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Catrina speaking into a microphone

Waiting to know what type of cancer I had left me completely terrified

Catrina, a writer and artistic director, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of last year. These excerpts from her blog show the turmoil of emotions she felt and how she's doing now treatment is over.

My world was rocked by my diagnosis 

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2020 and it’s fair to say it rocked my world.  

I’d had a , a recall, another biopsy and I knew - before they said it - that it was cancer. I got the news in my home office, my hair wet, my wife next to me. It was a total shock.

At the beginning, I felt total terror all the time. It was like someone kept jumping out at me from cupboards and corners. I felt blind panic; a panic that meant I thought I couldn’t see. I stood one day looking at the grill and couldn’t think how to turn it on. I was driving the car at night and couldn’t figure out the full beam.

At the time, I was working on three projects. It was challenging not to cry.

If I were to write the story of me, in this moment, I would want to write about how strong I was - that I reassured others and had it all in perspective. But I didn’t. I panicked a lot and I cried. I still do, but not as much. That has been something I’ve learnt: I cry.

I explain this – that I am a crier - when talking with medical experts, friends, work colleagues and family. I explain I can’t talk on the phone, that I am alright with text, but I can’t call or have them call me. I learnt that telling people on text was a gift for me.

My future became wobbly  

I still worked with theatre groups during this time, and creative writing became a big part of our projects.

We all wrote and shared our work, which became tricky towards the last few workshops as my personal world had become wobbly. It was hard to say goodbye to the group, as I didn’t yet know the results of what kind of cancer I had or whether it had spread. I didn’t know what the future would look like, or when I would be back.

I started to understand what I needed. Blue skies, to think of ice cream, sand, sea, moons and to walk under the stars. At night I needed candles and roaring fires.

The doctor had good news

On the morning I received my results, I thought about the surgeon walking into the hospital to start his day. I pictured him looking through his list, drinking a cup of tea, making himself ready. I found it strange to think someone else already knew the results of my operation.

The wife and I took our places in my office, her sat on the bench, while I sat making a list of possible outcomes.

The phone rang, no caller ID. He was new and Irish, and started with ‘I have brilliant news’. My wife and I punched the air, locked eyes and leaned in. The cancer was (past tense) invasive lobular, grade 2.

He went on to explain that the margin was clear and it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes.

I watched my wife as we talked in disbelief, the hard emotions she must have been holding disappearing into the air around us.

As I share this, I am acutely aware that, when that surgeon put the phone down, he had to pick it up again to tell other women harder news. My thoughts are with them.

I reflected a lot

We climbed into the car and drove to the sea. I needed to breathe in the air and blue sky. We remembered then how we had made the same trip just one month earlier, joining our son and his partner on the beach to tell him I had breast cancer, the devastation we all felt.

I still had to come. The treatment is usually given over a three-week period, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic it was all done in one week. I’ll also be on tablets for five years. The side effects include potential bone weakness, but I’m looking forward to building myself strong.

As we walked, we reflected on this time last year, and how I’d had this terrible sense of foreboding. I had a fear I was going to die within the year. When the pandemic hit, I thought I had some sort of sixth sense.

When I got the diagnosis, before I knew what I was dealing with, I was frightened the premonition would come true.

If I think back to before, to Christmas Day, sitting with our son and his partner (them on the wall, me shielding), it feels so different. I remember getting diagnosed and saying I want to laugh and dance my way through this, but I couldn’t.

I am allowing myself time to recover

It’s now been 14 weeks since diagnosis, 11 weeks since the operation, and one month since the end of radiotherapy and I’m feeling so much better. The pain has almost gone. I’m still tender and little sore, but there’s no shooting, stabbing, needles or pins.

I’ve been laughing loads with my wife, friends, sisters and family, and I have loved this feeling.

I’m still recovering. I get tired out of the blue and I say, ‘I don’t understand why I am so tired,’ and my wife then tells me that I’ve done too much. Losing energy is like having your legs taken from under you, like superwoman and kryptonite, and I have to sit or sleep.

I’ve been thinking about those that have reached out throughout this time: women who have had breast cancer, people with other cancers, or those with loved ones with cancer. People in front of me reaching back and holding out their hands, helping me see what lies ahead. I’ve been thinking about their generosity.

I am still a work in progress, but I am determined to find balance. This is the gift I give myself this year: the year of my recovery.

You can read more of Catrina's story by visiting her blog.

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