When one of my closest friends wrote in our WhatsApp group earlier this year that she had breast cancer, I was totally shocked. Looking back, I don’t know why because cancer has reared its ugly head so many times in my life in the last 10 years, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me at all.
I guess it’s more unexpected when it’s someone of a similar age to you– it’s a big fat reminder that none of us are getting out of here alive so we better make the most of it whilst we still can.
Once the initial shock was over, our group began to come together in a way I could never have imagined. For a while, everything else didn’t seem to matter– if it meant we had to take time off work to take Charlotte to chemo, we did. Like an important mission, each of us were appointed our duties and we took to our roles almost instantly despite the fact deep down, we were all feeling the same– scared shitless.
Between 7 of us, we managed to find the time to take Charlotte wig shopping, attend chemotherapy with her and take her to any medical appointments she needed. We went on days out together and made sure Charlotte had the support network she needed– along with her family of course– to get through this tough time in her life.
Don’t get me wrong, cancer isn’t fun for anyone but I don’t want this post to be all doom and gloom either so I’m going to try to make it as uplifting as possible! (Without making my friends feel like I was having a blast the entire time.)
This was real– no laughing and joking now– it was happening and not only that, but it was happening to one of the most amazing people in my life.
Wig shopping was fun. There, I said it! We may have made a few jokes in attempt to make Charlotte feel less uncomfortable about the fact she would be losing her hair, and we may have tried on a few wigs ourselves because, you know, that’s what girls do. It really isn’t nice having to see your friend prepare for such a life changing event such as losing her hair– and yes, I know hair grows back and the wigs are pretty much fool-proof, but to her, it was a big deal. The physical changes chemotherapy brings to the body, is enough to make anyone feel insecure and we wanted to help her find a wig that made her look beautiful– even when she wasn’t feel it.
Wig shopping is also really hard work. Who would have thought there were so many options, so many wefts and colours and types of hair? I learnt how synthetic hair wigs beat real hair wigs and are super easy to maintain, unlike real hair which has to be styled after being washed. Who knew.
Anyway, in the end, Charlotte ended up with a wig that made me feel the need to make an effort on my own hair every time we were together– and she didn’t even have to style it.
I like to consider myself fairly tough, and not in the sense I will win a fist fight for you if it comes to it, but in the sense I can deal with shit if needs be. But nothing, not one single thing prepared me for the emotion I felt when it was my turn for chemo duties. I won’t lie, the thought of spending an entire day with one of my closest friends made me a teeny bit happy; life gets in the way when your friends are married with children so I didn’t care where we were going, if it meant some quality time together, I was grabbing that with both hands and running for the hills. Obviously the chemotherapy ward isn’t my number one destination choice for a day out with any friend, but you know what cancer is like, it doesn’t tend to give you many options.
So off we went, bags packed full of trashy magazines, nail varnishes and junk food. For anyone who may not know, chemo takes a few hours but if there is a bald cap involved (a weird-looking hat that helps prevent hair loss, but fails miserably), then you can expect to be there for up to 8 hours, hence all the magazines and nail varnishes.
It wasn’t the ward full of cancer patients that bothered me most, it was seeing my friend having her bald cap fitted and tubes put into her arms that gave me a huge reality check. This was real– no laughing and joking now– it was happening and not only that, but it was happening to one of the most amazing people in my life.
The great thing about us humans is we have this way of adapting to situations. I hear it all the time, people saying they couldn’t deal with that, or they don’t know what they would do if it were happening to them, but actually, looking around the ward that day, I didn’t see one person not coping; I didn’t see anyone giving up. In fact, all I saw were happy, smiley faces making the best out of a shit situation. People were laughing with each other, and sharing stories about their lives. I watched people who had only just met bond over the fact they were on the same journey.
And so I did what everyone else in the room was doing– I faced the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people and there is nothing I could do to change it. I pushed any negative thoughts out of my head and I laughed and gossiped with my friend of over 10 years. Plus, the hospital has its own Costa, and coffee is, and always will be, the best distraction I can have. Unless of course there’s a wine bar.
Fast forward to now and that WhatsApp message feels like a distant dream. Charlotte fought cancer every step of the way and was recently given the all clear. She cried harder than when she was told she had cancer– the relief of making it through the toughest time in her life, finally hitting home.
And we cried tears of joy for her too; for her husband, for her beautiful little girl, for the rest of her family and for the fact our friend will continue to share more of life’s incredible moments with us.
We are still planning the ‘End Of Cancer Party’ but just before Christmas we arranged an early Christmas dinner where we toasted to Charlotte and her brave journey over the last 6 months. She doesn’t know I noticed, but I caught her watching us whilst we filled our plates full of the food we had all been preparing throughout the day. I watched her teary eyes looking around at her friends and family as Coldplay’s ‘Christmas Lights’ played in the background. The look of happiness, joy and hope of what 2016 will bring. The fear of an uncertain future melted away and by the end of the night, we were laughing as if we hadn’t been able to laugh that loud in ages.
Cancer can teach us many things and apart from the obvious fact ones entire outlook on life changes after having cancer, it also teaches us how important our network of friends & family are. It teaches us how material things don’t matter– that people’s opinions of us are not fact & are therefore unimportant. It teaches us the importance of good health– that your body needs to be looked after and nourished. Most of all, cancer teaches us that life is precious.
I’ve never seen my friend so happy, so excited about her future, about life and about the fact her hair is long enough to spike with gel.
Charlotte’s journey with cancer has taught me there are other things in life worth moving to the top of my priority list. And yes, I still want more, but there’s less urgency at the moment; I feel a sense of stillness around me and I’m welcoming it with open arms for 2016.