Cancer, that invasive and insidious disease, is never far from the news, and breast cancer, the pinkest and fluffiest of all the cancers, especially so. We’re horribly used to the things-that-cause-cancer story – last week, for example, we learned that eating red meat in early life may cause breast cancer, except it probably doesn’t. And for good measure, two studies suggested that there may be a genetic or hormonal link between having a lot of moles and developing the disease. So now you can lie awake at night in terror, examining every inch of your body, while digesting your dinner of lentils and tofu. So far, so familiar.
But when you’re one of the almost 50,000 women in Britain diagnosed with breast cancer every year, things are different, right? You are slashed, you are burned, poison is pumped into your veins. You say goodbye to one breast, possibly two, or just part of one if you are lucky. Hopefully you recover. No more worrying about cancer, because you’ve already had it. Have a burger, why don’t you?
But maybe not. There was yet another piece of research on breast cancer last week, a study telling us, in the words of one headline writer, that “breast cancer survivors ‘do not exercise enough'”. Exercise has been shown to aid recovery, but a US study found that only 35% of women who had had the disease met the weekly guidelines for exercise – 150 minutes at moderate intensity, or 75 at vigorous intensity.
As someone who has had breast cancer – and who hates the word “survivor” by the way – I understand, I really do. Exercise is good for you, cancer or no cancer. And the guidelines don’t seem particularly arduous – just over 20 minutes a day of moderate exercise, like walking.
But while I am familiar with pre-cancer scaremongering, the post-cancer version is new. Life after cancer is hard enough. Having the disease is the simple bit. That’s where you have a single goal: not to die of cancer. So you subject yourself to the surgeries, the chemotherapy and the radiation, and after it’s all over – and you’re not dead, hopefully – it’s time to move on and forget it ever happened.
Except there’s a fat chance of doing that. You get undressed and notice you are missing some or all of your breasts. Someone you haven’t seen for a while greets you with a surprised cry of “You look well!”. A well-meaning friend emails you a link to an article about such-and-such causing cancer. And you read stories telling you that you are not doing it right.
I don’t need to be told I don’t take enough exercise. I worry about that as it is. I worry that I’m not taking the drug my oncologist insists I should take for five years, because the horrible side-effects stop me. I worry I drink too much alcohol, and don’t eat enough vegetables. And with every ache and pain, every cough and cold – my stupid brain cannot help thinking that it might be the cancer returning.
I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a crazed hypochondriac who spends every waking moment living in fear of cancer. I have rebuilt my life, thank you very much, and anyone who meets me today wouldn’t have a clue I’d been ill. But these thoughts rumble in the background, a quietly ominous soundtrack to this new phase of my life.
Cancer casts a long shadow. And while some people want to run away from the shadow towards the light as quickly as possible, others feel defeated by the darkness and sit down in the shade, not sure of what to do next.
And you know what would help with that? Opening the newspaper and reading a headline, for once, that says: “Well done for being alive. Why don’t you go and have a lovely glass of wine, and maybe a pizza too?”
Fay Schopen is a writer and journalist living in Whitstable.