I saw the world through different eyes in the years immediately following my all clear. On reflection, being confronted by my own mortality would naturally have had some impact, but I never would have anticipated the scale or my reaction to it.
Every moment became precious. Memories needed to be made and treasured. Opportunities seized. Time couldn’t be lost or wasted. Despite being given the all clear, I felt certain that my life was now limited to just a couple more decades by the impact that the treatment was bound to have had on my body.
I had always been a very self-controlled, analytical thinker. Working as an accountant, my comfort zone was a world of structure, numbers, logic and spreadsheets rather than people, emotion and experiences. As the months after my all clear passed, I developed an insatiable energy and drive – zest - that I had never before experienced.
I felt like I was seeing life clearly for the first time. The love and support that I had received from friends, family and voluntary organisations gave me a new appreciation of the value of people and relationships. The time that I had spent walking daily in the woods and by the sea to keep fit during treatment, watching the seasons change, left me feeling both indelibly connected to the life cycle of the planet, yet such a small insignificant part. I felt exhilarated.
I embraced the energy and directed back at the people who had been there for me. I became treasurer of the foodbank that I had volunteered at during my treatment and raised enough money to build a desperately needed storage space. I tried to be a perfect friend, thinking of birthday gifts that they would-have-always-wanted-had-they-thought-of-it-themselves. I went back to work in the corporate world but couldn’t align myself with the profit making motivations of the organisation, so quit and began working for a hospice. I threw myself into the charity’s finances identifying and sorting out issues like they were heading for bankruptcy (which they weren’t!), going in at 4am in order to get the numbers as accurate as I could. I started working my way through my bucket list of dreams and wanted to have a new experience or make progress towards these dreams every weekend….
Yes! I was so wired by this new life force that I just didn’t stop.
My brain managed to keep up with this pace for about two years before I wore myself out mentally and needed to talk to someone. It felt a bit weird to be going to counselling so long after my all clear, like I was a bit of a fraud for going now that I didn’t have cancer any more: but it was a godsend. Talking about my expectations of an early death made me realise that the pressure I was putting myself under was resulting in an unsustainable lifestyle – which would probably contribute to an early grave being a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Four years on and I am finally learning to cut myself a break on this ongoing journey. My lifestyle and priorities have changed irreversibly from what they were pre-cancer, and I am continuing to need to tweak things along the way. Overall though, I am trying to hold on to the energy and appreciation that the experience has left me with and use it to contribute back. And I no longer feel like an untimely death is lurking around the corner.
I was diagnosed with Cervical Cancer just after my 26th birthday and it took four years for it to get the message that it wasn’t welcome. I had a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Its been four (and a half!) years since the end of my treatment.