On Hope and Life – reflections six years on from a cancer diagnosis

“Hey, you know the tree we’ve just seen,” my friend Lotte remarks as she turns to me, “Jemima says it means ‘where there is life there is hope’”. Ah! There is that beautiful familiar message again and those words that have come to mean something truly important to me. It is a Saturday morning a few weeks ago and we are doing a spontaneous stroll through a peaceful rural village, two and a half hours outside of Accra. The homestead we have just visited has a huge overturned tree lying on its side on the sandy ground, in the middle. One end of the tree consists of exposed, brittle roots yet the top of the tree is unexpectedly still flourishing with healthy, thick green foliage bursting forth from its branches!….. ‘where there is life there is hope.’

September 2014 – a month I will never forget

This day six years ago I was in hospital recovering from surgery. A few weeks later I started chemotherapy for invasive breast cancer. My diagnosis, like all cancer diagnoses came as a dreadful, enormous shock and I remember a traumatic time filled with blood tests, scans and biopsy results, sleepless nights, a whole new medical language with terms and names I had never heard of, and tears galore. I hate thinking back to those weeks because I felt so incredibly blindsided, heartbroken and petrified for myself, Dave and our beautiful children who were then only 5 and 2, and for our families. I’d wake up every morning in total disbelief that this was my reality at 32. Dammit I didn’t want the start of my 30s to have suddenly changed so drastically.

Hope – being able to see the light despite all the darkness

But I also think back to many moments of Hope – when I had to muster up the strength to face treatment and surgeries and in order to do so I had to BELIEVE that I could get through this and Thrive on the other side. I’d look to other survivors who were further ahead in this journey than I was. The song words that I would cling to ‘all of my life in every season, you are still God and I have a reason to sing, I have a reason to worship’ reminded me of all the good in my life and my reasons for wanting to overcome this illness. The outpouring of love, prayers and support from family, friends and colleagues. My oncologist Dr Lucille Heslop walking into my hospital room at 6am and reassuring me that we would come up with a great treatment plan and showing such empathy and kindness – all of us patients agree she is our angel on earth.

At the time of finishing the nine months of treatment I wrote a piece on Facebook that some of you may have read and I ended it with the quote ‘Where there is Life there is Hope’. The expanded version of this sentiment was written by Anne Frank. She wrote “Where there’s hope there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.” Having recently read a beautiful version of the Anne Frank story with my kids, I’m freshly in awe of Anne’s ability to believe in better days after being cooped up for so long in hiding in tremendously difficult circumstances.

A series of comforting synchronicities

Last year at a time when I was feeling a little anxious, I had a beautiful series of synchronicities that somehow made me feel like I am on the right path and they gave me some reassurance and renewed hope at a time when I needed them. Synchroncity is a concept that analytical psychologist Carl Jung introduced. He suggested that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related.

These started when I was chatting to a school friend I had met in Ghana and in a message she wrote ‘Where there is hope there is life’. I was immediately happily reminded me the reflection I’d written those years ago and shared with her what they meant to me and how glad I was to see these words again. Then I noticed our driver Frank’s Whatsapp status: ‘Once there is life, there is hope’. This message switches the ‘life’ and ‘hope’ around but is also a wonderful reminder that if someone or something is alive, there is always still hope for recovery. And around this same time I watched the trailer for a movie on box office and the first words that came out of the mouth of the actress on the screen was one of these same messages!

A wall hanging 'While I breathe, I hope'Dum Spiro Spero
A reminder I have hanging on my wall

A few days later my mom went on a retreat and shared one of the reflections with me and there again were those comforting words. So it really felt uncanny how many times I kept being reminded of LIFE and HOPE. Yesterday when I was writing this post, my phone was playing up and I had to reset all the settings. I would have had no idea where to even start looking in my thousands of photos for those ones my mom had sent yet somehow when the phone was restoring the backup, her photo of the print out she had received was among the first to come up out of all of my photos – what are the chances!? It read:

“The well known maxim ‘While there is life there is hope’ has deeper meaning in reverse.
‘While there is hope there is life.’
Hope rouses life to continue, to expand, to grow, to reach out, to go on.
Hope sees a light where there isn’t any.
Hope lights candles in millions of despairing hearts.
Hope never sounds retreat.
Hope revives ideals, renews dreams, revitalises visions.
‘The word God has written on the brow of every person’ wrote Victor Hugo, ‘is Hope’ – Wilfred Peterson

Coincidences perhaps, but what a lovely series of them that I’ll always remember, and one that I was really delighted to feel again when we were walking through the village.

A fallen tree on its side with its roots exposed and foliage on its branches. A village in Agortime Kpetoe Ghana

This is a year when the world has had to keep Hope alive. We all have fresh empathy into how it can feel to have our daily lives disrupted by an illness. We have had to hold onto hope that we can recover from financial hardships, disrupted plans and uncertainty caused by Corona, and that should we contract the virus, that we will make it through. But these have been difficult months for everyone and many times all of the uncertainty, worry and fear that we have collectively experienced reminded me a lot of what going through an illness like cancer is like.

Choose Joy but allow yourself and others to feel ALL of the emotions

As you may know October is breast cancer awareness month (please go for your check ups ladies!) so every year at this time I feel a whole lot of emotion and a sense of reflection. I will always have a sense of my life before September 2014 and my life after that month. I believe I’m a big ‘celebrator’ of the everyday. Since my diagnosis I don’t take normal days for granted. I know what it is like to spend times in hospital and to not be able to do all the things I enjoy doing due to treatment and recovery times, so when things are on an even keel this makes me VERY grateful and content. Like I’ve said before the ‘mundane’ is ‘marvellous’. I remember post cancer something for sure switched in me – a small example of this was that whenever we would drive to the Drakensberg from Durban (about a 3 hour trip). In the past I had a vague sense of impatience counting down the time it took to get there, but after I was diagnosed I have never felt that way again – I’m simply happy to BE in that moment and enjoy the car ride and the sights along the way. That is enough. I am incredibly grateful to be here and to feel healthy and well to enjoy this beautiful life!

Colourful washing and African wax print fabric hanging in the village in Agortime Kpetoe

I have moved far beyond cancer and it in no way defines who I am. Yet I still feel the grief and loss of that experience and I am aware that it sits at the surface, like oil in water, because a lot of the time when this topic comes up in relation to my life and those of friends who are still enduring permanent treatment, or those we have lost, tears still well up in my eyes.  I liken it to when someone dies, it is normal to feel teary when talking about the loss of someone we loved, years on this is still very very normal, or to feel the heartbreak that someone you love is going through, in the face of such loss. Anyone who has had cancer feels that loss and grief because we miss who we were before this illness, we miss the carefree way of being we had before this and we miss the (yes, perhaps false) sense of security and safety we felt prior to being diagnosed.

This year I chatted with our kids, who are now 11 and 8 about what that experience six years ago was like for me. As they were so young they were oblivious at the time and don’t remember being frightened of my bald head. Their beautiful empathetic souls offered comfort; “That must have been totally scary Mom, we were so little.” This week Emma had to choose a charity for her school house to support. She only told me about this afterwards and said she had chosen the McMillan cancer charity and read a description of what this charity does. “They support the patient emotionally Mom, which I imagine is very important as it must be hard and frightening”. Oh these children are wise and lovely. They also asked me big questions “Did you think you were going to die?” “Can cancer come back?”. Often grown ups are even afraid to ask cancer questions…

Last year at this time I wrote a post about cancer but I never posted it. I thought to myself – I’ve just started a blog and I don’t want people to only think that I write about cancer. My feelings about this as someone who has had this illness, reflect our societal thoughts in general – we hate “cancer” talk don’t we. Survivors are supposed to deal with it and then let it go and carry on with normal life. We aren’t meant to rehash things and bring it up again…. I personally detest the illness. I hate the pain it causes families and I dislike that sometimes I feel tainted by it. I actively shove it aside and tell it to F off when I feel it gets in my way of Living. I don’t dwell on cancer or think about it every day but I do acknowledge that it will always be a part of my life, and I still deal with the physical side effects of a changed body due to all the treatments, and the emotional and mental struggles that are sometimes harder to cope with than other times.

Let’s talk about hard things….

As adult humans we somehow feel more comfortable when this ‘unmentionable’ illness isn’t part of conversations and thoughts. I still find it ironic that when a person get the most terrible news of a diagnosis they are expected to be the strongest and most positive. Don’t get me wrong – I am an optimistic happy person but we need to allow space for the pain and grief too, so that we can process those very human emotions and properly deal with them. When this space exists we can develop resilience, and grow and tackle things bravely with strength, but there is a whole spectrum of emotion that any tragedy or difficulty brings up in a person, and pushing that away or being made to feel that those emotions ‘shouldn’t’ be expressed is not helpful.

In this modern world (and there are dozens of theories as to why this is the case) all of us are in some way touched by cancer, whether it is you yourself, a friend, a family member, a colleague, and in lots of cases all of the above! This illness has become a part of all of our lives in some way or other, yet it is still largely the topic we try to avoid and not bring up.  

I definitely believe that in order to get on with life and Live it, I’ve needed to be able to compartmentalize cancer and make a firm decision to move beyond it. But if at times we have the approach of ‘out of sight out of mind’ because we can’t cope well with the discomfort, we run the risk of making patients feel isolated in their ability to have to deal with this privately amongst a select few who may have been unfortunate enough to have also been diagnosed, and we basically negate something that is in fact affecting most of us on some level.

A goat standing on a sacred shrine in a village in Agortime Kpetoe in Ghana
This little goat in the village was very cute standing alone on an important shrine. Let’s not make patients feel isolated…

If we could improve our ability to talk openly about cancer amongst other uncomfortable topics, to open ourselves up to being more vulnerable and “Brene Brown things”, to say how we are really feeling and to REALLY listen and sit with each other’s pain and to allow the space for communicating hard things – I think every patient and the families of patients would have an easier time getting through this difficult chapter.

Let the Joys and Tragedies cozy up to one another…

In this way we can acknowledge that elements of pain and grief can exist in duality with huge amounts of joy and happiness. We could help each other more. After all we are all battling with something even if it isn’t cancer…..so few of us remain unscathed on our life path. We shouldn’t have to be ‘Pollyanna’ and positive about things all the time and we are allowed to have tougher days when maybe we don’t feel as upbeat. Dave and I were watching the final episode of the current season of ‘This Is Us’ the other night.  Rebecca and Jack go and visit the gynecologist who delivered their children and they end up chatting about the mutual experience of losing a child. The doctor’s words reminded me so much of what I was thinking and writing about;

“Hospitals are kind of like that you know. These bizarre buildings where people experience some of their greatest joys and some of the most awful tragedies, all under one roof. I think the trick is not trying to keep the joys and the tragedies apart, but you kind of have got to let them cozy up to one another. Let them co-exist. And I think if you can do that, if you can manage to forge ahead with all that joy and heartache mixed up inside of you, never knowing which one is going to get the upper hand and well…. life does have a way of shaping out to be more beautiful than tragic.”

Colourful washing hanging and children playing in a village in Agortime Kpetoe in Ghana

I think I’m okay but what now? …..

Once my treatment had finished after 9 months of chemo and radiation I felt quite lost and afraid. PTSD is very real for some. This feeling of ‘what now’ is common for cancer survivors as you become used to such regular appointments with your doctor and medical team and then you are let back out into the real world to LIVE. “But How?” I wondered…..”how was I going to stop feeling the fear of recurrence and when would I feel like me again?” I still recall an oncology appointment with another oncologist when Dr Heslop was away. I remember this doctor told me that it was their job to make sure my body was alright, but it was my job to LIVE. I find it another irony – you go through intense treatment because you are of course desperate to live, but at the end of it you wonder how to do that when everything feels so different….I framed the image below on our wall for some inspiration on how to once again do Life, and it stays there and I’m deeply thankful that these are all regulars in our lives again.

A big move on the horizon

I think back to a dinner my husband Dave and I had back in February 2016. We went to the Oyster box in Durban for his birthday, to enjoy their delicious curry buffet. The curry was fiery and tasty, the wine was great and perfectly paired with the meal, but I still remember the argument we had that night – things got quite heated when we got talking about this a possible relocation to Ghana. To Ghana!?…..where exactly was that on the map of Africa?? (I had to have a good look!)

The idea of a whole new fresh start was not as appealing to me as it was to Dave. I was supportive that this was a very exciting potential project for his career and understood that. But I was totally terrified for a big move to a whole new country. It had been a few months of me trying to find a ‘normal’ again and I knew I needed to have another upcoming surgery. I was JUST finding my feet again with some locum teaching after not teaching for a year, and I was really enjoying being in the classroom with children again. We had leaned heavily on the incredible support of our family and friends with all we had going on and I could not fathom having to let that go and not have that safety net to fall into. I loved our life in Durban. Understandably we also had medical concerns about my health. When you have spent so much time with doctors who become friends, and in hospitals where you get to know the nurses and staff, the thought of a whole new medical system in a West African country was totally unfathomable and downright scary.

And Yet….we took the plunge, we agreed this was the right move for us, we held hands and believed that our family was a strong team and that if we could tackle the tough things we had worked through in those recent times, we could bravely take a leap of Faith and move to Ghana (which I now knew exactly where to locate on the map of Africa). Dave agreed that the kids and I needed some more time to fully make peace with the decision and he went ahead. During the nine months that we spent apart (but saw each other every six weeks) I had to really put my big girl panties on and look after our children on my own and that was good because it made me realise that I was capable and strong even if I felt fragile after what I’d been through.

Gratitude turns what we have into enough.

Granted, things could have worked out differently but thankfully I’m writing this four years later and it was for sure was the best move for our family. Personally living in Accra has been the most incredible time of healing, finding myself again, and truly LIVING beyond a dreadful illness. I love Ghana and our family of four is stronger for this experience. We have had to lean on each other for support while also being so grateful for the neighbours and friends who have been like our family here. I miss our family and friends in Durban dearly and I still struggle some days – but don’t we all, and I’m thankful for the ways we can keep in touch with modern technology and I’m grateful for a tribe who likes me on good and bad days.

A photo of the look out point at the Shai Hills Accra Ghana

2020 – it’s been quite a year…

We are all now trying to find our way again after many muddled months of 2020. When we see case numbers rising and we don’t yet have a vaccine it can feel like we are in that phase that cancer survivors experience at the end of treatment when we ask ourselves if this is really over…I hear talk of ‘what ifs and maybes’ when it comes to ‘second waves’. We may be struggling to figure out how to do normal life again…how much socialising is okay? Should I have gone out when there were so many people around? We are all second guessing ourselves sometimes and feeling some trepidation. These are scary, unpredictable times. They are hard and we have all had to be resilient and brave for many months now. However we also know that we are resilient and we understand better what really matters in life, when big things hit us and how good regular days out and about seeing those we love are truly SO great because we know what it’s like when they aren’t possible.

The array of human emotion we all feel and the cycles of ups and downs we currently go through are normal human responses to unprecedented times. So let’s be kind and understanding to each other and to ourselves. Let’s cut ourselves a bit of slack and realise that we are all struggling sometimes but that we are capable and that we ‘can do hard things’….and let’s hold firmly onto Hope.

6 thoughts on “On Hope and Life – reflections six years on from a cancer diagnosis

  1. You’ve found a wonderful gift. Your creativity in writing. Emphasizing the positive in all experiences in life. Teaching us how to handle difficulties and challenges. Tks Lol for your wisdom and love .

    Like

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