Tuesday 20 March 2018

'My body's a shell. I'm bald, skinny and cry. But my cancer is still a gift'

Thirty-four-year-old Colette Nolan has a rare, aggressive cancer, but refuses to see it as a 'battle'. Instead, she treats her illness with love and says it shines a light on all that was toxic in her life

Loving embrace: Colette Nolan and her baby son Zebedee. Colette, who is from Newbridge, Co Kildare, and lives in the UK, says she has gained great strength and many surprise blessings since her diagnosis with a rare inflammatory breast cancer
Loving embrace: Colette Nolan and her baby son Zebedee. Colette, who is from Newbridge, Co Kildare, and lives in the UK, says she has gained great strength and many surprise blessings since her diagnosis with a rare inflammatory breast cancer

This 'battle' or 'fight' against cancer that everyone seems to think I am engaged in means nothing to me. I feel cancer [Colette has stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer] is my body's last-ditch attempt to call me to love myself. It has shone a light on everything in my life that is toxic and has made me really focus on myself. It took a while to feel this way and I credit the book The Cancer Whisperer by Sophie Sabbage for my outlook. It feels intuitively wrong to articulate cancer with outdated military language. I'm not at war with my body. I'm healing my body with love.

I guess I need to be careful about painting cancer as a bed of roses. It's definitely not. It is healing my life and it is an honour to witness such love surrounding me, but it is the most challenging thing that I have ever experienced.

The conventional treatments I had to choose have torn me to shreds and stripped me back to my bones. I honestly don't recognise myself in the mirror anymore. My body is a shell of what it used to be. I'm bald. I'm skinny. I cry every single day.

I'm meant to be barefoot somewhere, with my baby on my boobs and my long hair flowing in the wind. Ignorant people who don't have cancer tell me I shouldn't have had chemo and believe me, sometimes I feel the same. But the fact was that the cancer was spreading like a fire through my body - my boobs, my liver and my bones - so I had to make the horrible decision to stop it as quickly as I could.

I have a form of breast cancer that is "rare" and "aggressive" (oncologists' words, not mine). This elusive inflammation has spread its wild tentacles to my liver and three of my vertebrae and my lumbar spine.

I have been through five intense, harrowing treatments of chemotherapy in the UK and now five further low-dose chemo sessions combined with supportive infusions and heat/oxygen therapies abroad.

My mother has held my hand throughout all of this. She was with me when I was diagnosed. She held me as I screamed with the horror of it all.

She gave my baby his first bottle because I had to wean him in preparation for my chemo. I'm so proud of her. She left my poor dad to hold the fort at home and dropped her quiet, routine-filled life in Newbridge to come and step into the chaos of mine.

She sleeps with my boy on alternate nights so my husband can pass out. And she runs around the local town shopping to fulfil my varied and sometimes whimsical demands.

She massages tea tree oil into my feet and looks at me with steady eyes, telling me I am healing. She's changed my nappy, and sat while I screamed at the matron on the ward as I demanded peace so I could go deeper into the darkness in order to come out the other side.

She is my rock. She tells me repeatedly that I am the strongest person she knows, when all I can think is that it's the other way round. Without her, I'm not sure what state I would be in. Probably much worse than I am.

I nearly died at Christmas from a serious infection in the wound in my breast and no white blood cells in my battered bone marrow.

It might surprise you but, for me, this was mostly a spiritual experience. I truly went to the other side and had to make the decision to come back.

I'll be honest. I was tempted to leave this f***ed- up, distorted, polluted world. At times it felt easier than dealing with what was physically happening to me.

It felt like it would be nicer, calmer to just allow myself to leave. To go back to source. To float away on a cloud of pink fluffy love and frolic with the birds in the sky. But I didn't go. I'm not leaving my little boy. He needs me.

My beautiful husband is my soulmate and our destiny is still not yet fulfilled. And also I learned in the underground that I am a bridge somehow. A bridge between the harsh, intrusive, inadequate way that cancer "patients" are treated in this country [the UK] and the other way that I have discovered. (That's the secret that cancer can actually heal my life.)

I promised the unseen that I would somehow share my story, so that if you are diagnosed with cancer, another way can be revealed to you. Or so that you can present this way to your loved ones if they receive the world-shattering news that they have cancer.

Let's face it, this is probably going to soon be your reality (if it's not already). We all have cancer cells in our bodies, and one in three of us have cells that begin to grow and spread. I've only just turned 34, which seems young for cancer, but people are being diagnosed younger and younger every day.

I'm sorry to tell you, but it is likely that you will experience cancer in some way. And I want to offer some hope and some solace for you when that time comes. I promise you it does not need to be the death sentence that it seems.

Cancer can heal your life if you let it. It will bring you to the depths of your being and test you to see if you really want to be here on this Earth. If you decide to stay (and there is always a choice) then that comes with a responsibility.

A responsibility to take your health into your hands and a responsibility to share with the world how you did it. You will feel the extreme highs and lows of every single emotion possible. You will have to face grief for all that cancer changes in you, but you can also feel such joy at being alive.

Life becomes so precious and every single moment feels worthy of exquisite poetry. You will suddenly notice the birds circling in the sky at sunset or the little robin that appears each morning. You will never take anything for granted again.

And then there is the LOVE. When diagnosed with cancer, you get to experience something that normally only happens once one has died, at their funeral. You get to see how much you are loved. By those around you who will literally do anything to make you smile. And you will become an observer in how your diagnosis changes the lives of these loved ones. This has certainly been my experience.

I can feel this love in the dark of the night when I'm scared. It floats around me in the air in a pink swirl and helps me breathe when the fluid on my lungs gets too bad. It soothes me when I have to have my withered breast photographed and has held my shaking arm when the stupid nurse hit a nerve in my shoulder while fitting my Picc [IV] line.

It cheered me on as I shouted at all the oncologists, doctors and nurses and banned them from my room so I could meditate. And it held my heart so very, very gently as I prayed it was healthy.

It came in the form of the steady stream of beautiful, intelligent friends who have given up weeks to come and care for me here in this foreign country. They cook for me, carry my bags, look deep into my eyes as my veins are prodded with endless infusions and they make me giggle in delight at silly things.

When I was diagnosed something changed forever. All the mundane bulls**t fell away. Living became my only goal. And my husband completely stepped up to support me in that. We searched our past to try to figure out why my body created such a desperate plea for help.

We found that stress was the driving force behind my illness and the key to my healing was the opposite of that - peace. He is the most incredible man I've ever met. He has held me every single step of this journey while also readily facing his own demons, because we know that actually if I am going to fully heal, then he also has to change his life.

We have painfully torn down the dysfunctional foundations that we unintentionally created over 12 years. And haven't left any stone unturned.

It's been a tiring and uncomfortable time for us as we have had to talk through so much that has stayed in darkness for a long time. But we both know that this is the only way I can heal and also that we have to do it so we can raise our son in the manner that he deserves.

I am in awe of my husband's brute strength to keep going through his exhaustion. To keep walking our dogs. To keep driving me to appointment after appointment. To keep caring for our boy, calmly soothing him and cultivating a relationship that is so beautiful to witness. To help me with every single difficult decision I have had to make, and remind me that I always have a choice.

Somehow among it all, we have snatched moments to look into each others' eyes, to breathe together, to cry together and remind each other that I am healing every day.

We find the time to look in awe at the little boy we created together. He is our shining beacon of light. We know that he is my greatest healer. He barely cries and happily trusts anyone who takes care of him for us. He is my biggest motivation for getting better as quickly as I can. My sister back home poured every cell of her being into organising a fundraiser for me so that I can pay for all my complementary treatments. She mobilised my entire home town into shaving their heads, waxing their chests and mainly putting their hands into their pockets so I can pay for this expensive but life-saving treatment.

She is normally very shy, but she read out a speech in front of the whole pub. This is a really big deal and I am so proud of her. Let's not forget she has an incredibly busy life with three children and three dogs and all that entails.

She also has flown over for day trips many times so she can take my boy out for walks or hold me as I scream and cry with fear. The love that she has filled me with and the way that she manages to hide her own fear is something I will never forget. If I didn't have cancer, our relationship may never have reached such a place, where nothing else matters but our sisterly bond. Then there's my big brother, who also has flown over many times to be with me and talk to me. Really talk to me. He stays present and carefully listens and I can see the pride in his eyes.

There are 12 years and oceans between us as we are so different - but, because of cancer, these gaps have been filled, and now we are in a comfortable groove of easy brother/sisterhood that I have longed for since he moved out of home when I was six years old.

Also, he did an amazing thing that makes me feel proud yet strange. In dedication to me, he dropped his busy corporate life for three months so that he could spend more time with his wife and two boys. He said those words - that it was inspired by me. He said that he was influenced by how I live my life and wanted to taste a slice of that. To me, this has been such a gift. It has made me feel so happy for him to acknowledge that the way I live my life is something he sees as worthwhile. It makes me cry with happiness when I picture him having lazy lie-ins or being able to pick his boys up from school.

And, of course, I have to mention my dad, too. He's been doing all the grandkid school collections and minding without my mam. He easily found his own groove at being alone without her for the first time in 43 years and was completely supportive when she kept extending her stays because we needed her so badly. His reaction to my cancer diagnosis has been a lovely, surprising one. He is the one who I feel has held my vision of love and hope. I'm told he reads my light-filled texts over and over and forwards them to relatives. I'm told he tells everyone in the town how proud he is of me. He hides his worries well even though I can see them etched across his face.

He is my biggest inspiration for cultivating a skill at being in the present moment. And on my most challenging days, I found myself copying him. His tactic for living in this hectic world is a simple one - talk to as many strangers as possible.

He can make a 10-minute journey on a train and meet 10 people from 10 different countries. I don't know how he does it. And to make it even more special, somehow there are also coincidences that link these people together. Common circumstances or names or opinions.

There is always a running thread through the lives of these strangers that my dad's keen eyes pick up which I used to laugh at, even ridicule, but now I see it as a sacred thing - the shared thread of humanity. The reminder that we are all essentially the same. The fact that really we are all at one together.

These are all the gifts that cancer has given me so far, and I look forward to many more.

A charity walk is taking place on Sunday, May 21, at 10am from Chill Mhuire Church to St. Conleth's Church in Newbridge to fundraise for the cost of Colette's life-saving treatment. For donations contact Marie, (086) 408-9700, or search 'Colette Nolan' on iFundraise.ie. You can follow Colette's journey on YouTube channel: 'The Realities of Cancer', see youtube.com/channel/UCrsMycUVG3XPz_X9cOrT9Ag

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