’t think we’d be where we are now, as a family, had we not gone through the experience. I almost got a high from realising my remission might be a complete restart in life, and I could ask myself the question, ‘What do I want to do with Day One?’

I had to totally rebuild my career

After that terrible year, I took a job at a local call centre. It was difficult going from a senior position at a software company to this less satisfying role, but I was desperate for some structure in my life. Having to rebuild from nothing was really hard, but I gradually got back on my feet and I’m now running my own company, something I would never have dreamed of doing before.

keiths quote 2Luckily the company I was working for had critical life insurance, so financially we were reasonably stable and able to take time as a family to make sure I could fully recover. I realise, compared to a lot of people who get sick, that we were in an incredibly fortunate position. But it was absolutely a journey.

Walking and talking

Walking really helped me to recover and I’ve maintained that as part of my routine. I walk around our local village once a day with my wife, about a couple of miles, and if I don’t do it for a while I definitely notice the difference in my mental state.

It might sound obvious, but talking to people helps too, if you can find someone willing to listen. As my family and friends had an emotional attachment, sometimes I found it useful to talk to people who didn’t know me terribly well. In verbalising my thoughts, I realised which things I needed to work through, and it didn’t seem to matter much what the other person said. By the very nature of talking, I found a release. There’s actually another Pink Floyd song called, Keep Talking. As you can see, I’m a huge fan!

I did try a couple of mindfulness apps, but they just annoyed me. I don’t mean to be flippant; I did really want them to work, but I don’t think I’m built for them. I’d rather go for a walk, read, or listen to music.

Just having any routine helped. At my worst point all I could manage was to get up at 8am, make the bed, and attempt to be dressed by nine. You have to start with the basics when you’re feeling like that. At the time I lived in a row of terraced houses and when I first started going for walks I could only reach the end of our terrace and back again. Even if you feel absolutely pants and go and sit in a chair for the rest of the day, it doesn’t matter because you’ve achieved something.

The future looks very different

Previously I used to constantly worry about potential outcomes, and I absolutely hated not being in control. I literally could not be a passenger in a vehicle.

Having gone through cancer and putting your whole life in the hands of someone else, not knowing what the outcome will be, is the mental equivalent of how chemotherapy resets your body. I was limiting myself so much by catastrophising. Now I’m five years into running a successful company, whereas previously I wouldn’t even have put myself forward for a managerial post, and I’m now in the very privileged position of employing other people to work for me.

Don't forget to enjoy life!

1 Set yourself a routine and stick to it, no matter how rubbish you’re feeling. I’m very lucky to live near woods and fields, so I’d say walk outside whenever you can. Nature eases your mind.

2 Enjoy whatever you used to enjoy or try new things. Take a moment to savour the small joys in life. Have a cream cake, a glass of whisky. There’s an almost puritanical route that some people go down after having cancer, where they think they now need to look after their body and never let anything bad pass their lips, but I say if you enjoy a doughnut, have a doughnut occasionally. It’s all about balance.

3 Your body and mind have been through something momentous and life-changing, don’t forget the fun bits. Make the most of life!

glass of whisky and quote

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in August 2007, and had experimental chemotherapy at City Hospital, Nottingham. I was considered to be in remission just before my fortieth birthday.  I live in Nottinghamshire with my wife, Charlie. We have twin sons in their early 20’s, one at university, and the other one at home working as a data analyst.

My company provides specialist business consultancy to retailers, specifically financial and product planning. I have had the privilege of working with well-known and respected brands all around the world.

When I have free time I enjoy photography, reading, and walking. I also make my own wine.

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