Before my terminal cancer diagnosis I was a fairly confident girl. I had a successful career, which I loved and a slightly bossy nature at work. I was very lucky to have met my soulmate relatively early in my life and had slipped into a loving married life very easily. I enjoyed socialising with my friends. I was well supported by a close knit family. I really was very fortunate to have such a stable, normal life. It had not always been easy and I had battled with confidence throughout my teenage years and early twenties. This was in part due to bullying at school and never quite feeling like I fit in at University initially, but once I hit my late twenties I really was starting to feel settled and confident both professionally and personally.
Then in one fail swoop all that confidence that I had gradually built up over several years was taken away when I discovered I had cancer. I felt unexplainably ashamed. I felt guilty. I felt frightened. My sense of ‘me’ was destroyed almost immediately and the wind had been completely knocked out of my sails. I went into hiding, both physically in a side room in hospital and emotionally, choosing to confide in only a few people who were close to me. I remember being so distressed by the thought of the rumour mill working overtime about my illness, not that anyone would be anything other than concerned. I just did not want to be public gossip story number one. The whole situation was not helped by the fact I was an in-patient in a hospital where I had spent two years of my working life. Everytime I was wheeled off for yet another procedure I risked being seen by someone I knew. The thought of having to explain what was happening in these awkward situations quite literally petrified me so much I used to feel physically sick when I had to leave the safety of my side room.
My self confidence was not helped by the fact that the cancer and its treatment mutilated me physically. I ended up with bilateral nephrostomies for over four months, I lost all my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, the steroids changed the shape of my face, my nails fell off and I developed that sallow skin that ill people have. It was a huge struggle to leave the house to go anywhere other than the hospital during this time. Very few people ever saw me without a hat on. I was definitely not one of those cancer patients who was bald and proud of it. I was still ashamed and still guilty.
My life took an unexpected turn when after deciding to stop chemotherapy and go back to work as I was encouraged by some close friends and colleagues to publish my diary detailing my experiences during diagnosis and treatment. Within a couple of weeks I was selling hundreds of books and making thousands of pounds for charity. This gave me such a boost. People seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and reading all the lovely, personal messages people had taken the time to write set me on the path to building my self confidence back up from nothing. The press became interested in my story. There were photoshoots, radio interviews and television appearances. At first I was a complete nervous wreck interacting with the media but gradually over time as my confidence has returned I have even started to enjoy it. I don’t even bat an eyelid at appearing on our local regional television news programme now.
Going back to work was good for me. I think although we would not like to admit it, many doctors are defined to some extent by their profession and I was certainly in this category. But again I was so timid setting foot back in the hospital for the first time. Would I be able to function? What would my patients think? These fears have subsided over time especially as my physical appearance has returned to something approaching ‘normal’ and I realised that I still could offer something professionally. I never used to enjoy giving presentations, but the requests to speak at various events locally, regionally and even nationally started to come. I forced myself to engage with these and share my story. As a result I have become desensitised from feeling nervous in these situations and even quite enjoy giving talks now.
So in some ways I am far more confident now than I ever was before my diagnosis. Cancer has changed my life completely and the road from rock bottom to where I am now has been a bumpy one, but I am glad I have managed to stick with it and not let the horrendous situation I find myself in depress or isolate me socially. I am lucky in so many ways to have such a supportive network of wonderful people around me who have all played their part in rebuilding almost my whole sense of ‘me’.