When I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer three months ago, it was like running smack into a brick wall. Despite hearing words like tumour, surgery and radiation, the most hard-hitting word of all was ‘chemotherapy’.
Last time I checked, the number one fear for most people was public speaking, but I would make a calculated guess that number two would be chemotherapy. I can only relate it to the fear of the dark I had as a kid – I didn’t know what monsters might be lurking under my bed or around a dark corner. And until I could muster the courage to turn a light on, my childhood mind continued to be convinced that whatever may be waiting for me was intending to do me harm.
Chemo had the same effect on my adult mind leading up to my first round of treatment. As a facts-and-figures person in my working life, I had mastered the art of treading water in a sea of information-overload with data analysis, projections, and evidence-based recommendations. Following my cancer diagnosis, I tried to do the same thing.
From reading all the information booklets about chemotherapy, talking to the medical staff at Icon Cancer Care Wesley, to taking a ‘sensible’ approach with the Google search button, to listening to other people who had been through chemo, or knew someone who had been through chemo. And yet at the end, I was left scrambling around, unable to find a light switch in the dark scary world of ‘the unknown’. The only fact I knew was that my hair would eventually fall out. Everything else was as scientific as guessing how many jelly beans were in a jar.
The most comforting reflection I received from a dear friend was to say that the fear of what might happen is nothing compared to what actually does happen.
Our brains, after all, are hard-wired to fill in missing pieces of a story. They love to speculate, to imagine as many possible scenarios as we give space for, and to ultimately allow our deepest fears to wreak havoc during what otherwise feels like a car crash in slow motion.
I then decided to stop seeking more information and instead make good use of all the research and stories I had collected to create a chemo shopping list (otherwise known as my ‘just in case’ list). I added everything from a chair for the shower through to a wig and a cold-press juicer. I also cut off my hair as the first big step to accepting the only thing I knew would actually happen.
The day before my first chemo session
It was while I was methodically cleaning out my bathroom cupboard the day before my first treatment that my newly-claimed stoicism began unravelling.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t the light-hearted jokes about not needing hair styling products for the next two years. Rather, it was finding the salt and bicarb soda purchases from my chemo shopping spree and realising I had no idea what the answer was to a seemingly innocuous question; whether to start mouth rinses that first night, or just wait and see if I developed mouth ulcers. And so, I sat on the bathroom floor and cried.
It was a timely reminder that regardless of how much planning and preparation I had done to that point, I still didn’t have the answers. All I could do was choose to be ok with ‘just in case’. I didn’t know how many of the 20-plus potential side-effects I would experience or to what degree. But then I found a packet of an old antibiotics script and saw that those too had a list of 20-plus potential side effects, some similar to chemo, and yet I never thought twice about taking them because I viewed those drugs as medicine.
And there it was – the one resounding fact in all of this. Whether I thought I would get through it, or not get through it, both scenarios were right. It came down to how I viewed my chemo treatment, as a friend or a foe.
I chose friend. I embraced it as a much-needed respite from being stuck inside a hamster wheel since diagnosis – the five surgeries/procedures in six weeks, the specialist appointments, the repeated forms and tests, the bomb-residue left on friends and families after telling them ‘my news’. Chemo was now about slowing down, catching my breath, and piecing together all that had happened up until that point. It was also about surrendering to what was yet to come.