Five Years

A lot can happen in five years. Of course I know that a lot can happen in five minutes too, whole lives can change in an instant. Usually that type of change is dramatic and sometimes tragic. But the change that happens over five years is different, slower, more imperceptible moment-to-moment. It’s the ‘days are long but the years are short’ type of change. An awful lot has happened to me in the last five years and today I am so grateful for that, and excited about what other changes might happen in the next five years.

Five years is a significant amount of time in many ways in our culture. It is the amount of time we give a small human until we put them into the school system and tell them they have to start thinking about the rest of their lives. It is usually the amount of time used as a marker in any kind of life or career or business planning activities. Just last month, someone asked me “Where do you see yourself in five years?” And it’s also a pretty significant milestone in cancer recovery journeys. 

While my cancer wasn’t huge or aggressive and nor did it require chemo- or radiation therapy, it did change my life and it still impacts me every single day.

Five years ago, (13th July 2010) I had surgery to remove the right lobe of my thyroid, which had four growths on it. Only one of them turned out to be cancer, but one is enough! Eight days later, I went back to theatre to remove the rest of my thyroid tissue. Every day since I have needed to take replacement thyroid hormone, in the form of small white pills. I will need these pills (or whatever iteration of thyroid hormone replacement appears in the future) every day for the rest of my life.

This act alone, of having to take medication every morning as soon as I wake up and then wait 30 – 60 minutes before consuming anything other than water, has revolutionised my life. It has enforced routine on me where previously there was none, or at least none so strict. It is a daily dose of self-care that I have missed on only a very few occasions in five years (and usually those occasions included other massive changes to normal routine – e.g. more surgeries, or my recent long haul flight from Australia to Denmark where we completely ‘lost’ a day).

The five year mark wasn’t one I thought much about over the last few years. If I’m honest, I struggled for a long time with even talking about my cancer experience or marking significant anniversaries publically. Mine wasn’t a life-threatening diagnosis, and having avoided the dreaded chemo/RAI process, I have felt a lot of guilt and that it wasn’t ‘proper cancer’. These feelings were certainly not helped by the common comment that thyroid cancer is ‘the good cancer’. Yes, there is usually a better prognosis for it than other cancers, but no cancer is good. I have been examining this and other guilty feelings recently and I believe this one is something akin to ‘survivor’s guilt’. It’s not that I feel guilty that I survived, though, it’s that for a long time I felt guilty that my cancer journey wasn’t lengthier and more harrowing. I had four or five visits to my surgeon in Rockhampton, who was a specialist in thyroid surgery, one phone conversation with the Oncology Unit at the Royal Brisbane Hospital and the rest of my care was taken by my GP. I did have three months off work and university, because thyroidectomies are still pretty massive bodily changes, and two major surgeries in 8 days is still a lot to recover from, but I was able to have both surgeries in my town and other than staying overnight after each surgery, I recouperated at home surrounded by my family and with frequent visits from friends.

But what I’ve come to realise (a blinding flash of the obvious) is that my journey actually has been very lengthy and far from pleasant. I was ill for years before the cancer diagnosis, and the last five years haven’t been smooth sailing either. All in all, I have had about a decade of ill-health, with the thyroid cancer being only one part of that. And I’m finally in a place where I can acknowledge that cancer actually wasn’t the ‘worst’ illness that I experienced, without feeling like I’m committing some horrible sin against other cancer patients by even daring to say that for me, other health conditions were worse. This has happened I think because I also realised that cancer isn’t a competition to see who had it worst. I can honour and acknowledge my own journey without the need to worry about anyone else’s thoughts or feelings about it. It is my journey, after all, not theirs.

The very fact that I was ashamed of and felt guilt about my ‘easy’ cancer journey in recent years, in fact, has actually meant that my health journey has been more ongoing than perhaps it should have been.

This was shaped in part by the profession I entered into, which follows a gruelling schedule, insane workload and leads to even the healthiest and strongest burning out but where the ‘soldier on’ mentality, not to mention the competitive busy-ness is rife. I have not honoured my body or my life in the ways that perhaps I would have had my initial cancer experience been more harrowing. Instead, I avoided telling people at new jobs about it for fear of being seen as weak, and I engaged in a fair amount of self-loathing when I did have to tell someone or admit to not being able to keep up in some way due to my health. I so desperately didn’t want to be the girl that used ‘I had cancer’ as an excuse for everything or anything. I refused to let it define me. So I ignored my body and pushed too hard. And then my body, eternally smarter than me, would force me to acknowledge my limitations. By this time I was often completely physically and emotionally drained, and wanting an easy fix I know at times I did become the ‘I had cancer’-excuse girl.

The irony, of course, is that in striving so hard to never let it define me, I let it define me! It was a sort of denial, I suppose, and the desperate attempts of a girl who was so afraid of not being good enough that she did a lot of things that were bad for her and, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, wasn’t ‘enough’. I repeatedly said yes to things that were too much for me because I didn’t want to be seen as someone who couldn’t do things, until of course I collapsed in a heap (again!) and became even more unable to do things.

Deep down I knew that I was working against myself, some part of me always accepted my limits. I remember conversations about how full-time teaching wasn’t going to work for me before I even graduated. And yet, I persisted with full-time teaching for two and a half years, and was lured into it again for 6 months a year after that with the promise of job security. Only last month, in a conversation with my boss (who asked me where I see myself in five years) did I finally tell him that I am never, ever going back to full time teaching. (“Like, Ever” ~ Taylor Swift.) I am fairly certain this was the first time I admitted it out loud to a work superior. I had spoken about it to friends and family of course, and said it to myself many times, but then I’d get lured back into it again and go back on my word to myself because, for various reasons, it was too scary to say no.

A lot of what was too scary wasn’t about the boss or the fear of it impacting my career progression (a career progression, by the way, that I didn’t even want so why the hell was I even worried about it!?), it was about admitting, finally and truly, that I was done. I was afraid of drawing that line in the sand because what was on the other side was unknown, and therefore more scary than the certain exhaustion and general malaise that I endure when I live on the ‘old side’ of that sandy line. It was a “better the devil you know” situation which has kept me trapped for years in fear and guilt and shame.

But over the last year in particular, I’ve been talking a lot more with that fear and guilt and shame, and I realised they are ok, really. They certainly aren’t worse to get to know than depression, pain, exhaustion and malaise, and I’m pretty good at making friends, so I began to befriend them. And the more I listened to them, the less they bothered me. They are still there, but we are definitely friends now. And they are whispering to me about ideas for the future that, frankly, five years ago I couldn’t have even conceived of.

So this anniversary is big in a number of ways and it has to do with my vision for myself and my life that I no longer am willing to compromise on. Or, more to the point, the vision that I am finally willing to own. And the first step is to truly acknowledge and embrace my own cancer journey, which is what today has been about. 

Happy anniversary to me! May there be many more. Here’s to my health and happiness, and yours too!