Building a Life After Cancer
I have felt like an outsider my whole life.
When I started school, I was painfully shy and hardly spoke a word to anyone. As I got older my shyness and conscientiousness didn’t lend itself to popularity. I was teased and picked on rather than befriended.
By the time I was in the second year of secondary school, the lines between friendship and bullying had been blurred. I wasn’t happy in my social group. When my grandmother died I was bereft, lonely and disappointed that my friends didn’t come to her funeral.
Life was about to take a darker twist. I had severe abdominal pains which turned out to be a cancerous tumour on my ovary. Both were removed during a six hour operation.
Recovering from the operation in a hospital 100 miles from home, learning about chemotherapy and why I needed to begin treatment soon, I was cut adrift from my old life of school in rural Wales and was holding on for dear life.
A huge, insurmountable rift was building between me and my classmates who had no idea of what life as a cancer patient was like.
I underwent six sessions of chemotherapy and gradually the curse of cancer receded. My blood tests were clear and I was able to look ahead to a life that I thought had been stolen from me. So why did that thought fill me with fear?
Going back to school was now a very real prospect. A date was set. Teachers came to visit me to discuss what I’d need as support from the school.
I was horrified at the thought of going into the classrooms I knew so well, but which had now changed irrevocably for me. There was life before cancer, and there was a different life after it. I had no idea how to steer my way through these new waters, and the thought was enough to make me tremble and lie awake at night, tossing and turning with worry.
Yet I had no idea how I could articulate this fear? I was meant to be on top of the world that cancer was behind me and life could return to normal.
Day after day I would sit in the school hall, being ignored by my peers, unable to take part in their teenage conversations. I was lost in purgatory – caught between trying to decipher what had happened to me and trying to pretend I was fine.
If I had been teased and alienated before cancer, it was worse now. Everything I did seemed to draw attention to me. My wig, and then my short hairstyle. How pale my skin was. How my parents were so protective of me, not allowing me to go out on the weekend. I was raising money for charity and speaking to the media about my experiences.
None of this made for an easy school life. My ‘friends’ would whisper about me as I passed them in the corridor. Sometimes they would point-blank ignore me. Boys would shout names after me as I hurried down the street. I was already a shy and studious pupil, but this all made me even more withdrawn and focused on school work.
My teenage diaries are full of entries urging me to love myself and be my own best friend. Mature and touching words, but at the same time heartbreaking when I reread them. Page after page I poured my pain onto the paper, words which I could never frame into sentences to come out of my mouth. At night I would hold my pillow and allow hot, silent tears to melt into the cotton. Other than my parents, I felt I didn’t have a friend in the world.
It doesn’t make the pain any less, but I will be eternally grateful for the strength I garnered during those days. I raised thousands of pounds for charity, achieved good exam results and grew into a healthy and intelligent adult. I can’t look back with joy at these memories, but I have gained clarity and insight from them.
Raising money for charity was something which lit a lifelong fire of desire in me. As soon as I was well after cancer, my parents and I organised two sponsored cycle rides to raise money for the hospital where I was treated.
It felt unbelievable to be able to thank the hospital in this way. We raised an amazing £8,000.
It felt like I was part of something bigger than me, bigger than cancer, bigger than my community; the potential of humanity when we come together with a common goal to help others.
While my friends were shopping on Saturday afternoons, I was counting sponsorship money. It was lonely, but it was my purpose in the confused world after cancer.
Yes, I am an outsider, but I would not change it for the world. Being true to myself and living on purpose is worth far more to me than sacrificing my essence to fit in at school. I am sensitive and I am an introvert but those are blessings and facets of myself that I am grateful for everyday.
Llinos Mai Thomas is a writer, speaker and charity fundraiser who lives in Cardiff, UK. She is a creative soul who loves reading and history. She shares her health journey at www.inspirationafterillness.com You can buy Llinos’s book by clicking on the image.