The Ride of My Life
by Jane Gillespie
I hate roller-coasters. They give you whiplash and make you sick. But I was forced to board a metaphorical one at the age of 51, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 1994, after my first ever routine mammogram. After a lumpectomy followed by a total mastectomy, I began six months of chemotherapy. No one ever told me that living through cancer and its treatment is a traumatising experience and that I would probably go on the wildest emotional ride of my life.
My medical team were very concerned about my physical wellbeing, but no one ever asked me how I was coping emotionally and the other patients in the chemo clinic never talked about being frightened, angry, despairing, whatever. I genuinely believed I was the only person experiencing these emotions and was convinced there must be something wrong with me. I felt isolated from everyone and thought that no one else understood what it was like to be going through this horrendous experience. I have never been so lonely in my life. My mother and adult children were wonderful but I felt I needed to protect them from knowing just how terrified I was.
Keeping my life as normal as possible seemed like the only way to cope, so I continued working part-time. Today I’m not sure how I managed to do that and I did have to keeping reducing my hours. I was also trying to care for my 16-year-old disabled daughter – the only one of my three children still at home.
Chemotherapy finished early November 1994 and a few weeks later I resigned from my job and applied for a Carers’ Pension. I decided to take a year to recover, investigate possible new directions and to devote more time to my daughter.
Less than a month later, I hit the wall. I no longer had work to go to and no more regular hospital visits – there was nothing else to focus on to hide from my feelings. I was so beaten down by just surviving treatment that I didn’t have the energy to make much more than a token effort to get back on top of things with my daughter. In absolute despair, I sent her to live with her father and ran away. Until then, my whole reason for being was tied up with my family. I had always seen myself as a daughter, a wife, a mother, but never just ‘me’. I didn’t have a clue who that was. I also believed that it was my role to look after my daughter until she died and now I was facing the possibility that I might die first. It tore me apart wondering what would become of her. I was convinced that no matter how good my oncologist told me my prognosis was, I was going to die without ever having really lived.
I moved to Sydney, giving myself six months to get better. Of course, my tumultuous feelings came with me and I suffered constant panic attacks and anxiety. I was a cot-case the day I had my first check-up with a new oncologist and he sensibly referred me to a psychiatrist. This doctor was the first person to help me see that it was perfectly normal to be in turmoil; that many cancer survivors feel exactly the same way. My whole life had been shaken to its core and my current feelings of grief at the loss of the life I had always known had also brought up unresolved grief from past incidents in my life. Both the psychiatrist and my oncologist recommended that I attend a support group and I joined one run by the Life Force Cancer Foundation. www.lifeforce.org.au
It was a revelation to me to be able to talk about my experiences with other people who understood exactly how catastrophic it was to lose one’s life while still being alive. I learned that surviving survival isn’t simply a matter of getting on with things. I had to first grieve the loss of who I was before cancer. It was like wading through a swamp but with support from my fellow travelers squelching their way through their own personal swamps, I eventually did get through and out the other side.
After six months in Sydney I was still struggling and knew I wasn’t ready to go back. In the second semester of 1995 I enrolled in a TAFE training course designed to help mature women get back into the workforce. When I first started, I was convinced I would never be able to function competently as an employee again, but by the end of the year my shattered confidence was gradually starting to rebuild.
I joined the ANZ bank as a part-time teller in January 1996 and also began training as a counsellor. Two years later I joined the Life Force Cancer Support counselling team and these days I co-facilitate three weekly support groups and quarterly Retreats.
Early in 1996, my daughter moved to Sydney after I discovered a wonderful organisation that assists people with disabilities to live independently. We have both learned that she can survive without me.
I left the bank after six years. I now work with Life Force, have a private counselling practice and I’m also a Civil Marriage Celebrant. Recently I became an author and a book about my cancer experience and beyond (Journey to Me) was published in 2007.
I will never view cancer as a blessing and I hate the fact that it took this to help me grow into who I am now, but I’m glad that I was able to eventually take the journey to find myself. I would recommend this to anyone and thirteen years later, I’m happy to be who I am today.
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