By Alexandra Ganipeau
It all started with a routine check – you know, the one you do because you should, because I was sent a reminder, because it had been 18 months or so since my last – and it quickly turned into a nightmare.
Isn’t it funny how at every ultrasound, everyone becomes an expert and thinks everything looks a little suss? Well this time, there was NO DOUBT when I saw it. It didn’t disappear, it was a little, dark and daunting mass, and when I saw the doctor’s face, I just knew. My heart sank as I thought about my bebes, my life, treatments… WTF, I think I have cancer but I couldn’t feel a lump and I feel fine.
I sat in the small waiting room with a few older women and we were all wearing white bathrobes. Our health was in hands of fate. I could overhear their conversations, they had all been through cancer and were exchanging pleasantries and opinions. I couldn’t possibly be one of them. Any of them could be my mother, I am far too young to have cancer, aren’t I? Life surely couldn’t be that cruel, could it? I have two children who need me – I can’t have cancer.
My life changed with a cancer diagnosis
Life was good. The boys were doing well, and Matt and I had just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Then suddenly, life turned. Just like that, in the blink of an eye.
Strangely, it was almost a relief to hear the words, “It’s a little cancer,” because for 24 hours I can’t even tell you how many gut wrenching scenarios went through my head, through hubby’s head. We couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t shake that awful feeling that something truly life-changing was about to happen. ‘A little cancer’ somehow felt like a relief.
Then it all went blurry, and fast. Date of operation: check, find an oncologist: check, have a million blood tests: check, understand what it all means: that took a little longer. My husband was amazing, he asked all the questions until he understood it all because I couldn’t. I was too scared to be confronted with options, I was too scared to know too much, I just wanted to be bubble wrapped. So I bubble wrapped myself, I went ahead with the surgery quite confident that I could beat this thing, that I could find a way to cope with the stress, with the uncertainties, with this new life that was going to be mine, for a while anyway.
I learned to ask for help
First, I stopped working, I could no longer focus on anything else but me, my family and my journey to recovery. It’s a very personal thing, some people need to keep going as normal, but I couldn’t.
Then it was time to manage our new life, our new routine which was a bit like this: school drop off, chemo, sleep, school pick up, sleep, repeat.There wasn’t room for much else, but I realised this wasn’t going to be sustainable and my kids still needed to eat and wear clean clothes.
There’s a saying, ‘When a mother accepts an offer for help, just know she has already contemplated every other possible option to avoid inconveniencing anyone and came up with nothing’. I’d never been one to accept someone’s offer for help, but that changed. I jumped on all offers of help, food was a big one, my gorge friends delivered eskies full of homemade nourishing meals – and that was priceless. Because they didn’t just give us food, they allowed me to not think about food everyday, including shopping and cooking. And they allowed us to have normal family time every night, while sharing a healthy dinner.
I practised self-care
Chemotherapy isn’t for the faint-hearted, it hit me like a tonne of bricks, it hurt in ways I didn’t expect, it stripped me of everything, from my hair to my confidence. It was BRUTAL, it felt unfair and cruel. I then hopped on the self-care wagon, I developed new routines that made me feel better. I walked everyday, no matter how bad I felt. I dropped my son at school, then went for a long walk, with friends most times, as our catch ups were only possible this way from now on.
I also started going to meditation a few times a week, which helped me tremendously. It is hard to explain how this practise soothed the damaged part of me. It helped me to stay positive, to nurture my body and my mind, to believe in my heart that I was going to be OK, to see a glimpse of the light at the end of quite a dark tunnel.
We found a new normal
The months went by, we were coping, all of us. We had found a new family groove – I even found a way to look OK. I’m a French woman who owns far too many scarves, and they finally all came to good use, as I could match any outfit with a turban and because I live in a pretty cool part of town, nobody even blinked at my turbaned look.
Then the last chemo session finally came. When I was told I would have to go through four sessions, my first thought was, “Four, that should be OK, it isn’t that
many”. Well, it’s a lot, but I am fully aware of how fortunate I am, as I’ve met many people during this journey, who had to go through much tougher treatments, but let me tell you, chemo was a b*tch!
I embraced this last session, this last week of hell, this last week of feeling terrible and having awful side effects, as everyday that was passing was going to stay behind me for good. Leaving the Day Oncology for the last time and saying goodbye to the amazing nurses was quite emotional. Operation was done, chemo was done, it was time to move on to the last part of the journey, radiation. I did five days a week for four weeks – zapping and ridding my body of any cancer cells. It was quite empowering to think like that, to think that the nightmare was almost over, that I had done the worst, I could now count the days until treatments were all finished. Twenty sessions later and here I was, the journey had finally ended. My husband and older son came with me to the last radiation. There is a bell at the entrance, a bell I had been watching for weeks, a bell that said, “I conquered this moment”. I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to ring it, but on that 20th visit, I rung this bell with all my might!
Learning a life lesson
It has been four months since I rang that bell and I am feeling fantastic. I was really worried it would all hit me hard once life came back to normal but I feel rebirthed. I am still tired in the evening but it’s getting better. I am back working, doing yoga, and planning ahead – it’s the best feeling.
I am aware of how fragile we are and how sometimes, no matter what we do, life throws you things you have no choice but to put your big girl pants on and deal with it. I am also appreciative of all the things we take for granted – we live in a country where medical care is second to none.
As much as I would never want to have had cancer, it has taught me so much, it has opened me to so much too. I take time to listen, really listen and talk to people, as everyone has a story. I have met and opened myself to incredible people through this journey, made new friendships, let go of some old habits, and I am more aware of time and how necessary its quality is. What a lesson from ‘a little cancer’.
And mamas, if I can share one piece of advice – PLEASE have yourselves checked, early detection really is key.