Image Credit: Getty Images / South_Agency
woman-living-life-to-the-full-after-surviving-her-cancer-diagnosis

A Letter to Myself: 5 Years After My Cancer Diagnosis

Reading time | 4 mins

Dear Alice,

Hello you. What a time you're living through right now. 

I know you never expected that the lump in your right breast would turn out to be cancer. I know you convinced yourself it was another fibroadenoma, another benign cyst. So, I know you're reeling right now. 

I know that you're reeling over a cancer diagnosis at 26 because I am you, writing to you from almost five years down the line.

Cancer will affect you in more ways than you imagine now

Cancer affected your life in more ways than you ever could have thought. Everything changed. And almost nothing at all. That's something I say a lot these days because it seems like the only way to make sense of what happened. You'll figure all this out in due course.

You're feeling so many feelings right now. I know you're scared. I know that you feel like you are lying to everyone. I know you're cautiously optimistic about the future. Still, fear tinges everything when you think about the enormity of what's happening. I know you've said to yourself: "Maybe it's not that big a deal." 

It is a big deal, and it's okay to say that. In time, you will come to carry that weight pretty well. 

You're facing what the doctor and writer, Liz O'Riordan, describes as the "cancer triathlon." You're looking at surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. You'll end up having all three, and they'll push you past what you thought your limits were. 

You will lose your breast, your hair, your identity. You will lose people. You will live in a world where people around you will die. You will lose your way again and again, but you'll always find your way back. I know how clichéd it sounds, but you'll gain a lot from the experiences ahead of you too. 

Cancer will take so much from you, but there's a lot it can and will teach you. 

Cancer will change you 

Cancer is not a gift. Although it might have gifts attached to it. You will get amazing opportunities; that's something I can't deny. 

You'll do amazing things. You'll become a trustee of an incredible charity. You'll go skinny dipping with 99 other women in Majorca. You will run a half marathon, and you will climb real mountains in India. 

You'll get to share your story, helping others to share theirs in turn. Cancer has changed you so much. Today, with hindsight, I will tell you this is a good thing.

Everything that happens teaches us something

I don't think that everything happens for a reason. Yet, I do believe that everything that happens has a lesson. Yes, even cancer can teach us something. 

Cancer will teach you to be kinder to yourself. This doesn't happen overnight, it's a process, but you're working hard at it. 

Cancer will also give you a whole new perspective. It's going to teach you to be patient with yourself and others. It's going to teach you to manage your expectations. I'm not saying cancer is a good thing to have happened – far from it. It will be the hardest thing you'll ever do, but you got this.

You'll feel so many emotions 

So, what are the things I'd say to you if I could speak to you now? 

First of all, don't forget about all the tools you have to look after your mental health. I know you're in survival mode, and that's important. 

Still, looking after your brain is a form of survival too.

You're going to feel emotions that you didn't know were possible. In fact, you'll feel contradictory emotions at the same time. 

You will feel angry and relieved. 

You will feel happy and bleak. 

You will feel scared and euphoric. 

You will feel overjoyed and frustrated. 

All at the same time. And that's okay. 

There is nothing wrong with feeling all those feelings. Don't try to squash them. Emotions are just energy in motion, and they need to make their way out of your body so you don't hold onto them.

You're also going to laugh a lot more than you expect. Laughter will be the very thing that keeps you alive. 

Along with all the medical procedures, obviously. 

Yet laughter is good medicine. Try and laugh wherever you can, whenever you can. Don't worry if you laugh when you feel like you shouldn't. If anyone glares at you, just take your hat off and show your bare head. It will quickly shut them up.

It's okay to feel the way you do 

I want to finish with a note I wrote to someone who had been newly diagnosed a few years ago. This note shows how far you've come. You're a changed person from when you received your diagnosis to now, five years later. 

Know this: it's okay. It's okay to not be okay. It's okay to be fine. Cancer treatment is hard, but you know what? It's okay. And sometimes it's not. That's okay too.

You're awesome, Alice-May Purkiss. I love you. Keep going.

NPS-ALL-NP-00361 JUNE 2021