I have an appointment at the Breast Cancer Clinic tomorrow morning. I go three times a year; once for a mammogram, once for an ultrasound, and once for blood tests.
Tomorrow I have a mammogram, which feels much like having what remains of your boobs shoved into a Breville sandwich toaster, then waiting for what seems like hours while the chefs work out if there’s a fly trapped in there.
I dread these check-ups, as I know that, in the space of minutes, my life could go from being as good as it’s ever been to totally destroyed. However, I have learned some really important lessons from the cancer clinic. Here’s what they are:
Lots of very wise and clever people swear that a daily gratitude practice has changed their lives. We should, they say, keep a gratitude diary, or at least recite every day the things we are thankful for. Studies have linked gratitude to better sleep, reduced anxiety and depression, better relationships and higher satisfaction with life. All of that – for free.
However, it’s easy to forget to be grateful for the simple, but fundamental, things that we have – our families, our health, our homes. We naturally focus on all the general day-to-day niggles instead. Human beings are programmed to want more.
Every time I visit the cancer clinic I see women with no hair or eyebrows, destroyed by chemotherapy. I see people pale-faced and silent in shock from an initial diagnosis. I see men reeling from imaging life without their partners, the mothers of their children. It’s impossible to witness that and to not feel grateful, for just being here.
Confronting fear is like working a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
I spent many years avoiding fear. Whenever I was anxious about anything, I’d numb that feeling with booze. I wrote a whole book about that one: The Sober Diaries. Now I realise that all the best things in life lie beyond that point of maximum fear. If you avoid fear, you avoid growth.
Learning to confront my fears and work through them has changed my life. I’d always wanted to write, but was scared of failure, of rejection, of just not being good enough. My first novel is being published next year, and I’ve just started writing the second.
I spend much of my life with people just like me. Women with children the same age, people who live in my ‘hood, friends from university or school.
At the cancer clinic, you meet people of all ages and backgrounds, from all over London and further afield. Total strangers, but people with whom you feel a deep connection. It’s like meeting people at a baby clinic, but more morbid, obviously. You know that you have been through a similar life-changing experience, and that these strangers may understand you better than some of your closest friends.
Last year, I met a lady as I was leaving. We exchanged diagnoses, and congratulated each other warmly on not being dead yet. She looked at me intently and said “No-one really gets it unless they’ve been there, do they?” And at that point, I felt like I’d known her forever.
When I see someone in the waiting room who’s in the middle of treatment, I’m reminded of how it changes you. It can make you swing between being angry, absent-minded, selfish, withdrawn, reckless or fearful.
It makes me remember not to judge people – the guy who yelled at you when you were driving too slowly, or the friend who’s not returned your calls. We usually have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives. If they’re not dealing with cancer, it could be divorce, redundancy or bereavement.
I used to feel immortal. There are loads of things I want to do with my life, but I always thought I had time. Now I know that that’s never necessarily the case. We have no idea what lies around the next corner, so you have to get on and do it. Now.
I’ve achieved more in the last two years than in the previous ten. And, instead of spending money on things, I’ve spent it on experiences, on building memories for my children, of incredible places and unforgettable adventures.
I know that cancer has made me a stronger, wiser and nicer person. So, am I glad I have to go through it? No way, but it does make me feel a little bit better about the whole thing. As does cake.
By the way, eagle-eyed readers may remember I promised a post this week titled Inappropriate Lust. I’m afraid I lost my nerve on that one. Maybe later! Stay tuned…
There’s lots more on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page including Mary Beard on how society is prejudiced against women who go grey, and Emma Thompson on why ‘being old is heaven.’ Keep your eyes peeled for a brilliant new post by Lisa Timoney on why she hates her husband for being thin, coming soon. If you ‘like’ the Facebook page, it should keep you updated.