Ann Coxon was diagnosed with breast cancer in autumn 2014, the year before her young daughter was going to start school.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my first thought was whether I would live to see my (then not quite four-year-old) daughter go to school the following September.
After months of treatment over what felt like the longest ever winter and spring, and a summer of ‘phasing myself’ back into work, I did; and she did.
Autumn 2015 was the season in which I felt ‘life continues’. While my daughter adjusted to her new ‘big school’ (having moved on from the security of nursery), I was finally well enough to be back in the galleries in my job as Curator at Tate Modern, installing the joyful Alexander Calder exhibition and feeling lucky to be here and able to do so.
The school run
It’s not easy at the best of times to juggle the demands of working life with parenting a little person. Add a cancer diagnosis, treatment and all its after effects into the mix and you have a recipe for exhaustion.
Fast forward to February 2016 and I’m no longer rushing around like James Stewart’s character at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when he realises that the nightmare vision of life without him is over and all the things that used to frustrate him or wear him down seem like wonderful gifts by comparison.
For one thing, I’m still living with the fear of my cancer coming back or spreading. And then there’s the fall-out from chemotherapy. In my case, that includes eyes as dry as the Sahara desert, an inability to spring out of bed in the morning, creaky hips, hot flushes, a foggy head, and – possibly the cause of it all – a chemo-induced early menopause.
Rushing my daughter out of the door at the start of the day to begin our 15-minute walk/jog/scoot to school while juggling school book bags, water bottles, school trip forms, my own work bag, and sporting my habitual winter down-filled duvet coat, all ready to face the frosty weather, I realised I was in fact roasting hot.
The school run (which in our case is called a ‘run’ for a reason as we are always five minutes late) is an embarrassing social circumstance in which to appear flustered and dripping with sweat. As other mothers breezily arrived at the Reception classroom door, pushing buggies with months-old younger siblings in tow, it also dawned on me that I may well be the only menopausal mother at the school gate.
My advice, though I know it’s easier said than done, would be to pace yourself in a return to work.
Don’t be afraid to ask others for help (luckily I have a supportive husband) and communicate clearly with your managers at work about what you are going through (within reason!).
You are entitled to request ‘reasonable adjustments’ at work, and I would advocate doing the same at home. Bin all ambitions to be superwoman and be glad that you are simply you, albeit a slightly scarred version.
Learning to live again post-cancer diagnosis and treatment is a little like going back to one’s own anxious first days at school. Only this time, you are older, wiser, more resourceful and more fiery (in more ways than one).