Kate Bolton, 44, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015. Here she explains how life after cancer is never quite the same again.
“Life will never be the same again
What is it about danger that means you can sense it? Like the prickle of anticipation when a huge storm is brewing and you can smell it in the air. The hair on the back of your neck stands up, you feel sick, your heart pounds, but you don’t know why. You just know something is coming and it’s powerful, unstoppable. Instincts kick in, everything feels surreal, and fear fuelled adrenalin gets you through the day.
That’s how it felt in the weeks leading up to my cancer diagnosis.
Then, the storm breaks. With the words ‘you have cancer’, you’re no longer teetering on the brink. You are in the eye of the storm and fighting the known. Life is falling apart and you’re struggling to hold it together. It’s relentless. But there’s so much to do! People to tell, plans to make, appointments to keep. A blur of information, questions, decisions. I fussed over filing; I filled the freezer; I needed a will. Lists, spreadsheets, calculations; I consulted helplines and made plans. Live or die, I had it covered.
Friends and family were on it too. There were nonstop phone calls, visits, lunches, nights out. One friend got me into knitting; with another I went to a punk gig. I consumed green tea and kale until my stomach hurt; I drank champagne and cocktails until I was sick (yes, ok, not cool). I rediscovered music; people lent me books. I signed up for Netflix and caught up on a decade’s worth of crap TV. ‘Team Kate’ was formed: it offered company for appointments; care for my child; food in my fridge. My team kept me laughing and helped me to cry.
Without doubt I was terrified but with the fear came a sense of clarity and focus, a shock-induced high, and even a freaky sense of excitement.
Then: a radical hysterectomy, bilateral salpingectomy, bilateral pelvic lymph node sampling, over sew of bladder mucosa. Stage 1b tumour removed, no sign of metastatic disease. ‘Take it easy for a couple of months but otherwise no reason to expect you won’t be back to normal in no time.’ The storm was over.
Nobody tells you about the post treatment fallout. The medics retreat; loved ones celebrate. Over and over you hear: ‘you must be so pleased’, ‘it must be such a relief’, ‘put it behind you, get back to normal’. Yet as I took in the devastation the cancer storm had wrought, I was only struck by the eerie silence and emptiness that was left. My old life was gone; going back was not an option. Feeling sad when everyone was happy, I felt like an outcast.
The same life threatening disease that had brought me so close to my friends, was threatening to push us apart. I did not understand my post storm world or what I needed, so how could they? The fear of death bound us together, but the fear of a strange new life was mine alone. This realisation shook me hard, threatened to unhinge me. I went in search of ideas.
I tried Dimbleby Cancer Care first. I took comfort from them being in ‘my hospital’ and I liked that I could just drop in (read: I could back out at any minute, no harm done!). Courage took me as far as the advice centre and the nurse on duty before giving way. Then, instead of words, tears came. She didn’t flinch, and when I was ready to talk she listened without judgement. The relief was overwhelming. I took away a stack of leaflets and a sense of hope.
I am still picking through the wreckage. Most of the pieces of my life are still there, they just look different. My body doesn’t work as well as it did before; I ache. Parenting seems harder. My job feels like someone else’s. Sleep is a skill I have to relearn. But now, when anxiety takes hold and the ground gives way, relaxation therapies and counselling steady me. When I feel lost, I meet others like me and I see that I still belong. The original Team Kate still exists, but it’s expanding all the time with the incredible new people this experience has brought.
My instinct for danger was spot on. The cancer storm blew my life apart, and the things it broke can never be fixed. Putting the pieces back together is taking time and is unbelievably hard. The shock, the fear, the pain can never be unfelt; they are part of me now. But knowing I can live with them makes me feel invincible. I am standing on the edge of a new world where living life really counts. Excitement mixed with fear is the fuel that drives me forward.
Life will never be the same again, but I don’t want it to be. With help, I am making it even better.”