I began my first round of chemotherapy almost twelve months ago. I had arrived back in Doha to be with my family after having surgery in Australia, knowing that the real fun was about to start. When it comes to cancer people change their language completely, it somehow becomes brutal and harsh. Everyone’s fighting a war, referring to themselves as warriors, and becoming survivors. Friends send you messages of support with a #fuckcancer at the end. I really dislike that hashtag, I get it that you’re angry and hey, you go ahead and use it, shout it from the rooftops,but for me, it’s so redundant, it gives me nothing – while you’re getting angry, I’ve still got cancer.
When I’d watched a cancer diagnosis from afar I’d always assumed there was some immediate life changing moment. That families and loved ones were instantly bonded and engulfed with a love that only comes in a time of crisis.
But there I was, the most disconnected I have ever felt from my family and I guess, from life itself.
Weird, huh. It wasn’t like the movies at all. There was no huge realisation of what was important. My life didn’t suddenly became clear and lived with purpose.
In fact nothing could have been further from the reality.
My life at that time was a complete shit show. A new job, a child who was on a count down to leaving home to head to school in another country, and a chaotic schedule that now needed to accommodate a day in hospital every few weeks and the occasional chemo sick day in between. Cancer was above all else, a major freaking inconvenience for everyone.
In amongst all of this was my newly acquired cancer identity. I’d written a couple of articles and shared my diagnosis online. I chose to do this because I wanted to avoid the one on one conversation, I wanted people to have time to digest the news before I saw them.
I had become the cancer girl of the month. I was asked to join dragon boat groups (it’s kind of a breast cancer thing), speak at events, and write about my experience. And while I understood that dragon boat racing was going to be great for my mental and physical health I couldn’t quite get my head around why breast cancer would make me jump onboard (pardon the pun). I’d never been a dragon boat girl? Was it compulsory? Was this part of the gig?
Two Fat Expats held a breast cancer awareness morning at my home with the Shangri-La Doha as our hosts. The Shangri-La had very kindly offered to take care of everything. My house was completely covered in pink, pretty pretty pink. Pretty pink food, pretty pink ribbon and pretty pink icing. But I was far from feeling pretty. I was 13 days post chemo and on the morning of the event noticed that my hair had just begun to fall out.
Part of the fabulousness of the morning, and it really was fabulous, was that two of the spa therapists came to the house and set up chairs for head and shoulder massages. This was when I noticed chemo had begun messing with my brain, they call it the chemo fog. In a house crowded with women, I must have lost my phone over twenty times that morning. Each time I’d go to take a shot of someone getting a massage or testing out a pink praline I’d realise I couldn’t remember where I’d put my phone down, again, and again. And it was somewhere in between the panic of wiping the hair from my shoulders and worrying about the ability to be sharp enough to do my new job, that the lovely Elvira from the Shangri-La offered me a head massage.
“I don’t think I can” I said as discreetly as possible.
She titled her head to the side and gently urged me to relax and take a seat.
“Could we just do shoulders today?” I didn’t want to tell her why. That she was likely to end up with handfuls of hair. #Awkward.
As I sat in the room surrounded by new friends and people who genuinely cared enough to come along, my mind raced with what was ahead of me. How were the children going to cope. Please don’t touch my head. How would my husband deal with it all. Please don’t touch my head. How was I going to hold on to this job? Is she about to touch my head? Please don’t touch my head. How would we get home for Christmas in amongst the chemo, and radiation. Please don’t touch my head. Would we still purchase the block of land we’d dreamed of or was that now irresponsible?
I was present, but distracted.
Which kind of sums up my last year. I was here but not here. There was too much noise, a constant voice. The job, the kids, the podcast, the blog, the cancer.
A year on and I’m now back to working for myself. I cook my kids breakfast each morning, and open my laptop once they’re out the door for school. I go for a walk with my husband each night. My moments of clarity, those big moments that I thought would come when I was diagnosed, are arriving now. I’m clear on what makes my family happy, what works for us. I’m clear on what I want to do for the next few years. As a family we’re now thriving again.
This week I’ve had my daughter home with me, she’s returned from school in Australia. “You should bring your daughter in to the spa” messaged Ruweida (who has now become a friend) from the Shangri-La. It seemed outrageous, until I thought about the year and how far we’d both come. As we walked past the candles and the soothing music into the darkness of the spa, a figure came to great me, it was Elvira. And then for an hour I lay side by side with my daughter; relaxed, healthy, with a clear mind and a smile on my face as Elvira gave me the best massage I have ever had – finishing off with my head.
It will never be over, cancer will always be in the background, but its quieter now. I feel like my revelations and moments of clarity are coming now, now that the scheduled appointments, tests and doctors visits have slowed. Cancer works differently for all of us, we use a different language, attack it in a different way. Some are warriors, some retreat. Which is something to remember for breast cancer awareness month. We don’t all come in a pretty pink bow.