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

Woman & Home - - Editor’s Letter -

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.

Dev­as­tat­ing di­ag­no­sis

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.

Chang­ing pri­or­i­ties

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

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