It took breast cancer for me to learn to look after myself the drastic diagnosis that led to a positive life change
Writer Kate Figes asks why it took something so drastic for her to invest in her own self-care – and how now she’s done it there’s no going back
Like most women, I have spent much of my life putting others first. after a spell of youthful abandon, I married, started a family and devoted myself to doing everything I could to helping my daughters grow up well. I worked at home so that
I could be there to play or help with homework. I cooked nutritious meals, and wrote books about adolescence and family life, so that I could be a better parent and spare them the grief that I had experienced with my own warring, divorcing parents.
We would have years ahead of us to have fun and be selfish. or so i thought. and then came the diagnosis. i had regular mammograms and had mentioned to two separate gps that there was an itchiness in my left breast. When the aching in my ribs developed into sharp pains, tests revealed i had three fractured ribs and numerous lytic lesions all over my spine and ribcage – triple negative breast cancer, which had
metastasised. devastating news, which sprang without warning. no lumps. no noticeable changes. Just this itching. now with an “advanced and aggressive” cancer, the future i had imagined we might have was suddenly whisked away.
Within days of the diagnosis i couldn’t stand for longer than two minutes or walk because of the pain. When the chemo started, it felt as if i had been run over by a train and infected with typhoid at the same time. i remember thinking that if this was what life was going to be like, then just kill me now. all of my anxieties about my daughters, now struggling with life in their early twenties, or what we might eat for supper, faded away.
My family, devastated by the fact that i might not be around any more, had to step into the breach, caring for me as well as keeping the house going. For nearly 30 years, i have had to bend and twist to get the wet washing into the dryer in a cupboard beneath the front steps. Within days of my husband doing this, he decided it was intolerable and called in somebody to switch the machines around. Why hadn’t i thought of that?
shopping and cooking was always my domain too. i opened an online sainsbury’s account and then lay on the sofa, clutching a hot water bottle to my crumbling ribs, listening to my husband and youngest daughter trying to work out what to buy. “pasta, vegetables, eggs, milk…” i tried to shout down from my sick sofa as i mentally went up and down the supermarket aisles, but my voice was so faint they couldn’t hear me. “i know!” youngest daughter exclaimed, “dentastix!”
“good idea,” replied my husband. “get 20 packets.” at least the dog would be happy. and then came the email from sainsbury’s thanking me for my order – and the list of things we didn’t need and couldn’t eat.
slowly things began to change. My husband started working from home and told me that i had only to concentrate on getting better, he would take care of everything else. he started reading recipe books, expanding his culinary repertoire from two to four dishes, and did everything he could to make the house and my life in it as comfortable as possible.
and for the first time in my life i had no choice but to put my needs first, simply because they were so immediate and extreme. i had to time the taking of eight tramadol and eight paracetamol a day to try and stay on top of the pain. i had to bust through the nausea, eating at least five forkfuls of food so that i could swallow chemo pills, five in the morning, five at night, plus dozens of supplements. i had to juice fruit and veg to keep my emaciated body from losing any more nourishment. i had to rub oils into my dehydrating feet and hands so that they wouldn’t crack and risk infection, for chemotherapy kills immunity as well as cancer, and i was under strict instruction that with a temperature of just 38 degrees, i would have to go to a&e to be put on an iV antibiotic drip. and then there was the exhaustion, a tiredness so bad that i spent most of each day lying on the sofa, crying.
Doing what I want
a primal instinct took over. i knew that i had to put myself first to get better, even though that felt incongruous with all the patterns of the past. gradually with the chemo, the juicing, supplements, oxygen therapy, acupuncture, Chinese herbs and an infra-red sauna blanket, the cancer began to recede. now, one year on and with three clear scans in the bank, i know how lucky i am to get a second chance at wonderful, brilliant life, and i don’t intend to waste a minute of it.
i look after myself first now, with anticancer activities taking up a good third of every day. i start every morning with yoga, meditation and small prayers of gratitude. no more looking after others; they can take care of themselves. i will live the time i have left doing what i want, and i want it to be filled with nothing but joy, humour and the love of those around me.
i linger over spring flowers or the colours of autumn, every view and every tiny tasty pleasure, trying to capture that image, that flavour, that sound in case i should never see, taste or hear it again. i look for laughter and shun sadness or the negative biochemical force of fear, for there’s nothing like an “incurable” cancer diagnosis for bringing home the truth that we can only get the best out of this one precious day. and i don’t rush any more. What could be nicer than if i’m still in bed at 10am reading or drinking tea with my husband, sharing memories as we stare at the silver birch trees outside our bedroom window? it’s a shame that it takes getting this ill to recognise how important it is for us as women to look after ourselves before we look after others. but if we try to do everything, if we seek perfection at home as well as success in our chosen careers, something is likely to crack. i don’t regret the past. but if i could have done one thing differently it would have been this – teaching the others to cook so that i wouldn’t have had that nightly slog for decades. i could have insisted they did more. i would not have been a less than good mother for doing so, for i would have been less resentful and i would have eaten tastier dishes than pasta as i fought for this one last precious chance at life. w&h
“I want the time I have to be filled with joy and love”
on smaller dogs and larger life Questions by Kate Figes is out now (Virago, £14.99)
Kate had learned to put herself first to get better
Kate and her family: daughters Grace and Eleanor, and husband Christoph