Most young adults living with cancer have been told at one time or another that we ‘should live every day like it’s our last’ (if there’s one thing cancer is good for, apparently it’s a cliche!). But what happens when you go all out and try to make up for ‘lost time’? Is it possible to live life at 100 miles an hour and still function?
Is our latest blog, Victoria describes her experiences of living her life in fast forward – what she did, why she did it, and the unexpected pressure that came with creating a ‘list for living’. Take a read. It’s a great reminder of the need to balance fun and a little bit of rest!
Guest blogger: Victoria Bel Gil (pictured with two members of X-factor finalists Rough Copy)
The emotional aftermath of my recovery from cancer has felt like having an unexploded bomb in my back garden. Even though I know that it’s gone for now, I still dread the day that it may become active again. I worry that, after years of lying there quietly and undisturbed, it will begin ticking and become an immediate danger to me once again.
While this feeling does not follow me around everyday, it catches up with me when I am faced with having to make future plans and decisions around my life. Simple and enjoyable tasks such as signing up to a new mobile contract, buying new furniture for my recently (pre-diagnosis) purchased home, or enrolling on a year long college course began to give me anxiety. I have felt – and still do feel – uneasiness around making future plans.
Once I finished treatment, many well-meaning friends and family members wanted me to catch up on what I had “missed out on” and to live my life “for today”. Invitations flooded in – and I took them all!
In the first six months after treatment I visited Brownsea Island twice, changed jobs, enrolled on an evening course in floristry, went to London Fashion Week, got a boyfriend (and ended it), saw an X Factor finalists’ show, visited gardens in Holland and Hampton Court, rocked out at two festivals, travelled to visit friends in Devon, Bath, Cardiff and London, and spent Christmas in the New Forest – and the list went on. Days out? Yep count me in! Night out on the town? Yes please! I even created a ‘list for living’ full of all those exciting things that I’d always wanted to do but had never got around to. Having looked cancer in the eye and showed it the door, the list became vitally important to me. I felt as if I had to fill every minute of my existence and not waste any time.
So what’s wrong with getting that tattoo you’ve always wanted (yes I got one!), doing that charity sky dive (not yet but I’ll be doing it for Shine when I do!), or booking a holiday to India (I’m saving up)? Nothing I hear you cry. Do it!
While ‘doing it’ is great advice, I had not counted on how exhausting it would be. I also discovered that the flip side of a life in overdrive can be unbearable disappointment. I had loads of amazing days out and fun times, but I often ended up feeling exhausted and unfulfilled. Take one of my living list items: run a half-marathon. At the time of my breast cancer diagnosis I was 38 and recovering from a recent divorce. Running had been a coping mechanism for the end of my marriage and, before my diagnosis, I had signed up to run a half-marathon for children’s cancer charity. I had completed many 5 km and 10 km races and was well on my way to achieving my goal.
And then: bam! In March 2013, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in my right breast and was given six rounds of chemotherapy, a right mastectomy, and 25 blasts of radiotherapy followed by 17 Herceptin injections over 15 months.
Throughout my treatment, much of my half-marathon training went on hold, though I am proud to say that I continued to run (slowly) throughout chemo, much to the terror of my parents. I even did an off-road 5km in the pouring rain between rounds 5 and 6 of chemo! Once I had my mastectomy, however, even my stubbornness couldn’t ignore the infections I kept getting in my surgery site as a result of pushing myself too far. When I realised I needed to stop, I felt a huge sense of loss and disappointment. My confidence in running had gone and, unbeknown to me, my little living list had put me under enormous pressure.
Eight months post-treatment, I have only just started running again with my little group of running friends, and my confidence is slowly returning. Instead of feeling bad about not completing the half-marathon, I have realised that I needed to start “listening to my body” and be more realistic and gentle with myself. To help me do this, I’ve devised some strategies:
1) Set realistic goals and plans: I have re-written my list for living to be more realistic and flexible to my new needs. Running a marathon may not be possible but running weekly with my group certainly is. Following an 8-week return to fitness programme that I was referred to by my GP, my fitness has improved. Last week I went on an evening run and kept up with my friends for nearly 5km!
2) Be kind to myself: I have allowed myself to take it easy and, rather than beating myself up, I focus on how far I have come in the nine months since treatment. If I don’t feel like running one day, I don’t feel bad – I just go to the next session and move on.
3) Celebrate the new goals and don’t underestimate new achievements: In my new post-treatment life, I run daily marathons. These include getting myself up, showered and dressed (impossible after my op without help), walking my dog twice a day, going to work part-time and doing my own house work (which somehow always seems so satisfying now!).
Is life dull? Not at all. I feel proud that I am taking back my independence. I still believe its great to plan and take small steps. But it’s also important to celebrate those steps and to remember that even though we are slow and hesitant we are still moving forward.
Oh and the bomb? Well, hopefully if it starts ticking again I will be better prepared. I look forward to meeting the hunky fire fighters who can help to blow it up!