So, as I’ve learnt from previous stem cell and bone marrow transplant patients, today is my 1st “re-birthday”. This time last year I was having stem cells infused after a week of high dose chemotherapy in a little sterile room in Southampton Hospital.
I’m in a few Facebook groups for lymphoma suffers/survivors and bone marrow / stem cell transplant patients, and the feeds are full of photos of people holding up re-birthday signs… a few still doing so ten or twenty years on.
I am celebrating, but I don’t feel like celebrating. I’m in those Facebook groups, but deep down I don’t want to be. Behind the smile that says from the heart, “Thank You, Lord, for granting me new health”, is an uneasiness, a churn of my stomach when I think of last year, and 2012/13 and 2009/10.
Sometimes I find myself wanting to hide on World Cancer Day, look the other way when I walk past a Macmillan advertising board in the street or skip the page in the newspaper advertising the Race for Life.
Part of that is that it plays to the “latent anxiety” that I’ve spoken of before. Every reminder brings back the worry that it may happen again. Part of me doesn’t want to be reminded, because I don’t want to think about the possibility of another relapse.
Another part is not wanting to waste time living in the past. I kick myself even in writing this. My life is so much more than just about having cancer. But I find myself going back over it, unable to shift the shadow. I even published another book about part of my cancer story – My Autologous Stem Cell Transplant. But whilst I love the publishing process, and the feeling of having a book for sale, I have an uneasy feeling that I’m spending too much time thinking over the past. And that’s why I deliberately stopped myself from posting blog entries for six months.
But the other complex part is that I feel like I don’t deserve to be called a ‘survivor’.
I read an article recently that spoke about the concept of “survivor guilt”. It’s where someone who comes through a traumatic event suffers depression from thinking of all the people who didn’t survive.
I’m not going to say that I’m depressed. Far from it. But I have moments – moments I’ve never spoken about – when I think “why me”?
Not why did I, of all the people in the world, get cancer?
But why, of all those who face cancer, did I survive?
I think about all the thousands of people who struggle with cancer in a much more serious way than I have.
I think about friends, family of friends, people I know, who have died after battling with cancer, or lost loved ones to cancer. I heard recently from someone I worked with only three years ago, a similar age to me, and spritely and fit when I last saw him, who said that he also had battled with cancer and was now permanently wheelchair-bound because of the treatment.
And then I look at myself – nearly a year ago I came home from Southampton Hospital, bald, vulnerable and weak. And yet for the last six months I’ve been working full time, haven’t missed a single day at work (apart from two weeks holiday). I’m feeling fit and healthy, I have a full head of hair, and I’m going about life as if nothing has happened. I really am back to normal. Really?! Normal? After three rounds with cancer? Yes, really!
How is that fair? I almost don’t want to make a song and dance about how well I am, and how it’s great that I beat cancer three times in six years, because I don’t want to rub it in the faces of those who are not so fortunate. And I start to feel a little ‘survivor guilt’.
Last time I wrote, I said I was “closing the door”, but mentally it seems that I’m unable to (yet). It’s impossible to hide away. I can’t stop myself seeing the Cancer Research adverts, or the Macmillan adverts. It doesn’t seem right to stop following the support groups on Facebook and Twitter just because I don’t want to be reminded that I’m a survivor.
I’m sooner or later going to have to embrace the fact that this is what I am and to be proud of it – I’m a cancer survivor.
I am grateful to God and to the researchers, doctors and nurses, who made it possible to survive.
And I know deep down that sharing my story is not “rubbing it in”, but genuinely giving people hope. It’s not so much that I am an inspiration – my story is fairly unremarkable in my opinion – but the very fact that someone like me has survived is an encouragement. Those who are facing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for the first time, or relapsing for the first time, should take courage from my story. They need to know that a fully normal, healthy life is possible on the other side of their treatment.
So, as I celebrate this, my first re-birthday, I am saying a prayer for all those facing lymphoma and stem cell transplants, that they would have courage and hope, and the strength to take one day at a time. I’m also praying that someday soon we will find a treatment that will enable all lymphoma sufferers to be survivors.