When I was 28 I was diagnosed with cancer. It was one of those life shattering moments that will forever permeate my existence. It all began with back pain, and what started as a dull ache quickly became unbearable. Agony. Pure, violent, scarlet red agony. I started smashing codeine like there was no tomorrow. Exhaustion took over and I would find myself napping at any available moment, on my lunch break, after work, on the tube. I lost all my strength and became so weak I couldn’t even unscrew a jar of Marmite. The night sweats and fevers came. On a bad night I’d need to change my pyjamas multiple times, as they’d be soaked through with sweat. The weight started to fall off me and my jeans that once made my bum look peachy now had a good 3 inches of extra material to pull at. People started to comment – “You’ve lost weight”. Had I? I wasn’t convinced, for some reason it wasn’t computing with me that I was ill, very ill. I was frightened to talk to anyone about it, especially a doctor. Eventually it all got too much and I was admitted to hospital for a five-day stint. At this point I was pretty much bed bound and my body was working overtime to keep me going. After lots of tests and biopsies I was diagnosed with Stage 4b Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare type of blood cancer. I will never forget my doctor first uttering the words ‘You have cancer’ to me as I lay in my hospital bed. It felt as though my world had literally fallen away from me. The corners of my reality blurred, my hearing warped and I was plunged down into a deep, dark hole; a nightmare. There were so many questions, so many things I didn’t understand. Medical jargon and complex terminology filled my conversations. Anxiety and fear ate away at my brain.
Then came the chemo. It destroyed my body from the inside out and I was left feeling like a shell of a woman, a relic of my former self. Diarrhea, mouth sores, neutropenia, bone aches, migraines, exhaustion, mental fatigue, constipation, muscle cramps, anxiety, shivers, insomnia, piles, tooth infections, acne, weight loss, weight gain, stomach cramps, raised heart rate, infections, viruses, hospital admissions, hot flushes, nausea, joint aches, dizziness, chest pain, hair loss, water retention, swollen ankles, acid reflux, sun spots, trapped wind, fevers, anemia, breathlessness, paranoia and loss of energy were all part of the process. It was a tough fucking slog. It was an assault on my physical and mental self, a barrage of feelings thrown at me from all angles.
But there was one thing that got me through the pain, the chemo, the side effects, the risk of infertility, the anxiety and the fear. One simple thing that most humans are blessed with the ability to do. That one simple thing was talking; about anything and everything I was going through. Talking became my medicine, a saviour in the madness.
I’ve always been a talker. My Mum is from Belfast so talking’s in my blood, it’s not easy for me to shut up. I started talking at the ripe old age of 14 months. My first word was apple. At school I was often chucked out of lessons for it, I was that annoying girl who teachers hated because she just couldn’t keep her gob shut. My school reports always read “She’d achieve much better grades if only she’d stop talking so much”. But we shouldn’t stop talking and we shouldn’t be encouraging children and young people to talk less. In fact, we need to do the opposite, humanity needs to talk more. Give me a bottle of wine, some good company and I could easily talk for at least 8 hours straight, even on subjects I literally know nothing about. I love talking. It is definitely, without question, my most favourite past time.
So for a woman who loves talking so much there were times in my cancer journey (God I hate using that term!) when I struggled to talk, to tell people how I was feeling. People don’t like to talk about illness and death. I can’t blame them, it’s hardly a cheery subject that we want to bring up at the pub on a Friday night. But the thing is cancer is still a taboo and it hides behind fear. Maybe this is why initially, when I started to feel ill, I didn’t go to a doctor sooner and is partly blame for such a late stage diagnosis. I was scared, deeply frightened of what they might say, what fate I might be dealt. With cancer, it’s simple – not talking creates fear, fear leads to people not going to the doctors, not going to the doctors leads to late diagnoses, late diagnosis leads to a more likely death. That is the cold, hard, brutal reality. The reality of our time is that 1 in 2 people will get cancer, that’s half of everyone you know, isn’t it time we started talking about it in a more honest way?
We’ve come to a place in society where everything is imaged based, bite sized, hash tagged and captioned. Slogan after slogan plasters my Instagram feed, every next person is donning a t-shirt with a neat, easy to read caption sprawled across their chests. Where has the big conversation gone? Where is the depth? We need to talk more; more openly, more honestly and more candidly about the big things. And it’s not just cancer that we struggle to talk about, there are so many big issues that we shy away from discussing. Rape, child sexual abuse, abortion, mental health, depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, transgenderism; the list is endless and varied.
Talking helps, for a moment, to make us feel like we are less alone, that we are understood, that we are not bat-shit crazy but in fact human, and vulnerable, and at times maybe even a little messed up. It reminds us that we are not the only person in the world who hurts, who is ill, who is oppressed or struggling, but that there are lots of other people out there experiencing the same. Most importantly it creates awareness, and with awareness comes understanding and slowly, slowly (at times desperately slowly) comes change. Talk is not just cheap, it’s free. It is the one thing on this planet that (almost) all humans can do that doesn’t cost any money but that can engender change. Take it from me; chatting shit is good for the soul. Talk more.