As many of my friends head back to university this week, I reflect on life before cancer. A life where I was just Emma, not Emma with cancer.
The other night I had a little cry to Serge. I was upset because I felt that there are people in our life that know only one side of me – the side that has dominated the last 18 months of life.
I forget what it is like to have people ask what I studied, where I worked, what my career aspirations were. Yes, all these I speak of in the past tense because the reality is that, unless a miracle occurs, these are indeed memories and dreams that were pre-cancer.
Unlike many people my age, I had an extremely clear plan for my life, a plan that was well and truly in the making. One thing that hasn’t changed since cancer, has been my passion for helping others – I wanted to change the world.
I went to university to study International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies and dreamt of working overseas, on the ground, with those most in need. And, this dream came true when I moved to East Timor straight out of university (I literally flew out the evening of my graduation) to work in a rehabilitation centre for people with physical disabilities.
I loved my time in East Timor, but it was a year of lessons and a year spent finding myself and realising what I wanted to do with my life. It did not take long for me to realise that I needed to come home and study Occupational Therapy… unfortunately I came home to a cancer diagnosis instead.
Since that diagnosis, it is like the old me has been forgotten. If I bump into someone that I haven’t seen in years, people avoid talking about life before cancer. It may be in fear of upsetting me, which I completely understand, or people’s inability to separate my unfortunate reality from the person they once knew.
For people that I have met since being diagnosed, they only know me as the Emma who has cancer and shares her life with the public through Dear Melanoma. Dear Melanoma has given me so much strength, but with it comes the very fine line between sharing my life, but also having privacy and time as just Emma.
It would be wrong of me to say that I don’t have a role to play in this dilemma. There is a definite part of me that avoids conversation these days. I have gone from being a social butterfly, to someone that fears being around people outside my immediate family and my best friends. I have never been so scared of being asked one simple question, ‘how are you?’. I can never tell if someone is just asking in general, or if that they are asking the long drawn out ‘how are you?’ where they are most definitely trying to find out what is the go with the cancer. I fear social events where I know I will be surrounded by people enjoying studying, graduating, people starting new jobs, new marriages, new babies – Not only is it a reminder of what I am missing, but I feel that I have nothing to offer. When someone says ‘what are you up to?’ I often feel that I don’t have anything to update them on (which deep down I know is absolute rubbish, lets be honest I am busier than most!), so I sit there very tempted to shout at the person pushing the conversation, ‘I am dying of cancer, that is what I am up to!’…. that would be very inappropriate of me though haha.
It is interesting, because as I am writing this blog and contemplate life as just Emma, I honestly don’t know how I feel about that. The last 18 months have been in some ways amazing, it has revived my love for community service, education and I have developed a new love for writing. If my cancer disappeared tomorrow, you probably wouldn’t be able to get rid of me and Dear Melanoma – I would probably choose to make this my life’s work.
So, like anything in life, I need to learn to balance time as Emma, cancer patient and advocate, with the Emma that has been here the last 23 years.
A month ago I took the first step to having something that was just for me and had nothing to do with cancer. I decided to approach the owner of my favourite gift shop for some work. I wanted to spend one day a week surrounded by people who have no idea who I am, and no idea that I have terminal cancer. On the whole, this has worked perfectly. There are a few of you in the Dear Melanoma community that have stumbled upon my secret hideout (feeling a little famous right now! haha), so shhhh, don’t tell anyone.
I love sharing my life with you all and feel the love radiate every time I post something on the blog or facebook page. I love what my life has become since cancer. I love that I feel like I am making a difference to people’s lives and raising awareness for melanoma. But, there is definitely more to me than cancer.
For my friends and family, don’t forget who I was and still am.