Mind my Cancer
As if cancer itself weren't bad enough physically, it comes with the fantastic double-whammy of having a profound effect on our minds. Here Katie Ruane, who has lived with cancer for ten years, tells Headcase how it affected hers . . .
‘You are really lucky to have been diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia. Your life will be better than it’s ever been and you won't even know you are on treatment!’
These were probably the most damaging words I’ve been told since my diagnosis of 'old man’s cancer' on Friday 19th January 2007. They were said to me by a smiling consultant, three days after being told I had cancer. 10 years later, still on treatment - a pill form of chemotherapy I take daily, and will probably be on for the rest of my life - I can tell you that it can be pretty fucking awful.
And no. I'm not lucky.
In the sense that my diagnosis was never going to kill me and I haven't spent lots of time in hospital, then yes, I suppose I am lucky. And yes, I can basically live my life. But the mental impact of living with cancer - how I feel, how I might not be able to have babies, how I'm pretty sure I'm single because of it - well . . . that's fucking shit.
I spend most of my time smiling and laughing and saying ‘I'm fine!’
Because I am. Mostly. And then there are days when OK doesn't mean OK. It means I'm struggling with fatigue and I can't find the words to echo what is going on in my head. OK means all I want to do is sit at home and cry because another friend is married. And another friend is pregnant. OK means I'm only just surviving.
So what do I do to help my mind? Well, I cry. A lot. I write my blog - my ‘brain vomit’ - to help me get the words out, which circle around and around and I don't know what else to do with them. I used to drink a lot.
Too much. Immediate, soothing memory blanks.
'Did you know I've been diagnosed with cancer? But don't worry, it's not going to kill me. And yes, I'll have a double vodka and lemonade with no ice thank you'.
That's what students do though, isn't it? Drink to deal with life. Or because you aren't quite sure what living with cancer means and you can't quite process it, and alcohol makes it ok. Sort of.
Because don’t forget . . . I'm lucky.
Survivor’s guilt. Probably the hardest thing to explain.
When someone dies from cancer and I feel guilty for living. It's so fucked up. And, if I didn't know them and it's just something I read in the media, it can be worse. Where's my recognition for living with it every day?! Where's my article for getting on with it? For always having hair. For not having a Hickman line for dramatic ‘cancer photos’ that the newspapers love so much...
Then I feel ignored. That everything I do is a bit….well, who cares? A bit ‘cancer meh’. And then I beat myself up. Mentally bollocking myself for the ridiculousness of feeling this way, yet also craving people to say, ‘Well done! You got out of bed today. You went to work. You smiled. You didn't crumble. You did it!’
When people do acknowledge it, I shrug it off with a smile and say, ‘Oh, I'm just being me, the only way I know how.’
How is my mind today? Today it's fine. I’m going to see a friend. That’s good.
Not withdrawing is very important. I can do that too easily – withdraw; go within; not phone people; spend time in my safe cocoon at home, on my own.
But it’s not good for me, and I realise that I need to address what's going on. I hate feeling miserable, low, alone. Depressed? Probably. I was offered anti-depressants once. I refused them. My fatigue makes me feel like that. I know it.
I use the tools I've been taught by my therapist (my mother. Rightly or wrongly she's the one I talk to, and who helps me process, acknowledge and deal with it all): I cook. That makes my soul happy. I potter. I colour in. I sing to the radio. I walk around London taking photos. I look at pictures of my niece. I do my best to nourish myself.
Living with cancer is a strange thing. I don't hate it, by the way. I feel sick when I see hashtags like 'fuck you, cancer'. Cancer lives in my blood. If I were to hate it, I would hate me. And quite frankly, I'm not prepared to do that.
I have good days, when I feel happy. Everything is going to be ok.
And then I have very bad days, when all I can think about is a parallel universe where I wasn't diagnosed with this. My life is how it was meant to be…
The mind is a funny thing. So powerful. It can do so much good . . . and so much harm.
I do my best to love myself, and I know that, whilst the day might seem very dark, there is light somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Even if I can't see it yet, I know it's there. I've found it before and I will find it again.
I'm surrounded by my angels, and by hope. Because without hope, there is nothing.