I am so very aware of how lucky I am that my life is divided into two very distinctive categories.
Life before cancer and life after cancer.
Lucky because I can say that I have life after cancer. A reality so many hope and wish for.
The person that I was before my diagnosis is very different to the person I am now.
So many heartbreaking, important and necessary life lessons were gifted to me as the sentence "we believe you have cancer" left my Doctors lips ten years ago. And for each of those lessons, I am extremely grateful.
I was moved to write again as I approached my 10 year diagnosis anniversary. Suddenly so many emotions I hadn't felt for a long time bubbled to the surface and my mind was trying to make sense of it all. Those of you who were there for the blogs during treatment know that writing was very therapeutic for me. A way to process each little part of my reality at that time. So when I felt the big emotions again after so long, I knew I had to get it out.
10 years. It feels like it has flown by. But at the same time, the fear I experienced in the first few months/years post-treatment is still fresh in my being. Every ache, niggle, lump, bump. I play a constant fun game of "Is this a symptom of cancer coming back or is this just my life now?"
I am happy to report that I had my final checkup today with my amazing oncologist Kate and I have made it. I have bloody made it. Shoutout to Kate for being the honest, kind, genuine and empathetic Oncologist my whānau and I needed. We are so grateful to have had you with us on this "journey" and I am really going to miss my yearly catch-ups.
So how do I feel!?
Stoked. Elated. Sad. Overwhelmed. Grateful. Reflective. Loved. Scared. Emotional.
A real two-dollar mixture of emotions really. I liken it to all the emotions I felt when I was told that there was no longer any active cancer cells in my body and I was free to get on with my life.
Leaving the comfort blanket that is my yearly checkups does frighten me. But it's just one of the many, many layers that come with having had cancer. And again. I reiterate how lucky I am to be able to say I am at this point.
I thought I would write a list of 10 things cancer taught me. For an ugly piece of shit, cancer has provided many beautiful little moments and golden nuggets that I will carry for the rest of my life.
So here you go. What cancer taught me:
1) The definition of happiness. Constantly wanting more, comparing your life to others and always striving for the next 'thing' won't often compare to what you already have right in front of you.
2) Whatever is taken from you on the outside, can never change who you are on the inside. Like others who receive chemo treatment, I was stripped of my outer appearance and it bothered me so much initially. I felt lost and a stranger in my own body. All I had at that time were my values. These values got me through chemo, finding what my new normal was following treatment and navigating life from then on.
3) Mindset is everything. No one is invincible. But with the right mindset and attitude, you can get bloody close. How you choose to show up in the world and deal with the hand of cards you're dealt that day can greatly impact your outcomes. Now don't get me wrong. I forget this all the time and I don't show up with the right mindset at times. But this is one of the most important lessons I was taught. I actually have my Mum to thank for this one. Shortly after being diagnosed, I got my Dr to ring my Mum because...duh! Mums always know what to do and my Mum did not disappoint. She turned up. Took the news like a complete rockstar and held me as I cried so damn hard. Terrified, I vocalised that at that moment I was scared that I was going to die. I know that this would've been one of the hardest parenting moments for my Mum. At that moment she told me that we are going to choose to believe that everything is going to be ok. "You're not going to die, Andrea" (she was right. Mums are always right. The odds were in my favour. I just didn't know it yet.) A switch went in my brain at that moment and that was it. From that day on, my whānau and I wore our positive mindset as an armour and we showed up ready to tackle anything. Thanks Mum x
4) We are all going to die. And that is ok. Before I was diagnosed I couldn't think about dying. I couldn't comprehend that one day, myself and the people I love will take their last breath and then be gone. Nothing can ever prepare you for the amount of death you experience when you go through cancer treatment and it's the most messed up part of the "journey". It's going to happen to us all one day. No point in wasting time fearing it. Get out there, buy your tennis racket (100 points if you understand that reference) and make the most of the time you have.
5) Vulnerability is a strength. Not a weakness. How often do we try to hide our vulnerability? It's a feeling we don't enjoy. It can make us feel weak, raw and a little all over the place. But there is so much strength to be gained through dropping the act and allowing others to see your vulnerability. It helps build resilience and it is so damn courageous. Initially, my whānau, husband and I spent the first few weeks following my diagnosis trying to protect each other from our individual vulnerability. I didn't want to overwhelm them with all of the emotions I was experiencing and they didn't want to dump their honest, raw emotions on the girl with cancer. All of our emotions were valid and justified. We soon realised that there are beautiful moments of growth to be had when you let people see your authentic, vulnerable self. And it helped us connect deeply and collectively help one another. We were unstoppable. The best team. There was nothing that could get us. Even cancer. We showed that son of a gun where to go!
6) Don't forget where you were. You can't go through a life-threatening illness without it having a positive impact on the rest of your life. Cancer made me take a broom to my life. I cleared out a lot of clutter I used to think was important. I realised what I value and the boundaries I need in my life. I learned what genuine relationships look like and that I only want those types of relationships in my life. I discovered that my body is so amazing. It was depleted and pushed to its limits by chemotherapy. But it carried me every day. And it bounced back. With a lot of love and care, it bounced back. I will never let myself lose sight of where I once was and that I am living the life I only hoped for once the nightmare was over.
7) Strength. I'm not afraid to say it. I am strong. I didn't know I was strong. Not before cancer. That beautiful bastard. It showed me that deep, deep down inside of all of us, there is a strength we never knew we had. When you have no other option but to be strong, you will always find a little more left inside.
8) There’s always something to be grateful for. Seriously. No matter how bad things seem, you can always find something good about your life. One of my favourite memories from around the time I was receiving treatment was attending a support group for "Couples living with Cancer". Sounds like a hoot doesn't it!? Well, it bloody was. Every week we would get together to have a good old moan about the reality we were facing. Mainly we moaned about not being able to do number twos. Truth. Chemo massively impacts your toilet habits. We cried, we talked, we hugged, we sat in silence. The thing we did the most though was laugh. No matter how crappy everyone was feeling, there was always something to laugh about and we were able to find things to be grateful for. It kept us going.
9) The importance of compassion and empathy. You never know what someone is going through. A little compassion and empathy can go a long way.
10) And more than anything else…cancer taught me that life is not a given. Every single day, whether it is a good or bad day, it is far better than no day at all. Feeling sorry for myself literally gets me nowhere (I will still through the occasional pity party though) and every day is an opportunity to do something good.
There you have it. Ten things that my experience with cancer has left behind. I hope something resonated with you.
I do want to take a moment to acknowledge people who were there through it all. You all know who you are. Whether we're still in touch or not. You played a part in getting me here. And I am so grateful. Thank you.
And now that is it. Ten years. I have written about every little part of my experience with cancer. Diagnosis. Feelings. IVF. Embryos and eggs. Chemotherapy. Chemo brain. Chemo burn. Blood tests. PET scans. Remission. Finding the new normal. Fear of relapse. Anniversaries and milestones.
This milestone seems the right time to sign off and leave it all behind.
Thank you for joining me for the ride. It was bumpy and it was hard. But shit. It was beautiful.