I grew up in a village where everyone knew everyone else.  Most people who lived there were born and bred there, as were their parents and their grandparents etc. While some people commuted to work elsewhere, many didn’t so for the most part the village = the social network. My life isn’t like that. One thing is that I left the village when I was 18 and haven’t lived there full-time since, but between the ages of 18 and 26 I spent 4 years in Aberdeen, 2 years in London and 2 years back in Aberdeen and for the last 20 years I have lived in the greater Copenhagen area. For the last 20 years I’ve also been working in an international environment where many of the people I have met have a much more nomadic lifestyle than me. This means that my social network is spread over the whole globe facilitated by tools such as this blog, facebook, twitter, linkedin, skype and let’s not forget good old email.

I consider myself quite adept at using these different tools, both in my personal and professional life, but when I got my cancer diagnosis I quickly realised that there are no social rules for how you navigate cancer in the virtual world. In the village of my youth, you would just have had to tell a couple of key people (what we now call network hubs!) and before you knew it the whole village would have known that you were ill. I quickly realised I had no idea how to replicate this effect using social media.

I knew that I had to get the word out there – but you can hardly write “has cancer” has your status update! So I ended up discussing the problem with a couple of my good friends who are talented communicators and they helped me figure out a strategy. I had already recently launched this blog, so we reckoned that was a good vehicle to get the message out. I drafted the announcement message and they edited until we were all happy and then I linked it to a facebook status update with a warning message that the blog post was not for the feint hearted.

In retrospect I think our communication strategy has worked out well. The blog has a good way of keeping everyone updated, but has also been therapeutic for me. However at times I have been worried about the effect my openness would have on my professional prospects.

I work in an area where the lines between colleagues/partners/clients/friends are blurred. There aren’t that many of us working in the area and we all tend to know each other. Because we work internationally we often stay away from home in hotels where you develop closer relationships than colleagues that go home to their own “lives” every evening. By choosing to be open about my illness through the blog many of my professional network have also followed my progress and I have been very touched by the warmth and support they have shown. However, as the time for me to start working again approached, I started to worry that, having let my professional facade slip so thoroughly and completely in public, I would forever be seen as the baldy, cancer patient rather than as the professionally competent consultant. Not only that, but that people may see me as a bit of a risky prospect for longer term projects.

 Luckily my worries have proven unfounded. I’m not sure that it will ever be considered appropriate to write “successfully survived cancer” on your CV as it has become acceptable to do with things like marathons, but I suspect that there is some recognition that it is in some way “character building”! I honestly don’t feel that anyone treats me differently now in a professional context because they have witnessed my very open and honest revelations – at least I hope so!

First check-up

March 20, 2011

OK, well I did think I was getting on with my life and that one of my biggest worries was what to wear for my check-up, but I think I may have been premature……

Last Friday I found what I thought was a lump in my right armpit and immediately went into a state of total shock. Over the course of last week I managed to convince myself 100% that the cancer was back. When I wasn’t working – both to distract myself and to get ahead with my project since I was sure I would soon be starting chemo again – I was searching madly on the internet for symptoms of recurring Hodgkins or playing a range of different cancer related scenarios in my head e.g. what I would write to my clients, how I would deal with my son’s upcoming confirmation in a wig etc. etc.

By Friday morning when I had to head off to the hospital for my check-up I was so stressed I was feeling sick.

Well, it turns out it is nothing. The “lump” in my armpit is a completely normal lymph node. My Doctor was extremely sweet about it and said he would send me for a scan just to set my mind at rest (without my having to ask). Though I feel relieved already, even without the scan.

Afterwards I’m left wondering how I could have worked myself up into such a state – I’m actually left feeling a bit shell shocked. But then I saw a psychiatrist on the news explaining the symptoms of Danes who are worried about radiation as a result of the Japanese catastrophe. He mentioned all the symptoms I went through last week – including the mad searching on the internet for symptoms etc. I have to say this made me feel a lot better. If Danes can get into that state over a worry of getting radiation sickness, then my anxiety over my cancer returning doesn’t seem so mad after all!

But boy, was it exhausting…..

Dressing the part

March 8, 2011

I’m going to make an embarrassing confession here.  The other day I found myself sitting planning what I was going to wear for my first quarterly hospital check up – which isn’t until 18 March. I realise this makes me sound like a seriously superficial, empty-headed sort of girl. I should probably qualify this confession by adding that this is not the only thought I have had about the looming appointment. Indeed said appointment occupies rather a lot of my grey matter rather a lot of the time. In fact it is such a big deal that I find it difficult to commit to making any plans for anything until it’s over (and then I suppose I have 3 months to cram everything in until the next check-up). No, what is worrying is that I care at all what I wear to hang out at the hospital, let alone start planning for it weeks in advance.

Yet when I caught myself doing this, and immediately felt embarrassed, I realised that I have carefully planned what I would wear for every single hospital appointment since this whole nonsense started – and that’s a lot of appointments. Even I can see this is a bit weird and since, until now, I have never confessed to anyone, I have no idea whether others do the same.

So what the heck is it all about?!?  

I’ve been giving it some thought and the answer seems to be that I don’t want to look like a sick person! My warped brain seems to think that, if I dress nicely, put on my makeup and generally look like a not-sick person with a life to live, then the hospital personnel will feel even more motivated to do what they can to save said life. Now, I truly hope that medical professionals don’t differentiate between people who look sick and those who don’t, but in my professional life I know that subconsciously it makes a big difference how you react to people depending on how they look. So, as I do in my professional life, I’ve been planning how I look when I visit the hospital in order to project a particular image.

I have to say this was something of a challenge in the chemo days. My chemo- brain was functioning under par at the best of times so it was a major challenge planning outfits that matched the following criteria:

  • Looked feminine – this is important when you have a bald head.
  • Easy access for catheter /veins in arms.
  • Comfortable.
  • Easy to go to the loo with a drip-stand in tow (I needed to pee all the time while I was getting my chemo because it is diluted with so much fluid).
  • Oh, and of course I didn’t want to be wearing the same thing all the time, but I was there fairly frequently!

With radiotherapy, it was a different set of challenges – mainly it had to be easy to put on/off since I had to strip to the waist each time. It also kind of ruled out dresses because for some reason it is more embarrassing to lie naked to the waist with tights on that with trousers on!

I have no idea if my strategy worked on the hospital personnel or whether, in their eyes, I looked just as sick as the next patient. I have to say it worked for me! Without exception I have always thought that every other patient I have been next to in waiting or treatment rooms or hospital wards must be much more ill than me!

Anyway, I still haven’t figured out what the perfect outfit is for the first post-cancer check-up (and I’m wondering if my hair is long enough yet to have it styled before then……), but I still have a few days to go!