Life is Full

By Kathleen Mansfield

April 2015 and I’ve travelled a long way since October 2013. My heart and my head have shifted. My breast has lost its way. My liver and kidneys are on a daily ration of drugs to survive the journey and my skin looks radiant due to the palm load of supplements I now indulge in each morning. What about my bones? Fragile. Weakened from the treatments.

It’s been a roller coaster, filled with fear, uncertainty, regrets and loneliness and it has forced me to confront the truth that we are all here for a limited time only. Like a shoe sale. Force your foot in because it’s a bargain? Or wait for the perfect fit - later? It’s a conundrum and a paradox that just as you come to terms with this insubstantial life and its frail timespan you are forced into the waiting game of cancer treatment: discovery - wait - biopsy - wait - hospital planning appointment - wait - think you imagined you had cancer because you don’t feel ill - wait - get chest infection with the stress of all this waiting and feel properly ill - wait - surgery - wait for lab results - operation recovery period - sleepy head with no thoughts from Tramadol - sort of nice - oh, no, another operation - wait for appointment - recovery and await lab results - oh, no, another operation - recuperation - Tamoxifen - radiotherapy - drug sensitivity - try another - add another - cracked rib - bone scan - osteoporosis? Phew. Good news.

Oh, yes, the uncertainty of cancer is a metaphorical journey many of us face. The figures are bleak. There are more than 200 different cancers, each requiring different treatments. Statistics from Cancer Research UK indicate that more than 331,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2011 in the UK, that’s around 910 people every day. Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer and, disturbingly, 1 in 2 people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.

It was brilliant that, during my treatment, Facebook suddenly went viral with no-make-up selfies. It helped to ease the sense of isolation. There I was cocooned at home, bra-less in my pyjamas for comfort and not a scrap of beautifying to be seen. It helped that others went public with their morning faces. It felt like they were mirroring me. Silly, but oh, so very helpful and reassuring. It also helped to know that research funds were being raised. I want my children to avoid this scourge.

Even though my family and friends were truly amazing, I couldn’t help but feel I was travelling alone. I didn’t expect anyone to climb inside my head and heart and understand the intensity of regret I felt for a life less lived than I felt it should have been. I regretted not listening to myself more. I had the answers to all my problems always. But I’d repeatedly choose to ignore my intuition - not to trust my gut. That led to time wasted. Time spent not doing what I loved doing. Time in limbo where I didn’t even try to uncover what it was I loved. I would never get that time back.

Facilities like Maggie’s Centres are a haven of calm and respite after a difficult consultation where the outcome isn’t what a woman wants to hear. You enter straight into the kitchen. It is such a clean and tidy and welcoming kitchen with home baking wafting: tempting you if you pick the right day. The team of delightful volunteers and other “patients” gather around the table with teas of all descriptions and readily talk and share. It is never bleak. The sun pours in through the ceiling and the glass walls, the staff are amazingly sensitive and somehow say just the right thing - how they know is beyond me. I always leave feeling fortified. They’d helped a friend of mine who’d died of cancer and she had spoken well of them before I got ill so I knew to head there after my consultations. Now I am raising money for them through my writing.

I wrote Tumour Rumour every day of my illness. Initially, it helped me cope. I didn’t want to burden my two young adult children or my friends and family, so I wrote it all out. For the first time in my life, I had the time and the opportunity (I had little strength to do much else) to write about me and for me simply because I like writing. I did it for me. It wasn’t until three or four months down the line that I looked back over the words, to see how far I’d come, that I could see there was some merit in the content. It was then I decided to use bits and pieces to create a book.

Tumour Rumour is available from Maggie’s at the Western General in Edinburgh. It raises funds and I hope it helps others going through the cancer factory to use the inevitable time, where they may feel like a puppet with no independence, for themselves. To accept the gift of time and to find their creativity, whether it is knitting, model making, story telling, music or whatever, and let it flourish just for them, for no-one else and with no agenda other than to cheer themselves up and to learn how deeply creative all us humans are by nature.

I am still finding myself with niggles relating to my treatment and the disease. I am still writing. I am about to publish an e-book - on this all consuming subject. It’s called Words from the Heart, charting a journey through cancer. It isn’t bleak. I am not bleak. Life is full.