Life after cancer

I may have run 6 marathons, the last one 7 months after surgery and chemotherapy for cervical cancer, but I am no Lance Armstrong.

Lance, as many of you know, was diagnosed ten years ago with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He survived surgery and gruelling chemotherapy to come back and win the Tour de France, arguably the world’s toughest cycle race. He won it not once, but 7 times in a row. Now that guy is a legend.

As for me, I am a back of the pack runner: slow and steady. I was never going to be running up the front with a double D cup chest size. I think even Lance would struggle should he have been so endowed. I run not to win the race, but to celebrate life, living, and being alive. This is ironic really because after running for 5 hours you really do feel half-dead!

Seriously though, it is a real privilege to be here. There are so many other people who could have stood up and told their stories. If you’re like me, you feel that cancer is everywhere. Every day it seems someone new is diagnosed with some brand of cancer. And it’s not a nice disease. My good friend’s brother in law has recently had a tumour removed from his neck. The surgery affected function in his left arm and the radiotherapy killed his saliva production. He finds it difficult to swallow and can’t taste anything ever again. No more red wine, no more chocolate, no more Krispy Kremes. I guess the up side is that if you can’t taste it, you won’t have cravings for red wine, chocolate and Krispy Kremes.

As for me, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer four days after my gorgeous husband Rob proposed. There I was – 35, first proposal, never been married, excited to get married, to start a family. Then the doctor says, “You have cervical cancer. You may need a hysterectomy.” I felt like I stepped in to the middle of a silent hurricane. There was a roar and a rage that spun my life in a direction I had never anticipated.

I had surgery – an operation called a radical trachelectomy – removal of the cervix. It is a very new procedure, reserved for young women who want to preserve their fertility and whose cancer has not spread. In theory I can still fall pregnant, though not without some careful management. After surgery I lay on my hospital bed with tubes sticking out everywhere. The surgeon came in, sat down on the bed, and patted my knee. You know it’s bad when a surgeon, usually clinical and dry to a fault, sits down and pats your knee. He told me they found cancer in one of the lymph nodes they removed. I was going to need four rounds of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy, for those who have not experienced it, is no picnic. There are all sorts of chemicals they use to poison the cancer cells. My particular form of chemotherapy consisted of a 9am to 5pm experience. I had an hour of fluid dripped through my arm, and then a couple of hours of cysplatin -the drug – then another hour of fluid to help flush it through. Cysplatin, like many other chemotherapy drugs, is so toxic that the nurses put on protective eyewear, enormous rubber gloves, and a mask just to hook it up. And then this drips directly in to the vein. People often ask me, “What was it like? What did the chemo experience feel like?” I tell them, imagine your worst hangover ever, and nothing you do makes it feel any better. Not drinking, not sleeping, not eating. And this lasts for ten days.

No doubt about it – cancer sucks.

In my mind, the worst bits of cancer are:

1. Being told you have it

2. Waiting for test results

3. The treatment itself

4. After treatment.

Once treatment was over, it was the strangest thing. As I walked through those electric sliding glass doors after my last round of chemo, I felt like I was wandering out in to a giant wilderness. What now? What next? You don’t ever really get an “all clear” after cancer. It is not like appendicitis where you have it out and it is all done. Instead you live and wait between checkups to see if the cancer has returned or not. Each check up is one step further away from the chance of recurrence. But there are no guarantees. How do you live like this? How do people cope? Really, you just go on. You live each moment as it happens.

However there are gifts in cancer too, strange as it may seem… Lance Armstrong says he would never regret having cancer for the gifts it gave him, how it helped him to grow as a person. I, too, discovered some unexpected gifts in my cancer journey.

These are the gifts I discovered through my cancer journey:

1. I have never felt so loved. I had so much support from my friends, colleagues, and family. People gave me books, CDs, movies, flowers, brought me soup, chocolate, and plenty of other goodies. I experienced a real tsunami of love. People around the world were praying for me, some I had never met. I felt connected and cherished. However the gift was not that cancer caused love to flow; rather it was the realisation that this love had been around me all the time but I had been so busy, so focused on my narrow little life, that I did not feel open to it. Like a sledgehammer, cancer cracked open my awareness to giving and receiving an abundance of love. I feel it flow effortlessly in my life now.

2. Compassion. I gained a lot more compassion for people – you just never know what they have been through. My own doctor, the one who diagnosed my cancer, told me that she too had gone through the cancer merry-go-round. She was diagnosed 7 years ago with breast cancer. 3 weeks later her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer. He promptly died, leaving her with four kids to look after while undergoing chemotherapy. I felt such a deep compassion for this woman who had hitherto just been a busy G.P. to me. I now treat every encounter with another person with a lot more grace and care. I approach them from a foundation of compassion. This is a much more gentle and peaceful way to engage with others. Most important of all, I gained compassion for myself. I stopped judging myself so harshly, stopped trying to be perfect. I came to enjoy all the lumps, and bumps, and bits and boobs that before had caused me so much grief. I loved my body, my imperfections, because it was alive – I was alive.

3. In facing death, I learned about life. After round two of chemotherapy I lay on my bed, feeling dreadful, gazing out the window at the trees. I just wanted to hide under the doona, terrified of dying. I just wanted to hug my mummy and daddy. Instead I started to notice the sunlight on the leaves, the blue of the sky, the rosellas on the grass. It was magic. And I realised that everywhere there was a compulsive and unrelenting push for life. Miracles were everywhere: the birds looking for a meal, the kangaroos nibbling on grass, spiders in their webs, the miracle of a baby in the womb growing without any help at all – these miracles were happening without any conscious thought from any of us. I realised I was part of that. This unrelenting push for life was part of me too. We are all part of that. I felt this realisation fill all the cells of my being. I felt peace descend upon me. I was part of this; I am part of this; we are all part of this life.

No matter what happens to our bodies or to things around us, it will be ok because we are all part of this enormous surging river of life that is so beautiful and so amazing and so full of miracles. And that was what cancer gave me – an awareness of the true nature of life itself. I know there are some of you here tonight who are living with a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment.

I know you are terrified. I was too. But whether you have cancer or not, none of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, or in five years from now. You can choose to live in fear, or you can choose to live in possibility and joy. All any of us ever have is now, this moment – right here right now. And those moments are magic.

If you take a message away with you tonight, it’s not that there is life after cancer, but that there is life. Make sure you live it.

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