- TRIGGER WARNING - CANCER
It's the 8th December today. Not really a memorable date unless it is your birthday (or that of a loved one); you are a fan of Clifton Suspension bridge that opened today in 1864 or you want to remember the UK beginning its vaccination programme for COVID-19 using the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in 2020.
For me, however, the 8th December is the day everything changed; a day I felt scared, very numb and a sudden sense of my own mortality - life is meant to begin at 40! It started fairly normally with a day teaching; Christmas learning in full, joyous swing. In the afternoon, I went to post-CT scan appointment expecting to get some answers about what was causing my wheezing and occasional hymoptysis (coughing up blood). I was slightly worried as my appointment had been cancelled due to a doctors' strike and then quickly reinstated but was completely unprepared for what followed....something seen on the scan, mass in the airway of the lung, possible carcinoid tumour, urgent referral before Christmas. I'm not sure I heard the rest or what I said in response - I was stunned.
I was there with my Mum and we were offered a cup of tea by the lovely nurses. Instead, we left fairly quickly - definitely my urge for flight kicked in! I wanted to run away from the unimaginable news. I was also in a rush to get back to school to the evening Key Stage 2 carol concert, clinging to any shred of routine and normality.
A new normal
I went to the carol concert. I chatted to my lovely colleagues about what had happened and I was rational but then, I guess, the news had not sunk in. The carol service was all going well until the children sang 'In a Stable'; it was at that point it hit. In the dark and twinkling lights, I felt extremely vulnerable. I still cannot listen to that song without getting emotional - unfortunate as it is a school favourite and a beautiful song. It takes me straight back to the most gorgeous singing and an incredible amount of uncertainty about my future.
It was a Christmas like no other - possible lung removal was first mentioned on the 23rd December. It was at that point I cried - I was quite attached to my lung as a keen runner and walker and couldn't imagine life without it. Travelling back to my parents to fill pillowcases for my little ones on Christmas Eve was so, so beautiful but heart-breaking too. I clung to every moment with them.
At this stage, I didn't know the weeks, days and hours that my Godparents, Mum, Husband and I would spend in what seemed like every hospital building in Leeds as I underwent a battery of appointments and tests. Late December and January passed in a blur of appointments, information sessions about what to expect from surgery and making plans for the family during my operation and recuperation. My operation was on the 9th February - full pneumonectomy I discovered on waking (removal of the left lung).
Over the years, Diagnosis Day has come to mean different things to me. Generally, I get a bit twitchy around the date and settling to things becomes more difficult. I want to walk and keep busy. This year, the 8th has come at a challenging time - it has been a hard week for lots of reasons: family illness, intense change and just things going plain old wrong. However, for me, and I speak of this as a person with no evidence of disease at my last scan, the 8th is a milestone of hope and gratitude. I am hopeful about the future and having the opportunity to live my life in a way that works for me and my family; I am intensely grateful to the amazing doctors, radiographers, surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses who diagnosed me and looked after me before, during and since my operation.
Life is good. I walk, I sing, I read, I teach, I train, I talk (a lot), I laugh and I cry. My life has a meaning that it would not have had otherwise - I would not have taken the risks that I have taken without what happened on the 8th and my recovery (thankfully) from my surgery. I would not have kept striving for meaning (training as a TRE® practitioner, starting a community chorus, facilitating a book group), I would not have appreciated the seasons so much, I would not have kept walking over a thousand miles a year, I would not have made the most of so many insignificant seeming moments. It is so easy to become jaded by life and its challenges and the 8th has taught me resilience and that connections with people and the World around me count most for me. I don't always get things right but I'm much better at forgiving myself.
I am proud and protective of my remaining lung - Superlung - in a way that many other people are perhaps not so attached to their bodily organs! I have much more empathy and understanding of what people go through on a daily basis. I strive to make things a little bit easier for people and hope they feel listened to. I've also had the opportunity to raise and cherish two fantastic human beings (I am biased) with an incredibly supportive bloke and wonderful family members and friends. That is something I never take for-granted as it might not have been the case.
So, if you are receiving similar news today, or any other day, please know that I am thinking of you. There are always people who understand and care. Unfortunately, there are a lot of us about with memorable life changing dates but you can always find someone in your tribe who understands so please reach out.
Sending healing thoughts and virtual hugs,