Confessions of a Cancer Survivor
Getting Through A Cancer Recurrence
Today I’m sad because my friend Judy has been diagnosed with a recurrence of her breast cancer, 21 years after her original diagnosis, only this time, it’s a nastier and more aggressive kind of cancer. She’s already had a masectomy and starts her chemo in May. It was a a huge shock to discover this news, especially by email, but that’s by the by. I really thought cancer was behind Judy, or rather she had put cancer behind her. 21 years after her diagnosis, I just didn’t imagine it would come back. But I know how that feels, because two and a half years after my original diagnosis, mine came back.
Do What You Have To Do To Get Through It
I did what I had to do to get through it and out the other side, but it’s tough. Once you’ve had a recurrence, you live with managing the fear that it could return again. It used to be a daily battle for me. I’d wake up in the morning and it was the first thing I thought about, and the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep, however long I listened to that hypnotherapy tape! Oh the tapes definitely helped, but when it’s dark, and you are alone because your husband is sleeping beside you, the house is quiet, no-one is awake that you can call, these thoughts creep back in. What if. Over time, and with growing ease and confidence, those thoughts weren’t so present. I actively worked hard at replacing them with more fruitful thoughts as my life evolved into a different routine that didn’t involve doctors appointments and medication, and I began to step out again. I still use the trick my counsellor taught me. Every time the dark thoughts return imagine a red ‘stop sign’ infront of you. It works every time.
Love Fully Without Reserve
I genuinely felt cured after my hysterectomy. I had a sense of completion and just knew the cancer wasn’t going to come back again, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get affected when it happens to close friends, and nor does it mean I can’t be moved by news like Judy’s, maybe because it touches upon my own losses, it’s a reminder that the best antidote to cancer is to live wildly, live well, with passion and guts, to say what’s on your mind and heart, to not leave anything out ever, to love fully and without reserve. We can all get blase about this stuff: yes, yes, I’m fitting all this in around my daily schedule ... Judy’s news scared the shit out of me because I suddenly wondered if I was sweating the small stuff instead of living wildly.
When The Body Speaks, Listen
I know that like me, Judy will do whatever she has to do to not only get through the ordeal, but listen for the message that her body is speaking. Sometimes when we are too quiet, silent, our bodies do the talking for us. That was certainly true in my case.
Writing My Way Through Cancer
Judy is such a lovely, vibrant, strong woman, and I love her. She’s been a rock and inspiration to me. When I was looking for a writer’s group to join after I’d completed my treatment it was Judy’s primrose yellow card I noticed in The Primrose Hill bookshop window. The moment I heard her voice on the phone, her American accent which was full of warmth and engagement, I had a good feeling, and I was right to trust that feeling because I was an active writer in her group for 3 years. Three years of writing my way through the pain and exhaustion that cancer had left me with to process. Three years of picking up the threads of my life, the new life that felt so unthreaded, so battered and war torn from 4 major surgeries and two rounds of gruelling chemo, losing my hair twice, and closing the door on having my own children. The weekly meetings in Judy’s home in Chalcot Square brought my writer’s voice back to life, and the women in that group were both witness and gentle critics of my emerging voice and stories. Sometimes the rawness in my stories stunned everyone - no-one could quite believe the horrors, but I needed to say these stories outloud, and reading them really helped me to move on.
I reached a point in my writing where I was ready to write my book about my journey through cancer. I had gathered a lot of material, and crucially also a lot of paintings as I had begun to paint during my treatment. Suddenly I realised that I had over 200 paintings and a lot of words and I wanted to put them together but I didn’t know how. Judy was the person who coached me through this process. For a year we worked together on this as she gently held my hand, encouraged me, pushed me to write and review all my paintings, to find the narrative thread that unlocked each painting’s story. I was given a grant during this period from The Arts Council to teach autistic children how to find their voice. It was such a privilege, and also a very healing experience for me as I was still recovering from my hysterectomy, and knowing that I would never have my own children somehow made me freer to bond with these children. For three months I worked with them most of whom could not speak nor walk unaided, but together we found a language in the paint, as they rolled their bodies and discovered a new sense of expression and freedom. Silent no longer, their paintings spoke the words they could not utter.
Vizualizing The Outcome You Want
Judy helped me to visualise the outcome I wanted for them and for myself in this piece of work. I started seeing myself as the wise, creative woman who opens doors for people. I pasted a copy of one of my favourite paintings called ‘wise woman’ onto my notebook which reassured me each day that I could walk back into that classroom and face not only the children who were excitedly waiting, but also myself, not as a wounded crow, but as a colourful eagle.
The Power of Being In A Group
Groups are powerful things, and the writing group and teaching the children, gave me a sense of belonging. I hadn’t belonged in such a long time. My life had been a constant round of doctors and hospitals, and now I was beginning to see my life beyond all of that. I was beginning to belong to myself, and to a new group of people who celebrated my voice.
Honour Your Grief
So today I remember the poem I first heard on a post-cancer retreat in Italy, a poem which reminds me to honour my grief not to deny it. I first heard this while listening to Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘Here It Is’, a meditative song I highly recommend.
Bird Wings by Rumi
Your grief for what you’ve lost
lifts a mirror up to where you’re
Expecting the worst, you look, and
Instead, here is the joyful face
you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes, and opens
and closes. if it were always a fist, or always stretched open, you
would be paralysed.
Your deepest prescence is in every
small contracting and
expanding, the two as beautifully
balanced and co-ordinated as
My Writing Tribe
Drawing on a wealth of experience, Sharon Bray offers a number of exercises that encourage people to translate their thoughts and emotions into words. This is a wise book that relies on both scientific and personal knowledge.
The first book I used when learning about and taking art therapy classes with Camilla Connell. Groundbreaking. Instructive. Soothing and life-changing.
The Love Poems by Rumi
Still the best book on creating vizualizations - pictures to go with words.
Painting Helped Me Express My Feelings of Rage and Relief
Useful Resources For Getting Through Cancer
- British Association of Art Therapists
British Association of Art Therapists - information about art therapy, careers and training in art therapy and a section for professional art therapists including continuing professional development, membership details, news and call for a referral
- Breakthrough - A UK Charity: Our vision is a future free from the fear of breast cancer
Breakthrough Breast Cancer is the UK's leading charity committed to fighting breast cancer through research and education. My friend Judy co-founded this charity.
- Health Creation
Health Creation was founded by Dr Rosy Daniel and offers 121 coaching for cancer sufferers and carers. They provide a crucial link for people who are afraid of being isolated, and have great resources.
Students Exploring in Paint in my Studio
My beautiful friend
- Life Coaching with Judy Rich
Life coaching with Judy Rich, my beautiful friend
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