'Cancer is sneaky. There's no pain until it's too late' - writer Kate Figes
A shock diagnosis just short of her 60th birthday turned writer Kate Figes's world upside down. But it taught her to live in the moment, keenly aware that today might be all we have
I had always assumed that I would live to a grand old age, as most people do these days. Death hovered on the distant horizon as a certainty I thought I could cope with intellectually - we all die after all. Then with a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, which had metatastacised in September 2016 - my oncologist told me that my torso lit up like a Christmas tree at that first CT-Pet scan - everything changed. I might not make it to 60, let alone 80.
A cancer diagnosis cuts off the future with a razor sharp knife. All those dreams that might never now be realised. I might not see my first grandchild, or travel to all those places when we had more time together as a couple in our dotage. My body had let me down. A lifetime of healthy eating and exercising hadn't staved off The Big C.
In amongst the great shock, pain with three fractured ribs, grief, and the way doctors and highly toxic drugs were taking over my life was a deep sense of feeling cheated. This wasn't in the plan.
But that's the thing about cancer - it's sneaky. There are few warning signs. There's no pain until it is too late. It lurks in us all, threatening nearly one person in two. That's why I believe we need a paradigm shift in attitudes, to make life easier for those like me who have to live with it. It doesn't help that we still automatically see a diagnosis of cancer as an immediate death sentence, lowering eyes and voices, for that isolates people more from talking about what they are living through and seeking support. It doesn't help that there is such a cavernous divide between the medical establishment and the alternative health movement, forcing troubled people to choose between two approaches that ought to be more integrated.
The only other path it seems, which I have chosen, is to research treatments and ways to improve my quality of life for myself, in what has become known in our house as 'Katie's Cancer Hour'. Any longer than that and I usually hit a terrifying statistic, feel sick and have to slam the laptop shut.
The great bonus of this new knowledge is that I feel more in control of my own life, which has to help psychologically with healing. I have also been able to move myself on a little from a stubborn state of absolute denial about the prognosis to a reluctant acceptance that this disease may well get me. It is only by staring deep into the heart of the beast that anybody can begin to adapt to how life must be as a result of such a terrifying diagnosis, in order to get the most out of whatever time there might be left.
In spite of a year on oral chemotherapy my white blood cell count hasn't dropped once to neutropenic levels, perhaps because of daily juicing and the taking of dozens of supplements. I consume anything that might kill cancer cells, from Boswellia and turmeric to green tea and CBD to Maitake and Cordyceps mushrooms.
I've eliminated as much stress as I can, try to stay positive, sleep a lot, start each day with yoga and meditation, go for hyperbaric oxygen therapy, steam daily in an infra-red sauna blanket and have fortnightly intravenous Vitamin C.
All this can take up to a third of each day, with another third left for work and then fun, but if that's what I need to do to stay alive, so be it.
Cancer destroys lives for patients and their families, so the phrase bandied about in some sort of new age way that cancer is a gift that we can learn from is repugnant. A box of chocolates is a gift. Not cancer. But deep within those dark clouds there is some silver lining, which I feel I have to grasp in order to get the best out of the life I have left.
By always going to the good, whatever happens in this crazy, up and down world, we can reap countless personal rewards which can help, for amongst the ashes of chaos that a serious cancer diagnosis brings, there can be great gems.
I have been held high in the arms of love by the support from family and friends, visiting with hot food, sending messages and gifts, organising treats to cheer me up. In fact I never knew I was this loved. As a result I haven't a shadow of doubt that it is this wider support of the community and the love we show to each other that really matters the most.
Love is healing and I'm not sure I would have done so well with such harsh treatments without all this support. And it is love that remains of us once we are gone, so I do not hesitate now to tell others that I love them, that I am proud of them as we remember past times together.
There's also been a radical change in that for the first time in my life I am putting my welfare before others. I have to.
I have to listen to my body and rest as soon as I'm tired, calm myself down with deep breathing whenever I'm anxious. I have to take care of my skin, which dehydrates from chemo, so that it doesn't crack and risk infection, for chemo compromises immunity as well as killing cancer cells.
I have to stay away from anybody who has a cold or flu so that I don't get ill. And I have to eat at least ten portions of fruit and veg a day, which is where the juicing helps, for with one in the morning and another mid afternoon, that's at least six, without even trying.
The importance of self-care might be obvious, but it's a tricky one for working mothers who rarely have the time, or who don't believe they are worth it.
I have also had to lay to rest the unhappiness that burrows into our DNA from the past.
Cancer magnifies all of the anxieties, regrets and losses of mid-life into one big horrifying goldfish bowl. It forces you to look back over your shoulder at the choices you have made one last time. My life has been rich but it has also been riddled with long-term residual damage - my parents' destructive and protracted divorce when I was five years old, as well as The Holocaust. My mother's family left Berlin in 1939 leaving the rest of their family, home and possessions behind.
A form of peace has to be made with all of that history in order to age gracefully and well. It's what we all could do in mid-life. But with a cancer diagnosis that need feels urgent, paramount even.
After four clear scans and four months off chemotherapy, I am beginning to feel physically better and happier than I have done in years. I cannot know whether it is all of this root canal change in diet, behaviour and attitudes that is helping to beat the cancer back or whether I am just lucky, for now, but it feels healing all the same.
For I am doing everything I can to help myself. I have found a form of belief to cling to. And I have learnt how to be in the moment, to 'seize the day' because that is all I may have.
Cancer changes all concept of time. The far future cannot be thought about - it's too painful.
So, we live from scan to scan now. If it's clear with 'zero cancer activity' we make plans for the next three to four months.
Rather than thinking about all those things I may never get to do or places I may never visit, I focus only on the simple pleasures that I can relish - the glorious sight of winter trees as sunlight plunges through branches, the delicate colours of blossom, primroses and snowdrops; lingering over delicious food; the intense, absorbing distraction of a good book, a mesmerising picture or play; soaring and uplifting music; laughter and hugs from dear friends.
By burying the hatchets of the past and with no plans for the distant future, we can concentrate on today. Which of course may be all that any of us have, with or without cancer.
● On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes is published by Virago at €16.80.
Health & Living