The week you’re diagnosed with cancer is a collapsing domino tower of horribly surreal conversations. Your fight or flight kicks in, and you can barely breathe. It’s a terror. A pure, visceral terror that you can’t run from...
But surprisingly quickly, it loosens. Because humans are impressive machines. While we can’t live in a frozen state of euphoria (bummer) we also can’t exist in perpetual devastation. We normalise. Life continues. School lunches need to be made.
In April I found a small lump in my groin. In less than a fortnight it went from being a ‘likely hernia’ to a biopsy-confirmed Squamous Cell Carcinoma, in my bum. I had Anal Cancer and it was in my lymph nodes. Fuck.
I’ve always referred to myself as a paranoid hypochondriac. I have a history of cancer in my family, and my own chequered past of lumps and bumps. This means I’m super-rigorous with my checks, including annual colonoscopies and breast MRIs. So when I was diagnosed my first response was, are you kidding me? It was no joke. I had an ‘interval cancer,’ one that develops in between checks.
Do you know what’s worse than a hypochondriac? A vindicated hypochondriac.
My profession is advertising, and my speciality is client service. Like all good suits, I’m a control freak. So my cancer is just another project. It’s a beast, but one I’m going to control. Very early on I decided to be as open and honest about my diagnosis as possible. I’ve done medical ‘journeys’ before, including a cumulative five years of unsuccessful IVF. I knew that moving through this alone would not be helpful or healthy for me.
People don’t know how to respond when you tell them you have cancer. My ‘announcement’ on Instagram included a Q&A that involved instructing people how I wanted them to react. Yes, seriously. “No moist-eyed hugs,” I said. Instead, I requested pictures (preferably nude) of Jude Law. Because why not? That weekend, my phone pinged with Nudey Judey night and day. After a horrific fortnight, I smiled for 48 hours straight.
That set the tone. Anal Cancer is not glamorous, the treatment is brutal and the side-effects are ferocious. I mean, my pubes were literally. burnt. off. So in reflection of this, my Insta account became more honest and more black by the day. But I was laughing, and so were my friends. Sharing became my protective cloak. My first radiation session wasn’t so scary because I was taking happy snaps of the machine to show my friends.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the magical tale of how Instagram Cured My Cancer (soz Zuckerberg). We’ve been rigorous in appointing a treatment team. The resulting duo of Radiotherapist and Oncologist have been lifesaving (or, at least I bloody hope it will be).
My psychiatrist has become an irreplaceable weekly cornerstone. My family and friends are around in moments that no Insta filter can fix. My husband is there when fear hollows me out and I can’t breathe. And my daughter’s existence is a sometimes-needed reminder why I need to grind this thing down to utter oblivion.
As a parent, cancer is one of the greatest fears. Our blessing is she’s too young to understand exactly what’s happening. The story is, I have ‘a lump in my bum’ and we’re working really hard to get rid of it. We know that what’s important is her life doesn’t change. That need for normality has, in turn, helped my husband and I keep things wonderfully ordinary.
It’s not very on-trend to admit, but with cancer comes negativity. I’m forever angry that I had to be the statistic who took one for the team. I have a perpetual fear I won’t live to see my daughter grow up. And I’m so sad my loved-ones have to witness me live through this mess. My life has taken a body blow and I don’t think it’ll ever get back on track. Or at least, the track it was on. However, that early decision to tear back the curtains and flash my (figurative) bum at the world has been one of the best I could’ve made.
There’s no neat, happy ending to this story. I remain a 36-year-old mum, wife, daughter, ad-lady. Yet now, bloody annoyingly, I’m also one of those cancer people.
You know what my husband said the other night? I was having a weepy moment and he spoke up. ‘Our life is good. Apart from one thing. All of our other things are actually pretty good’. And he’s right. I don’t think we’d appreciate life through that lens if it weren’t for my illness. It’s trite. It’s clichéd. But it’s true. Cancer allows you to frame things differently. One of my worst fears came true. My boogie monster actually came to life. And you know what? So far we’re still here. Thanks to world-class medicine, a solid mental health plan, boundless love and gleefully inappropriate humour.
That’s been the recipe so far. Let’s hope it gets me where I need to go.
Words: Ella Ward | Follow Ella’s journey @_msellabella