“Your return to work won’t go the way you plan”, my oncologist warned me ominously.
I had written a plan, discussed it with my manager, discussed it with my health insurance and crawled out of the cocoon I had hidden myself in for the last sixteen months. And regretted it immediately. My hips ached from sitting, my head ached from thinking, my confidence wobbled and I couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than 45 seconds, yes, I timed it. I resented the 45 minute bus ride to the new office. I was so tired and overwhelmed and unsure of myself. Things that I had done with ease now felt insurmountable. I cried in front of the medical officer from my health insurance company when he pushed me to return to full time work faster than planned. It was all too much and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Careful what you wish for.
COVID-19 burst into Europe at that moment. What had been whispers as I travelled back to Luxembourg from Australia via Singapore, turned into a roar and in a matter of days. “Just a flu” became you will work from home, social distance, wear masks and learn that you had never really washed your hands properly. I bought extra cans of beans and my daily medication, panicking about quarantine and a supply chain breakdown.
I wasn’t ready for work but I didn’t want this either. I was just poking my head out and then was told to go back inside and stay there. Indefinitely. No! I’m ready to live again, I railed. I don’t know how I want to live but I don’t want to be forced back inside. I sank into depression and spent a week crying, watching TV and eating rubbish. I was technically still on sick leave, so what’s the point of forcing myself to do something I don’t want to do? I wallowed.
Then my colleague announced that he was leaving the team and I announced that I was taking over his role running month end reporting for our division. I stepped up. I found a sense of purpose and something I enjoyed. Within a week, colleagues were seeking me out for advice, my confidence and pride was returning to me. I loved it!
And then I hit the wall. I had totally overdone it. My balance was out.
I reassessed and added yoga, walks and calls to my life and the world was good. In fact, it was better than I ever expected. I became a core member of the team, someone people looked to for advice and resolution, I felt important. And I was able to balance my time better being at home, taking breaks and walking when I needed without guilt.
Less than month into lockdown I had to start my biannual checkups. I was terrified of the health care system being overrun as it was in China and Italy and not being able to have the tests that I desperately need to ensure cancer hasn’t returned and keep my fear at bay. First was a blood test, which was the first time I had been anywhere other than the supermarket. I crept past all the warning signs and instructions, and met a wall of masked faces but kind eyes, I was taken straight though as others stayed away out of fear and received perfect blood test results. Three weeks later I was due for a mammogram on my remaining breast and ultrasound. I took a taxi to the hospital as buses were running on a skeleton timetable and I was nervous about contamination, I didn’t want to do anything that could spread the virus or delay upcoming appointments. I found intense security; single entry, temperature checks, hand sanitiser, questioning, staff sealed behind security screens, a significantly reduced number of patients, it was eery and confronting but I relished the reduced waiting time. My tests were again clear and I had a tearful farewell with the nurse who had taken me through my first mammogram and biopsy and is now retiring. I told her how she made those dreadful days of fear and uncertainty better through her professionalism and kindness. This was one of the first conversations I had had apart from the supermarket staff. We both teared and up and she said she wanted to hug me, it wasn’t allowed, but considering how she had just held my breast and manoeuvred me into the mammogram machine, this seemed harsh. Leaving the hospital, I took this opportunity to walk home through the city and was overwhelmed by how quiet it was, our sleepy town had fallen into a deep slumber indeed.
By the time I saw my oncologist two weeks later, I was a pro at navigating hospitals. She was very pleased with my progress. One year clear. Now another critical year, three watchful years…and then the rest of my life. She is setting up appointments with an orthopaedic surgeon to look at my joint pain as it’s getting worse with the anti-hormone medication and I’m concerned it’s degenerative, and with a sexologist to discuss my complete lack of libido, she suspects it’s psychological rather than physical but it ended when I started anti-hormone medication. Obviously it’s not an issue during lockdown but it concerns me as a 41 year year old woman.
It’s hard to tell what’s what though with treatment recovery, anti-hormone medication, COVID-19 stress, starting work again and working from home, but the thing I’m learning is that I’m a cancer survivor, so I should be checking everything, and I’m on the A-list for treatment and follow ups. Although I worry for the women not able to have their mammograms during the crisis.
After the test stress passed, I noticed that while friends, family, colleagues and strangers were in crisis from social distancing, I was handling it relatively well. I had moved into a very comfortable apartment when I got cancer, so I had my sanctuary, and I had spent much of the year before wearing face masks, washing my hands thoroughly, avoiding people and their germs and staying at home while my immune system and brain were depressed during treatment. While others were being confronted by this new normal, I was just reverting to my old normal. On occasion I found myself resenting people struggling with isolation and reaching out for comfort. Fuck ‘em, this is what I dealt with last year AND I had cancer to boot. Where were the check ins and weekly Zooms then? Mum says this is unfair as I had isolated myself a lot, but I didn’t really care. I stood up straighter and roared. I’ve been through this before AND I had cancer. Everyone said how strong I was at the time and I dismissed them, thinking I was just surviving but, watching people fall apart, I realised how fucking amazing I am. Hysterical turns and tantrums notwithstanding…I did think I was dying after all…I am a fucking rock star!
Anyway, life rolled on, as it wont to do, and I had my spells of depression, being isolated for so long was hard and reminded me of the loneliness of the past year. I obsessed over statistics, hand washing, work, being tough, 10,000 steps per day, but I was listless. Mum pointed out it was because we had nothing to look forward to, and she was right, as an obsessive planner, not being able to plan crushes my spirit.
And then our daily new cases dropped and the government announced we could meet people. I sobbed, threw a bottle of cremant in the freezer and called friends to see who wanted to meet to share bubbles in the park, and then I howled when they told me we could only meet the following week. Maybe it was getting to me.
We had a picnic in the park, everyone wandered over with their masks on and sat a socially acceptable distance apart, then they took their masks off and we did an air cheers, I shed a silent tear of gratitude and release, it had been harder than I realised. The picnic was brilliant although, as cremant and beer ran out and we went onto gin, we sat a little closer and by the end everyone ended up back in my apartment sans masks. Oops. But after two months apart, we had decided that the mental health problems of isolation now outweighed the physical risk of COVID-19. I did take my temperature a lot the following week though…
Work continued, giving me a sense of purpose and growing confidence as did walks and picnics with friends, culminating in a visit from Ruth and Michael as they drove from their house in the UK to their new home in Munich with a car load of essentials after being caught in lockdown with only carry on luggage. I panicked, they were coming from the UK after all, but it was also my chance. It had been 11 weeks and I was ready. Bring it on. It had been 11 weeks since my last physical contact except for a mammogram and anti-hormone injection, neither of which were particularly fun, but this was it, this was my chance. I was going to get a hug. I ached at the mere thought and, after sending them to wash their hands, I hugged them so hard. Oh heaven.
We had a fabulous long weekend of walking, cooking, talking until I lost my voice, drinking too much, discussing potential holidays, and they had arrived just in time, restaurants had just opened and we ate out! It was weird with staff in masks, but it was such a pleasure.
They left and I slept and drank hot water with honey and lemon to soothe my aching throat. Oh but it was just what I needed. Now I could go back to being a loner.
Work continued powering along with big deliverables meaning some late nights. I can’t handle it the way I used to but I was also hired by Amazon because of my personality type, which is to work until it is done and deliver quality. A personality which gets you places can also be a downfall. Lifelong issues of priorities and balance are rearing their heads, especially as I gained a lot of weight back at the start of lockdown which has exacerbated my health issues due to the anti-hormone medication, my joint pain is getting worse and my insomnia and night sweats are becoming unbearable, resulting in an overuse of sleeping pills or lack of sleep. I go from not being able to sleep to the deepest sleep from which I wake gasping for air which makes me reluctant to fall asleep again. A doctor last year said I’m not showing symptoms for sleep apnoea but it scares the shit out of me and I’m sure my weight isn’t helping. It’s now critical that I return to a healthy weight, so I’ve started juicing and it’s feeling good…four days in.
So the world has descended into chaos and I retreated, hid and cried and then decided to thrive.
Now it’s time for a walk as the sun has made an appearance.