10 years ago today, on Tuesday 15th November, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease aged 17 and a half. It's still something I struggle to talk about with other people - this is an experiment in talking about it to myself, but by publishing it here I am technically talking to someone else. Baby steps! I started writing this back in May and back then I wasn't sure I would publish it. I'm still not quite sure about my decision today, to ruminate on a time long gone, especially when the world is hurting in the wake of so many senseless attacks. But if someone, anyone, reads this and identifies or takes comfort from it in any way, it will be worth pressing that publish button.
Dear Danie, or are you still spelling it with a y to be different? You'll go back to your roots in a couple of years, keeping it short and sweet, just Dani.
That sentence alone must be such a relief for you. Yes, you will still be around in a couple of years. Yes, even ten years from now, writing this post, reflecting on a decade you weren't entirely sure you'd live through.
It's ten years to the day today, another November day. It's been a horrible Tuesday, hasn't it? Although horrible doesn't quite cut it. Ten years on it's still as clear as it was the day it happened- the scans, the waiting for the results, the raindrops on the windscreen... unsettled, almost-knowing, the thought hovering at the edge of your consciousness. The shock-without-the-shock. The diagnosis you expected but didn't quite believe would happen. The dread of what was to come. The horror as you consider the percentage of people who don't survive.
Shall we linger there? I try not to. You'll never quite shake it, I'm afraid. But I have a few things to applaud you for, so let's move on to more positive notes.
A WWII slogan will find resurging popularity in the years that follow, but you're just a few years too early for the trend that is Keep Calm and Carry On - but that's exactly what you did. You did so well. So bloody well. I look back now and don't know where you found the strength to keep attending school, to drag yourself out of bed each morning and carry on as normal, as though your life hadn't been shaken to the core. The resolve to smile at your parents when they're collapsing in tears, too afraid to speak their fears aloud. The levelheadedness to just grin at your German teacher when she mistakes your wig for your real hair. The audacity to apologise to your maths teacher for failing a test and not go to pieces when he tentatively smiles and says he'll award extra points for effort. The jokes you crack whilst in the ward, making your mum snigger behind the nurses' backs. What an effort. Even today when people bring it up, you'll act like it was nothing, like it was easy. It wasn't and deep down you know it, but if you take a second to contemplate what it's costing you right now and in the months to come, you'll lose momentum.
Oh I'm sorry, I wish I could have stopped it - but you do lose momentum, but not until it's over, when the treatment has ended, when you've stopped your daily dose of radiation and the baby hair starts to creep back on your scalp. You did so well, for so long, that no one begrudges you when you start locking yourself in the bathroom to cry, and refuse to leave the house for months. It's going to happen, I can't lie, but know this - your mum physically pulls you out of it. Paris is always a good idea, and never more so than when you need to get yourself back on track.
You block so much out for a long time, just to return to normality. You act as though it was a mere blip on the surface of your life, when really it took everything you held deep inside and did its best to destroy it. You repeatedly act as though you're invincible in the hope that this repetition will make it come true. You insist, furiously, that you're perfectly fine, over and over again.
I think you can tell from the fact I'm writing this, exactly ten years on, that it isn't true. That you weren't fine then and, on bad days, you're not fine now. That the fear will never truly leave you, that doctors and hospitals still fill you with paralysing terror. Certain smells will still induce a long-buried sense of panic, will still be able to stop you in your tracks. It is not all-consuming. I have days when I forget, even. When those hospital corridors and foil packets and cardboard receptacles seem like part of a life lived by someone else. But I'm addressing you now to tell you this - it doesn't break you. It's a part of you. Just like the football matches and the emo eyeliner and everything else that shaped your teenage years, the cancer is a part of your Bildungsroman. Without it, for better or for worse, I would not be me today if you had not fought like you did.
I've not talked about you enough in these ten years. I've tried to keep you buried, tried to move on, tried to ignore you. I'm so sorry. You never deserved that. And I feel that you would be so disappointed if you knew you would spend ten years demeaning every effort you made, brushing it off, reducing the value of your struggle with every day that passes after you're given the all clear. Six years ago I tried to write about the memories and for once they flowed, in a frantic 3am rush, fingers scrabbling at the keyboard, emptying a host of details into my laptop. And then I handed it in as part of my coursework. I should have been proud. I'd made an effort to confront the demon I kept hidden away. My course leader was impressed, made me read a paragraph aloud to the class - instead of being met by silence, people were nodding and one girl even caught my eye across the room and mouthed "me too.". But it felt hollow. It felt like I'd exploited you, and your feelings and your pain - instead of displaying your strength and determination, I'd focused on the unpleasant things, the hospital smells, the sickness, the weakness. You never deserved that.
So today, ten years on, I'm writing to you to make you a promise. I'm not going to hide you any more, I'm not going to keep you buried. I'm not going to hide the few photographs you allowed people to take. I'm going to applaud your strength - my strength - and be proud of what you - of what I - achieved all those years ago. You were brilliant. I was brilliant. Everyone fighting cancer, everyone who has survived cancer, everyone stolen by cancer - we are all brilliant. Today, even though you are still struggling and this week in particular has been taxing, today you feel very aware of how lucky you are. Today, you forced yourself to go for a walk, to enjoy your surroundings, instead of hiding under a blanket and waiting for the cloud to pass. Today, ten years on, you'll sit in your living room and you will look at photos of your lovely dog waiting for you at home - born, by some odd coincidence, on this very day ten years ago - and you will look at how far you have come and you will feel, as always, so very grateful that you are still here.
|Today / early 2006 / with my mum in Paris, June 2006|
Thank you for reading my rambles - I've included a couple of links to charities below if you're experiencing similar things, if you want to read more, or donate to research.
Teenage Cancer Trust
Luxembourg Fondation Cancer