Last Friday I had an unexpected phone call. Not entirely unexpected but certainly someone I had never spoken to on the phone before. It was a very close friend of a very close friend - literally. By way of explanation, this is a close friend of my close friend who lives just down the road, except that her close friend lives a long way away. Over the last thirty years we have met perhaps half a dozen times.
The reason why the call wasn't entirely unexpected was because she has breast cancer. She is just hitting the wall that I hit last June and she is in a very dark and scary place. I want to help her. Listening to her tell me what had happened so far reminded me of the place I found myself back then. There's a bench at the bottom of our garden where I did a lot of crying, staring at the garden and wondering whether I would make it through to see it bloom again.
So I listened to her fears, the jarred information, the million anxieties and worries and I found myself right back there. And I wondered how I could practically help. So over the last few days I have tried to work out what words of wisdom have been passed to me that I can pass on. There is nothing original or even rare about breast cancer so all I can do is try to pass on the good advice that I found to be true and worked for me.
Firstly, try to divide the treatment into manageable pieces. It isn't manageable, of course, it is bloody but at the beginning I just thought that at best I am going to be ill for a year. My cancer buddy (my tennis partner and seriously top girl) told me early on that each step is progress. So going to my gp with my lump was my first step and going to the hospital my second. After that came the surgery and chemotherapy and so on, but my new friend is having these the other way round. And each round of chemo is another step. The timescale is incredibly daunting. A year of my life, I thought. But Julie who did my reflexology (of which more later) reminded me that I was not ill for the whole three weeks of the chemo cycle and actually the really hideous bit only lasts a few days. Suddenly the time seemed not so long.
The second thing which I was constantly told and had to learn the hard way, was listen to my body. As the most competitive (in every sense - even board games) person I know, pushing myself and my body is second nature. I know now that when my body says 'enough', enough it must be. I pay big time if I push myself too hard - even now.
Accept help. I'm not used to doing this, feeling that I should be the one helping and not the other way round. Friends and family will, I promise, be amazing and will want to help you. Let them. People will amaze you and they genuinely want to help. The fact that 15 trips to hospital in Leeds in January - a round trip that usually took a couple of hours - were all undertaken by my friends and my children and didn't mean that my husband had to miss work is a testament to that. And actually made the whole process quite jolly rather than utterly miserable.
Look after yourself. I was advised not to go to busy places - in my world this was supermarkets, shops, cafes, restaurants, trains, cinemas, theatres, big parties, church, rugby matches etc. Once chemo starts you need to focus on making sure you don't pick up any infections as your immunity will be zip. For chemo to continue and therefore for you to get to the end, you need to pass your blood tests. White blood cells rule, OK. Also drink lots of water.
Take the drugs you are offered for the side effects and don't be brave. I took anti-depressants (after I nearly became an axe murderer) and sleeping pills as well as the ones for nausea, diarrhoea and constipation as required. Try complementary therapies - who knows how reflexology works but it was the best hour of my week for several months.
Two hard ones here from a dear friend who has had poor health for most of her adult life. Hard to accept and understand but it helped me to get to grip with these. Ultimately you are on your own in this - everyone who loves you wants to help but this is your fight alone. Do whatever it takes to get you through. No one can do this for you. Your family and friends can only stand on the touchline and cheer you on.
The second tough one is life goes on. It took me ages to work out what this meant but it really means everybody else's life goes on. You will no longer be the centre of things in the same way - there will be births and deaths, parties and celebrations, holidays and work. But not for you. But you will be treasured by your nearest and dearest in the most wonderful way. I thought of myself as the pooh stick stranded under the bridge watching the other pooh sticks sail by. But it's not forever. Just for a while.
Offload. Find someone to talk to who can support you in this. I had my brilliant cancer buddy who shared a lot of the misery and sadness with me. I will be there for you in this if you want me. I also spoke to the vicar who was absolutely wonderful and it was somehow easier because he didn't love me and therefore telling him how utterly miserable I felt wasn't so hard.
There is so much more I could say but perhaps, like the treatment, one step at a time. I hope this helps with all my heart.