In March 2017, I was diagnosed with a rare cancer (gastric neuroendocrine tumours). I felt scared and vulnerable; any control I had over my life disappeared. Three years later, when the pandemic hit, I saw those same fearful feelings in others. But as we (hopefully) slowly emerge from lockdown, we might see some silver linings – what researchers call ‘post-traumatic growth’. Because adversity can boost resilience, courage and wisdom, and this is something I know to be true. Here’s what my own tough times taught me.
Before my cancer, I felt guilty if I wasn’t always busy. But surgery and chemo ground me to a halt, and allowed good things to happen, such as reconnecting with old friends and napping in the day. But most important were walks with my then 8-year-old son: we’d spot trains and chat football and wobbly teeth. I still do this with them both (I’ve another son, who’s 5). Talking, listening and observing puts you in the moment, where you can enjoy ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.
Chemo wreaked havoc on my body: sunken cheeks and eyes, grey skin and a turned-down mouth. Every time I caught sight of myself, a little more energy would seep away. So, on the days I didn’t succumb to nausea and tiredness, I learned the benefits of self-care: luxuriating in the bath, putting on make-up and my fave top. These small acts made me feel in control again. And as we all discovered recently, even getting dressed up to go ‘out-out’ via video calls on laptops can help us feel a little more like ‘we’ve got this’.
After stomach surgery, I had to eat soft, easily digestible foods – creamy, cheesy stuff I usually dislike. Out for a post-op lunch with a Gorgonzola-loving friend, we ‘menu swapped’: I had her cheese-smothered pancakes (surprisingly tasty!) and she had my salad. I also shared my blog publicly, resulting in a swathe of unexpected support from friends and family. The lesson? Things you can’t imagine doing under normal circumstances can feel surprisingly achievable during – or after – hard times.
As a parent of young children, my eardrums often take a battering. But after the eerie quiet of the chemo ward, with only the hiss of the drug-pumping machines, returning home to my kids’ shouts and screams made me appreciate their vitality and the strength they gave me. From suddenly feeling grateful for the bin men making a racket at 6am to finding a corner shop that stocks loo rolls, a new-found sense of appreciation fosters positivity.