Only a Word?

Only a Word? Michelle McCartney

by Michelle McCartney

I think I need to get over the word cancer. You know the surgeon who said to me “…I am afraid you have cancer” was a lovely young woman but often I wish that I could press a rewind button on that moment in my life and take that spell off me – like as if the mere acceptance of my condition by her was the causative effect. The same surgeon beamed down at me when I came around after the operation saying “We got it all. It was a great success.” Her smile alone gave me courage. 

I remember the moment she made her initial pronouncement though; that my first thought was…my children will lose hope. They had already witnessed their uncle dying from cancer and I felt as a mother that I was responsible for helping them to keep hope and a right to happiness in their hearts. I was the warrior I thought. Life as usual! I took the one hour bus journey to the city hospital most times on my own to get my radiotherapy treatment because I wanted my husband, Charlie, to be at home with the children. I cooked and cleaned as usual. Sometimes, perhaps unfairly, I feel that people who haven’t experienced cancer need us to be inspiring and strong to ease their own fears.

But that was a load of nonsense. If I were to do it over again I would say “buzz off” to the brave face and I’d let the whole world and its neighbor look after me because inside I was shaking like a leaf. You see I feel that when I put on the warrior pose the fear just went and manifested itself in other areas. The sleepless, terror-filled nights and the obsession with “getting my affairs in order” just in case! That dratted old ‘just in case’ …until I had almost become invisible in my own mind. Oh, now cancer or the utterance of it didn’t do that to me. This is an old story with me, going back into my childhood as far as I remember. You wouldn’t know it. Or at least years ago you wouldn’t have guessed it as I was good at faking it. But perhaps because of the cancer the cracks began to appear and I soon learned that too much energy goes into pretending. It is exhausting. Now I not only ask for what I want but I actually try to find out what it is I do want.

I often quote a woman in our cancer support group. She said “Cancer does as much to your head as it does to your body.” But I am kind of lucky too as I have a stubborn streak in me and sufficient anger, no sorry rage, at this preposterous intruder into my life. I’ve come to the decision that it is time I made friends with my body. I want to learn to not see it as a pathetic passive hostess but as a wonderful marvel of nature and lately I try to be less at war with my mind too… for a time there it was hard to know who was going to win that battle!

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I am only now beginning to see her [my mind] as the imposter she can be and how she often uses her trusty tool, imagination, to scare me. She does rattle on so but I have shrunk her down and keep her in my heart so she may find solace and comfort there and refrain from tilting at windmills. And for whatever life throws at me she cannot be the dictator any more. Oh now and then she finds a wee hole and surfaces. I think she has herself convinced that only she can protect me. And I do listen to her for sometimes she can in her convoluted, fear ridden way bring stuff to the table. It’s just now she doesn’t decide on the menu because after all she isn’t the main chef. No, that is me! 

Michelle McCartney is a cancer survivor living in Derry, Northern Ireland.