Us Brits tend to be rather private when dealing with crap; especially the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and us Gen-Xers - yes, born in September 1964, I’m claiming Gen X, albeit I’m right on the cusp. Those of you that know me will not be surprised to know that’s not how I deal.
I am firmly of the opinion that keeping secrets, bottling and brooding is not good for one’s wellbeing: mentally, emotionally and physically. There’s a ton of research to support this and, from personal experience, I know this to be true. That’s not to say either that I support the oversharing, gaslighting and cancel culture of today’s social media dominated world. When dealing with difficult stuff in life a place of psychological safety is essential. Put yourself in the safe hands of trusted emotionally intelligent friends and relatives, or seek professional support as needed. Sharing your struggles with the wrong people in the wrong way can be equally harmful.
So in light of this, being in a very well supported healthy place, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and feelings as I journey through a period of existential and emotional challenge, while dealing with the recent diagnosis of my darling Jess having breast cancer. This is helpful for me as I process my own thoughts and feelings and I hope may be of help to others dealing with similar struggles.
What’s the current situation? Last month Jess found a lump on her breast. The GP did an emergency referral to the brilliant Thirlestaine Breast Cancer unit in Cheltenham. On October 19th Jess had a mammogram and utlrasound scans and they took 5 biopsies, 3 from the lump in her breast and 2 from lumps in her armpit. We had a follow-up appointment on November 2nd when they confirmed a diagnosis of grade 2 invasive ductal cancer in breast and armpit. Oestrogen negative, HER2 positive. The treatment for this 6 rounds of Pertuzumab chemo, first session on Nov 18th. After the chemo Jess will have an operation which could be a lumpectomy, mamoplasty or a mastectomy.
It’s good news in that the cancer type is limited to breast cancer. The not so good news for Jess is that the treatment is chemo, which she really didn’t want. This means a big chunk of time off work; six 3 week cycles of feeling crap for a week, reduced immunity for a week, getting better for a week and then starting all over again. And perhaps the most distressing factor is that she’ll probably loose her hair In the process.
How do we feel about this? Jess is one badass amazing woman as all of you who know her will testify, and I’m not going to be writing anything about how she is dealing with this here. Jess will be sharing her own journey through occasional posts on FaceBook and her blog, which you can find here: My Washed Brain.
My blog is what’s going on in my head, heart and guts as life partner of a person with cancer and all that involves.
At this early stage I am a little numb, anxious, at times emotional and generlly exhausted. Pretty much the stuff you’d expect. However, I also have a fair bit of peace along with a ton of gratitude. Probably less expected and this is part of what I want to talk about, and some other things.
In the last decade I have been on a significant journey of personal change and development. This absolutely has direct consequence on how I am dealing, and will deal, with this life event. I was raised in a strict Christian home (dad a vicar, mum the archetypical vicars wife) and then managed to naively get myself recruited into a Christian cult when at university. This is where I met Jess, got married and had a family (1983-1999). I then slowly drifted away from faith and now count myself an atheist, albeit I remain open to other dimensions as yet undiscovered. I am spiritual in that I define spirituality as “having a profound connection to something bigger than oneself”. Connection is a core value and something I seek daily. Connection to people and the great outdoors being paramount.
Before I proceed with some reflections on trickier topics I first want to gratefully acknowledge and appreciate the incredible outpouring of support I have witnessed to Jess and experienced myself. We are so fortunate to have an incredible collection of family and friends.
Talking Tricky Topics of Mortality and Money
As sentient cognitive beings humankind is plagued with thoughts and feelings about death. Furthermore we are obsessed with cheating death somehow, which in my opinion is the preeminent reason we have created religions and developed faiths.
My Christian heritage with the concept of heaven and hell and the never ending battle between good and evil has no place in my current thinking. Quite simply, that an all loving god can condemn a person to an eternity in hell is the stuff of fairy tales, for me. That said, I do not seek to challenge anyones own faith and religious views here. If it works for you I am happy for you, but those who dare to tell me they know what “God” thinks do not have my ear. However, you are very welcome to tell me what YOU think.
I do not believe in an after life, yet for many years, and until quite recently, death scared the crap out of me, causing me a very unpleasant and depressing visceral response if I dared to entertain the idea for too long. The finality and nothingness of death was unbearable - because I have an amazing life for which I am immeasurably grateful.
The odds that I, or you, exist are effectively ZERO! Yes, we should not really exist. (Geeky info: One estimate that any one of us exists is a chance of 1 in 10 to the power 2,685,000, or 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeros. For comparison, the Universe only has 10 to the power 80 atoms.)
And yet I exist! And you exist!
When out walking recently I was reflecting on this and realise I have come to a real peace and immense gratitude that I exist when I should not. Letting this sink in is so profound. You exist though you should not exist.
The gratitude this generates in me for this life I should not have is enormous. For everything that is in my life that I should not have; for the breath I breathe, for my heart that pumps, or the brain that allows me to think these thoughts, for the chemicals that enable me to feel love and joy and hope and so much more.
If the life I have I should never have had, how ridiculous is it to worry about not having it.
A regular feature of my Christian background was the quoting of Luke 6:38 that says “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (New International Version). This would be trotted out when the church needed money or, when in the cult, they wanted to remind us about giving our tithe (10%) “to the Lord”.
This verse came to mind recently as I pondered my existence. I concluded that I now beleive this to be the wrong way round. The verse implies we receive because we give, and while I agree that there is real joy in giving, I do not think the motivation for giving should be linked to what we receive as a result. For me, my motivation for giving - a value I refer to as contribution - comes from the fact that I exist - I have been given this life to live, against all odds. Hence contribution along with connection is my second core value.
In light of this, as I am faced with the news that my darling Jess has cancer, I choose to practice gratitude for the life we have been gifted. This choice does not always come easy but like anything, the more you practice the easier it gets. Even when dark thoughts come, as they do at times, I am choosing gratitude and with that gratitude comes a choice to “pay it forward” in contribution.
Life is finite. In the past I, like most of us, have resisted this fact. Now I embrace the life I have accepting it will come to an end one day. I cannot control that, but I can control how I live my life and that for me is one of the reasons I choose to write and publish these blogs of mine. They sure help me and I hope they may be of help to some of you.
Last thing to say on this is about faith. I have faith. My faith right now is in the incredible expertise of the NHS medical team looking after Jess; and my faith is in human resilience, Jess’s resilience and mine.
So after such deep and philosophical thinking, the second tricky topic of middle class western society is money. Time for some plain talk… for which I am unapologetic and accept that many people will look at my life and judge me for saying the following. But this is the reality for us and for many others going through similar circumstances.
Our situation is this. Both Jess and I are self employed. When we work we earn, when we don’t work we don’t earn. We live very much from month to month and have a truly lovely life. I am good at earning money. I am equally good/bad at spending it - some will relate hard, others will tut disapprovingly. We have been generous and kind with our money and time over the years. We have some savings along with our beautiful home and other trappings of middle class life - and yes I do drive a Jag, and I’d sell it in a heartbeat if needed.
Jess needing to have 6 rounds of chemo, then an operation then more chemo means she’ll be somewhat out of action for at least six months. Jess does not get sick pay and does not have insurance for this and so there is a financial burden that falls on us because of her cancer.
We have some reserves and very supportive family and friends who have offered and in some cases already given us financial help, which has been so generous and moving.
Many people have sent messages and flowers and said to us “we are here for you, just let us know if there’s anything we can do.“
There is plenty you can do! An important point here is the doing. In our current situation we are knackered most of the time. We know people mean well when they say “let us know if there’s anything we can do” and “we are here for you” etc.
Here’s the thing - this puts an additional burden on us to then ask. And frankly most of the time it’s easier for us not to ask.
If you are local to us there’s a load of simple practical things that can be done at any given time. Drop a meal in. Do a shop. Come and whiz the hoover round. Do a wash. Do some ironing. Wash the car. Mow the grass.… Get the idea?
People in our situation will tend not to ask for these things to be done. But to have them done is so helpful. No fuss needed. Pop in for an hour, have a chat, do a thing and off you go. Massively helpful! Also, it might be that Jess is not up for a chat that day. It’s not personal, and your help is just as much appreciated.
If you are not local, frankly, the most impactful thing you can do is contribute to lost earnings. There I said it! Give us money! It sounds so crass doesn’t it, and even here I’m phrasing it to make light of it so as not to feel so awkward. How very un-British. The reality is that money helps with Jess’s lost income over the next 6+ months. Will we survive without it? Of course. But it certainly helps one aspect of what we are going through.
So if you want to do something, donating a lesson(s) fee of £34, for example, helps massively, covering one of the lessons Jess would have done and been paid for. We estimate Jess will be down about £250 a week from not teaching at school - which is too risky while having her treatment. She still hopes to teach privately from home if well enough. If that amount gets covered, that’s it, we’re sorted, massively grateful and less stressed.
Feeling awkward for me and yourself? Sorry. That’s it, I’m done - except to say that if you do want to help financially you can donate here (which allows for anonymous donation if that’s what makes you comfortable). THANKS!
So there you have it. I feel a little awkward writing about this stuff, however, saying this helps in two ways. It helps Jess and I as we go through this, plus there are many others going through similar life events who may not have a platform or the gumption to say such things. You can be sure they are thinking these things though, and would likewise really benefit from the support of loving, helpful, generous friends.
Updates will follow.