Best Laid Plans – by Melanie Stern

Mel is a freelance journalist from south London writing on business, finance, travel and the arts. She was editor of Financial Director magazine until May 2011.

Even when my oncologist told me to cancel the two holidays I’d booked for my summer off, I didn’t grasp that the routines and schedules making up my life were to disappear. On the day of my initial diagnosis I was four weeks into my sabbatical, in which I’d be enjoying four months travelling through Europe with my partner – and then October through to the summer as a full-time Master’s student. The plan thereafter was to go to Latin America – where we’d met five years before – him, to teach, me to extend my journalism career on my favourite continent, maybe staying for two years.

Of course, it’s true what they say about best laid plans: I had left my job as editor of a financial magazine, telling everybody in a blaze of glory that I was dumping the daily grind for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, eight weeks to the day after I put my last issue to press, I was signing in at the chemotherapy day ward for my first session of ABVD, mother and boyfriend in tow.

It was only then that I was told I was stage three: rather than the 2-4 months of chemo and radiotherapy I had originally been pitched, I would need six full months of chemo.

This was a problem for my scheduling. Four months would have only touched the start of my course. But six months took out the rest of the year. The biggest issue I had with cancer’s way of interrupting my masterplan was that it put a question mark over my university place. On my first day in the ward, I asked my oncologist if he thought it realistic that I could enrol and have chemo at the same time. He reminded me that often people continued working. As I breathed a sigh of relief, Liz, the Macmillan nurse present, sucked air through her teeth. “It’s not always like that,” she said. “I think it might be unrealistic.”

I was surprised how two very different views could come from people working so closely with cancer: which one was right? I signed up to the web forums and asked if anyone had successfully gone through university while on chemo. But no clear answer came. I soon realised that I’d be starting my course halfway through the treatment; I’d been warned that this was the point where ‘chemo brain’ would set in and the cumulative effect of ABVD would start to grip me. Did I want to plough on with my schedule, accepting that I might not be well enough to do my best? Or be more pragmatic, accept my fate, and defer for one year.

Come September I deferred.

I was gutted. I’d been so happy when I resigned. I’d told the world and his wife about my plans. I’d already put time into becoming part of the university community: those people would forget me and that time would mean nothing. Without something big to look forward to, cancer was now my only focus.

A friend recommended me for a freelance job and I accepted: I shouldn’t have. The time it demanded ended up being disastrous. Deadlines are king and journalists are paid to hit them, however much they move: whenever something came in with a 24-hour turnaround, the email would hit my inbox as I sat in the chemo ward with another infection, waiting for another blood test in-between chemo appointments. It was too much and I had to bail out. I bitterly turned down work in order to focus on my health, not my career. But in time I started to enjoy the freedom. Ironically, I did get the time off that I’d hoped leaving my job would give me. And I used it to look after myself much more than I otherwise would.

As summer came, I found it so relaxing to wake up, open the kitchen doors to our garden, have breakfast, check a few emails and while away the day without an agenda. With my immune system weakened, I didn’t feel confident leaving my little part of town, but friends came to visit or stay over.

By the end of the summer I realised a schedule had evolved out of my new lifestyle. After my fortnightly chemo, the next 5 days were given over to recovery, with all the worst effects colliding at once. But by Wednesday I started to feel well and by the weekend I was back on my feet. Once I realised that I had every other week to feel close to normal, I planned things so I had something to look forward to in my ‘off’ week.

A new addition to that schedule has been the Dimbleby Cancer Centre, where I have massage and counselling. As my body struggles against the effects of my treatment, I really look forward to a gentle massage which takes the pressure off a little. My last appointment at Guy’s was just hours after hearing that my grandma had passed away, succumbing to ovarian cancer. Deciding whether I was well enough to go to Glasgow for the funeral, it was invaluable to have that massage which helped me to calm down, think things through and decide to get on the next train. And having much less money coming in now, the fact that the services DCC offers are free really helps.

As I reach the last few treatments, having that week to look forward to and do something of value – not just sit around waiting – is really important. Cancer has not been the diary-obliterating hell I imagined. I have time to think, to take a walk, to cook – and to read up for my course. I can look forward to starting my Master’s next October and getting on with my life – a long way from the day when my oncologist, trying to lighten the mood when he told me to cancel those holidays, quipped: “you’re mine now”.

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