Ten years ago a bride woke up on her wedding day with a bruise the size of a grapefruit on her fore-arm. It was green and unsightly, but the long Juliet-sleeves of her wedding dress covered it up nicely. She thought the bruise was odd, but she soon forgot about it because she was about to step into the happiest day of her life. And it was. It was hot, it was poignant, it was joyful. And it was bursting at the seams with happiness.
That bride was me. And I had no idea then that the bruise was a portent of things to come. And I’m glad I didn’t know. Because it meant I got to enjoy all the fullness of my wedding day. Just in time.
In the 10 days after my wedding the bruises multiplied. On my honeymoon I called my sister (a nurse) to ask her about them. I still remember her calm but serious voice. How many bruises? 35? She told to make an appointment with my doctor asap. The day after I arrived home from my honeymoon I was in the doctor’s office getting a blood test.
The next day was the day I’ll never forget. The day a haemotologist told me I had leukaemia. The day I rushed to hospital, had a bone marrow biopsy, and began chemotherapy. The day the doctors talked about harvesting my eggs but there was no time, it was Wednesday and I could be dead by the end of the week. The day my life changed irreversibly. That day was December 10th, 2003.
So it’s been 10 years now. I can’t even begin to tell you the hours I’ve spent dealing with the disease, and how it has affected my being. My body, my mind, my heart, my soul – they are all scarred. Some are visible, but it’s the invisible ones that are the hardest to live with. The thing about scars is they jut out to remind you to be gentle with yourself. They are not reminders of weakness, but signs of healing and hope.
A few months ago I made a desperate phone call to a support worker at the Leukaemia Foundation. I was sick of feeling sick. He told me about recent studies flooding in regarding the late-effects of the specific cocktail of chemo I received (which were unknown when I received it). In the longterm the chemo affects the condition of the heart, lungs and tissues. It affects stamina and causes fatigue. It affects how nutrients are stored in the body. It affects memory, mood and ability to cope. The list continued on some more. Validation from science that the last 10 years of struggle were real. I had not imagined it. And so I wept on the floor next to my desk as the information sank in. I wasn’t a failure for not fully recovering yet. I wasn’t a failure, I was a survivor.
The thing is, right now, you could be forgiven for thinking I appear normal. I interact in a world where everyone is just getting on with the business of working, raising kids, doing housework, and socializing. Normal things. And yet, every one of those things is not normal for me. They are amplified by physical and psychological limitations. I’m sure I’ve left many people wondering why I’m not consistent, or why I’m anxious, or why I just don’t ‘get over it’. It’s been 10 years now, right? But I don’t care anymore. I no longer measure myself against impossible standards of normality. I live a different kind of normal. And I take care of myself the way I need to.
I’ve survived 10 years past December 10th, 2003. And I’m damn proud of it. In that time I managed to hold down a job, give birth to two babies, care for my kids, and start a writing career. Bloody brilliant achievements for a person that wakes up every morning feeling like they’re walking upstream through a river of wet cement.
Ten years. Every sunrise is a reminder I’ve survived another day. Every day is a fresh treasure chest of memories. Every second I hold my children is a miracle. Every breath is a bonus.
Ten years. A gift.