It had been a long day. I had been in the garden tying my nasturtiums to pea sticks, experimenting with companion planting in my vegetable garden. They were bright orange and full of hope. I was nervous and full of foreboding. I had been unwell for months, dragged down by vague but persistent symptoms, dosing myself on over-the-counter painkillers. Five days earlier my beloved pet cat had died on the operating table at the vets, felled by liver failure. The mid-June air was heavy, threatening storms. I was trying to remain calm, but I knew in my bones that something bad was coming.
Every year, in June, I am reminded. The calm before a storm still unnerves me. And the sight of nasturtiums still sends a rush of pins and needles to my fingertips.
At Whitby Hospital, they were behind schedule. Woefully behind. My appointment had been scheduled for 4pm, but it was gone seven before my name was called. I was the last person to be seen that day. Everyone else had gone home. Even the staff.
I knew in my bones that something was very wrong, but nothing prepares you for a shock of that magnitude. I was 34. Young, fit, perfectly healthy all my life, and recently married. I was in the middle of renovating my first home, a Georgian cottage between the sea and the Yorkshire Moors, my whole life stretching ahead in unwoven threads. The kindly consultant delivered the grim diagnosis whilst the tearful nurse handed me a box of tissues. Even now, 10 years later, my hands shake a little as I write, tingling with the ghost of that memory.
I didn't cry. I was too busy observing, from a long distance, the buttons on the consultant's white coat. I was in a tunnel, and there were Banshees screaming past my ears. Everything was hard and bright and my eyes were burning. I heard very little of what was said to me. Something about surgery. Urgent. Chemotherapy. Months of treatment. Years of surveillance.
I went home that evening and called my parents. My mother cried. My dad said 'oh, my God' a lot. I went to bed and lay awake all night staring at the ceiling while my husband slept beside me. I had no thoughts. Only pure, intense, terrifying sensation. I thought I might die of a heart attack.
10 years ago today, on this very evening, my life changed forever. Everything I thought I knew about life, about myself, was different. I was plunged into a world of hospitals and impossible, nightmarish decisions about treatment. I wanted to run away so badly that my legs ached with longing, but I was trapped inside my body with no up, no down, no under, over or around. There was no escape. The only way forward was Through.
It was a long, long walk through that tunnel. The Banshees screamed inside my ears, without pause, for two whole weeks. After surgery, they calmed themselves a little but remained inside my head for months, stirring occasionally in unexpected moments to remind me of their presence. They are still there now, but over time I have become more accustomed to their mutterings.
My cancer had been serious and the treatment was brutal, but my youth and fitness helped me to recover quickly, even as the chemotherapy took its toll. The prognosis was good, but uncertain. The cancer, as it turned out, was hereditary, and none of the experts quite knew what to make of it. I got used to meeting with new consultants, all of whom, without fail, looked at me in bewilderment, shook their heads, and uttered the words 'very rare'.
Coming back from cancer, or from any life-threatening or life-shattering event, takes a long time. In some ways, you never come back. Or, at least, you come back different. My physical recovery took at least a year. The psychological recovery was far more complicated.
I thought I had a handle on the idea of my own mortality, but before cancer it had only ever really been that: An idea. With cancer, I found myself staring right into The Abyss. I could taste it. Touch it.
It smelled of metal and coated plastic.
There are moments in life which everyone experiences, when everything is clearer. We don't always recognise them as such, but these are the moments when our subconscious selves rise to the surface and for a brief time over-ride the clatter and noise of the everyday. These are the moments to which we should give our undivided attention. Having cancer gave me one of those moments. But it was a moment which was so clear and bright that I was almost blinded by it. I couldn't switch it off. It was relentless. And exhausting.
Admittedly, I was always a little bit hippie, but now all I wanted to do was to sit and look at swifts. They were everywhere. Filling the sky. Everyday life seemed ridiculous. All the old worries so pointless. When I looked at the swifts I found them so beautiful that I wanted to cry, but I had no idea if I was happy or sad. I was simply filled up with the joy of being alive.
I travelled to Australia and found myself in a Buddhist retreat in The Snowy Mountains. Sitting in on the meditation with the monks, the doors and windows thrown open to the sound of an Australian night, I wondered how it was that I could be so far from home and not miss any of it. I travelled for two months, but I knew I could have gone away forever and that it wouldn't really matter. Life was very small. And impossibly huge.
On my return, I spent the winter of 2006-2007 holed up in my attic, listening to the wind and the rain battering the roof tiles, sitting in the semi-darkness at my computer, writing my way back to life. I wrote for six months straight, immersing myself into a story that had waited for my attention for years. It was the only thing which stopped me from thinking about cancer. It stopped me from thinking at all. For six months I was immersed, hiding from my own thoughts, allowing the healing to take place off-stage, whilst I looked the other way. By the end of 2007 I had written a novel, and to all outward appearances, I was back to 'normal'. I put my story in a cupboard and got myself a job at a little independent bookshop in Whitby where I stayed for the next 4 years.
Life went on, as it always does. My little drama became yesterday's news. Other things happened. People close to me died. I had friends diagnosed with their own illnesses. Over time I became the person that others came to for help and advice. For reassurances. Somehow, having cancer had made me wise.
I didn't feel wise. Under the surface, something was brewing. It is impossible to go through something so traumatic and to return to 'normality' untouched. I wasn't fully aware of it at the time, but having cancer had started a process inside of me, unlocking something deep in my bones which had been lying dormant for years. I had begun to feel an unease about my life, now compounded by the fact that due to the cancer treatment I could no longer have children. It was odd. I had never really wanted children, but in my early 30s I was beginning to think I should. It seemed like the thing to do, and my husband wanted them. Now that the choice had been taken away, I was left feeling sad but also disturbingly relieved, and this realisation led me into looking at my adult life through new eyes. Somehow, from graduating at the age of 23, I had been drifting through life, never quite committing to one thing or another, always waiting for something to happen or something to change, allowing myself to become a part of somebody else's life-plan. I have no idea to this day how or why it happened. It just did. I suspect it happens to a lot of people.
It wasn't an overnight realisation, or a lightbulb moment, merely a slow creeping sense of wrongness and of time running out. I was still attending check-ups at the hospital every six months, and with the knowledge that my cancer was hereditary I was told that I would need monitoring for the rest of my life. Cancer would be with me for as long as I lived, however long or short that might be. It would stay with me constantly, always there to remind me of how precious life is. Of how utterly fragile we are as flesh and blood human beings. This awareness was almost unbearable. Somehow, I had survived. Give or take a couple of scars, my body was more or less intact. I was still relatively young. And I was as restless as hell.
When you realise, truly realise, that your life is your own. When you understand, fully, that you are an independent adult living in a free world, that you are nothing but atoms and stardust and that after you die (which will be soon) the world will spin on without you and absolutely nothing will matter anymore, there is an overwhelming surge of liberation that cannot be ignored.
I had survived. For how long, I could not know. but I was here now. I had survived.
There was no sense to it, of course. The universe may be all random chaos, or there may be a pattern somewhere that we cannot see, but I could make no sense of it. Only that I was here, that my life was my own, and that I absolutely had to start living it the way I needed to. Straight from the heart.
There are points in our lives around which we orientate ourselves. Memories. Ideas about who we are. Places we feel safe. The image we have of ourself which is familiar and which we understand. In order to reset my life at one of these points, I had to go a long way back. Back to my very early 20s in fact. When I was last making important decisions for myself. Alone.
Fighting cancer was one thing. Nobody really fights cancer. The doctors and the drugs do that. Fighting for your life is something else entirely. It is a mental process which takes time and strength and courage. It is something which has to be done alone, during the sleepless nights of soul searching when there are no distractions and no one else around to muddy the waters of deep thought.
In the end, I had to bring down my entire life as I knew it in order to rebuild again from the ground up. Rock bottom, I believe it is called. The good solid foundation on which to lay the first bricks of something new.
When you are young, you begin your life standing in an empty field of possibility. There is no defined path, no walls to hem you in, no perimeters to limit exploration. But as we move forward, a path is furrowed, fences are erected, and before we know what is happening, we can find ourselves standing inside a wind tunnel, walls of concrete rising on all sides. When this happens, the only way out is to bring everything down.
It is a painful, destructive process. Utterly terrifying. But after the destruction, after the ruins have ceased to smoke and the dust has settled, you may find yourself standing back in that empty field. Older, hopefully wiser, and ready to begin again.
In 2012, I found myself standing in that field. I was bewildered. Elated. Shocked by my own power. My house was sold, my marriage was over, and some friends, unable to understand the changes I had wrought, had been lost. But there I was, in my 40s, starting again. I took myself off to Cornwall where I had lived in my early 20s, enrolled at university, and began a Master's Degree in illustration. I had the support of my parents and a handful of friends who had stood by me throughout the destruction, and I was ready, at last, to build the life I wanted for myself, by myself.
University has finished now. I spent two years working harder than I have ever worked in my life, dedicating myself to my art, to storytelling, with a passion I had never previously experienced. It was an intoxicating, empowering experience. I achieved a very high distinction for my efforts, but more importantly I proved to myself that I possessed talent and commitment to the one thing I have always known I was good at. I built new friendships with honesty. I allowed myself to be seen for who I truly am. I fell in love and began a relationship with a man who could see straight through me and into my heart.
Ten years is a long time. But it can also pass in the blink of an eye if you are not paying attention. Since that evening in the consultant's office at Whitby hospital, I have made absolutely sure to always pay attention. All I wanted, at that moment, was a 'few more years', and by some miracle, I was granted my wish. It hasn't always been easy, but I hope I have used those 10 years wisely, pushing the limits of my life and who I am beyond anything I thought I was capable of.
I'm 44 now. Ten years older and yet feeling immeasurably younger. Cancer, trauma, taught me to be open. To be fearless. To take the time to drink in everything that life has to offer. All the joys and sorrows. Life is full of possibility. I learned these lessons in one of the hardest ways possible. That we are all living on borrowed time. Life is not finite. It is short and filled with sorrow and hardship, but it is also long enough to cram in everything you need to do. Not everything you want to do. Everything you need.
I still don't have a 'career' to speak of. I don't own my own house. And I will never have my own children. But I spend my days on beaches, looking at skies. And I write. And I draw. And I am loved.
And I am alive.