Thursday, 25 February 2016

Happy (re)Birthday!

My immune system is one year old! 

Tomorrow is my hen party with all my favourite people. If I could have had a glimpse of what my life would be like one year on, I wouldn’t fear a single thing. I can’t quite believe it. It is such a milestone. One year down. Four years to go until I can say I am cured. What a year it has been.

Today marks one whole year since we sat around for hours, nervously waiting for the moment when the nurse would come along with a little bag of reddish yellow cells that had been extracted from my sister’s arm a few hours earlier. Transplant day. Day one. My (re)birthday. 

The moment itself was anticlimactic. The process was no different to the many bags of red blood cells, platelets, chemotherapies, fluids, antibiotics, antifungals, and everything else that had dripped steadily into my veins over the previous 6 months with the ultimate aim of “making me better”. But this felt different. The potential energy was palpable. 

At that time, I think the fear had largely dissipated. I was most fearful throughout January and would cry myself to sleep most nights, but by late February I felt much calmer. The night before the transplant I wrote a letter to Matt and sealed it in an envelope. I don’t think he knows to this day that I ever wrote that letter. It said that I loved him and that I was lucky to have met him and that if things didn’t work out how we were all hoping that I was thankful that I had loved someone so fully, and been so loved in return. I placed the letter at the back of my journal (where, as far as I am aware, it still remains) in which I had been writing poems, quotes and song lyrics during the conditioning chemotherapy during the weeks before. I remember that song “take me to church” by hozier was everywhere and I wrote the lyrics out over and over as an attempt at mindfulness, a technique the psychologist had taught me at Coventry which rarely worked. 

Mindfulness, as I understand it, is the awareness and acknowledgement of the present moment and of one's surroundings. I have forgotten if I have already written about this, but I had a few sessions with a psychologist who said that she often recommends the process to cancer patients as they have a lot to think about and that practising mindfulness can be a calming influence. She suggested the example of washing up: instead of worrying about the future or the “what ifs”, I should instead focus on the way the water feels on my hands, the temperature, the smells, the sounds etc. 

To be honest, I thought the whole idea was a bit stupid. It’s like trying not to laugh in church: the more you try not to do something (in this case, “think”) the more you can’t help doing it. You can’t tell someone that they might die and then tell them not to think about it. And anyway, I said, I’ve got a dishwasher. 

I don’t think I could ever not think. The majority of my life happens inside my own head. I remember having a conversation with my friend Emily about the concept of reality: most people consider the things we do and see and feel and smell and touch to be the benchmark of “reality” when in fact, much of what we actually experience happens largely inside our own heads. Who is to say that that is not reality? 

This actually invokes one of my favourite lines from literature:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

We filter these subjective experiences in our minds and transform them into objective reality, but it is the processes that allow us to reach logical conclusions about reality that fascinate me. Death is certainly real, but so is fear, so is terror, so is love, so is desire. To me, telling a cancer patient to not think is one of the worst things you could tell them, because to them there is a lot of living to do.

If I could write a letter to my former self just after I was diagnosed, the one who has just been told the news, the one sitting in that hospital room, hearing nothing that was being said, hearing only the ringing in my ears, the resonating sound of the aftermath of an atomic bomb, I would say this: 

There is nothing anyone can say, myself included, to prepare you for what is about to happen. There are no comforting words for the pain you will feel, the emotions that will rage through your body, the overwhelming desire to LIVE that will possess you like you never could have imagined. But if you find yourself lying in bed in the early hours, silently crying, terrified, needing reassurance (and you will), here is what I would say...

Love yourself. Believe in the extraordinary things your body is capable of. Doubt is normal... but don’t let it overwhelm you. Take it in, take everything in, but don’t let anything become you. Just go with it, you are the flotsam riding through white water rapids and over waterfalls who will wash ashore, apparently unaltered but entirely changed. Good things will come from this experience. Every sunrise is the bud of a bud, beautiful and significant. Make more of an effort to see it, really see it. Everything is profound, but it won’t last forever. 


  1. Dear Grace
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Thank you for such expressive and insightful writing. Good advice for us all.
    Lots of love Stephanie

  2. An honest account with real perception. You are very loved and will no doubt continue to be so with your infectious insight of the world. Your flotsam line gave me goosebumps. Bless you x

  3. What a lovely post! You are very brave. Did you not go out and celebrate in some event locations after this? You deserve a party for being so strong. You remind me of my cousin, she fought bravely for her disease and came out of it as healthy as a horse.