A few months ago, I was planning a family holiday when I asked my daughter if we could just hang fire on making the booking, because I had some medical tests coming up.
‘I’m sure it will be absolutely fine,’ I told her breezily. ‘But I’d rather be certain before I shell out on the deposit.’
The tests came and went; the results were good. ‘We can book the holiday now, Catriona,’ I told her. ‘I had my breast scan and it was all fine.’
Seizing the day: Joanna Moorhead with her daughters, from left, Rosie, Miranda, Catriona and Elinor
‘Oh Mum! It was just your breasts,’ she laughed. ‘I’ve been so worried. I thought you might have something really serious like ebola!’
Urm . . . ebola? I’ve not been to Africa for years, and I’ve not had so much as a sniffle for months. On the other hand, I did have breast cancer last year.
That’s right: breast cancer. The two words that strike terror into the hearts of most women – but my children saw as nothing more alarming than a sore throat. And that’s how I want it.
When cancer hits, people cope in different ways. And looking back, I can see that I coped by going into complete denial; and in denial is, largely, where I have stayed. As far as I could, I never allowed cancer to penetrate my thoughts, my sense of wellbeing, my happiness.
It’s because of my unwavering denial that my four daughters, aged between 13 and 23, still don’t see my cancer as a big, bad wolf they need to fear.
I remember soon after my initial diagnosis, sitting in the waiting room at my surgeon’s clinic. I suddenly thought there was nothing to be afraid of, because she was going to tell me what I already knew, which was that I didn’t have cancer at all!
I was so certain this was going to happen that I was stunned when she had to start from square one and explain yet again that, yes, this really was an invasive malignant tumour, and it really did have to be dealt with. But even after this long and detailed explanation, I just couldn’t let myself quite believe it.
Joanna with her daughters, from left, Rosie, seven, Miranda, 10 months and Rosie, five. Joanna was in denial about her breast cancer and found that if she behaved as if she wasn’t ill, others would follow her lead
So does being in denial help or hinder when you’re on what some people call ‘the cancer pathway’? Maybe it’s all a case of working out what approach is right for you, but I know that, in my own situation, denial has served me well.
Admittedly, though, this was only made possible by the fact that my treatment – three operations and five weeks of radiotherapy – was completed without needing even a paracetamol for pain relief.
Of course, pretending you haven’t got cancer would be virtually impossible if you’re in pain or your life is changed or compromised by it, but I had a tumour in my breast that never hurt. I was also lucky not to need chemotherapy or any other debilitating treatment.
And I wasn’t affected, either, by the anaesthetics – after one of my operations I got the bus home, and after another I went out to supper with one of my daughters.
By the end of 2016, more than 1,000 people a day will be diagnosed with cancer in the UK, say Macmillan Cancer Research
I had my treatment in a Central London hospital – and I found having to make a trip into town each day rather energising. Normally I work from home in South London, so I don’t usually commute. And I was able to take advantage of the shops, which also helped to ‘normalise’ my life. And then the worries about how much I’d spent gave me something else to focus on.
Denying I really had cancer worked for me in other ways, too. One was that I realised how much the people around you take their cue from you. So if you don’t behave as though you’re ill, or if your starting point is that your medical condition is really just a blip, that’s what others around you will think, too.
So it’s not really surprising that Catriona thought I had ebola, because she never really thought that I had breast cancer – none of my four daughters did.
Or at least, it’s like this: intellectually they know I had a tumour. But I didn’t have ‘proper’ cancer. I didn’t lose my hair or anything. And, like me, they know the tumour is gone.
If you’d have told me all this was going to happen to me, I’d have thought I’d be terrified about what might be ahead. In fact, I hardly think about it. My biggest worry is remembering to take my daily Tamoxifen tablet, which is meant to reduce the risk of me getting breast cancer again.
Joanna finds taking a tablet which reduces the risk of her getting cancer again is the only reminder of cancer
In fact, taking my tablet is the only ‘real’ reminder of what’s happened, because I have no physical scarring. I chose a lumpectomy, rather than a mastectomy, reluctant to go through such invasive surgery. When I look in the mirror, I still see the same me, the same body that carried four children, the same affects of middle-age. I don’t look and see cancer.
Denial helps, too, with the side-effects of Tamoxifen. I’m pretty sure I do have some side-effects, like occasional hot flushes, but I don’t think about them. The fundamental lesson from my ‘brush’ with cancer is this: there’s no point in messing up your time on earth by worrying about things that might never happen.
So yes, I will grudgingly admit that somewhere in my head I know having had cancer means I’m more likely to get it again, and that next time it might not be as easy to fix. But in my heart what I know is that I have to enjoy every single day. I have to seize opportunities and run with them. Letting fear of cancer crowd into my mind would limit my ability to do those things.
Joanna likes that her daughters don’t worry about her cancer, because she downplayed its effects so much
It’s not that I in any way deny death: one day, the worst will happen. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy the moment.
Anyway, the big plus about being in denial, and the fact that others around you are infected by that denial, is that when the intensive treatment is over and you’re trying to return to normal life, everyone around you is ready for normality, too. Today, friends just very occasionally talk about my ‘scare’ or ‘that little brush with cancer’. But that’s as far as I’ll allow anyone to go.
Instead of thinking of what might have been, or what might be, I’ve chosen to focus on staying fit, on drinking less alcohol and on exercising more.
When I was visiting my oncologist she had to remind me that she needed me to lie down on her bed so she could do an examination. I’d almost forgotten what we were there for – I thought we were having a chat
I don’t feel like a cancer survivor and I’ve never felt like a patient. Once when I was visiting my oncologist she had to remind me that she needed me to lie down on her bed so she could do an examination. I’d almost forgotten what we were there for – I thought we were having a chat.
So what do psychologists make of an approach like mine? Dr Lynn Dunwoody, a psychologist at Ulster University who researches how cancer patients cope with their diagnosis, treatment and the aftermath, points out that it’s crucial people don’t deny symptoms. No one should ignore their body telling them something might be wrong.
I certainly didn’t do that. In fact, the first inkling of a problem sent me scurrying to my GP. Dr Dunwoody tells me that what I’m performing is more an act of control than denial – or specifically, it is about not allowing cancer to be in control. ‘What it’s about is not being helpless in the face of cancer. It’s more about trying to brush the disease aside and feeling you can beat it,’ she says.
Dr Dunwoody talks, too, about ‘adversarial growth’ which means reaping positive benefits in your life from a cancer experience.
This I can identify with. It’s not that my whole life has completely changed, but what I did become aware of was that there is joy to be had in each day – and I resolved to find that joy and embrace it. I was lucky, because I had people around me who helped me find that joy, and who keep on helping me find it.
There are two ways of dealing with getting through cancer: you can feel unlucky because you got it in the first place, or you can feel lucky because you came through it. And I don’t think I need to tell you where I stand on that one.