Hazel McHaffie

Experience and empathy

They say no experience is wasted on a writer, and there’s certainly an element of truth in this. But as a writer, it’s important to recognise that reaction to events and happenings varies hugely, a universal response should not be assumed (goodness, I sound positively Jane Austen-y!!).

I’ve been very conscious of that reality this year. Let me explain.

In June I was told I had cancer.  Hmmm.I needed immediate treatment. OK.
The tumour was removed within twenty-four hours of diagnosis. Wow! Impressive or what?
The Director in charge of the whole department rang himself to give me the results and talk me through the proposed action and answer my questions. Hello?! I’m even more impressed. What did I do to deserve this?
I was given a number to ring any time. Is this really the cash-strapped, people-poor NHS?
A wonderfully warm, secure and seamless blanket of care, kindness and support, was thrown around me by a dedicated and highly skilled multidisciplinary team of professionals. There are no words to do justice to the fantastic, way-beyond-the-call-of-duty service I received.

A couple of times I did protest mildly that my circumstances didn’t warrant such a massive response; I was fine with this. My protestations were politely but firmly quashed. I was assured my circumstances – and I – did justify all this expertise and compassion. Why? Because apparently the majority of people are shocked and traumatised by this particular diagnosis. They need kid-glove treatment. So the team routinely start from that base line.

Why then am I different? It’s not an act. It’s not bravery. Not even a consequence of my faith. Nor does it stem from naivety. Two of my brothers have had cancer and been through much worse times than me; bearing the scars and after-effects still today years later. Two of my sisters-in-law sadly could not be saved and I watched their terminal decline with enormous sadness. Over the years many dear friends with cancer have suffered, died, some shockingly young, leaving children behind. And in my professional life as a health care professional I’ve seen up close and personal, enormous grief, loss and pain attached to experience of this disease.

OK, I may be calm about this diagnosis for myself, but I’m pretty sure that I’d have been far more traumatised if it had related to my children or grandchildren – young, with their lives ahead of them. I’ve had a brilliant innings, beyond the biblical allotted span. Even if this thing has already done its insidious evil work and will eventually beat me, I can’t complain. So I’ve been somewhat bemused by all the messages of concern and comfort and reassurance sent to me during and since my two surgeries.  However, they tell me a lot about the fear this illness engenders even today when medical advances have changed the prognoses in many types of malignancy dramatically. Now that I’m back on my feet readjusting to life, I get exclamations – almost accusations! – of doubt as to the genuineness of my energy and normality. Some well-meaning people want to force me backwards into a ‘fragile invalid’ box. Clearly I don’t conform to their conceptions of a cancer patient.

Linda Gillard, who is herself an author, and who’s been a terrific support to me in that context, has made me think again, though. She had treatment for breast cancer five years ago which has left her with chronic pain and disability. It has radically affected her writing career as well as her quality of life. Indeed her whole experience has been in a different league from mine. Sharing her thoughts on social media recently, she described her reality.

I went from diagnosis to mastectomy in less than 3 weeks. 5 years on, I still haven’t made my peace with what happened, I still feel traumatised, I still don’t have my life back because cancer left me disabled with chronic pain which apparently will never go away.

This post isn’t meant to be a self-pitying whinge, it’s a plea for greater understanding of PTSD. For some people who survive cancer, that survival comes at a terrible cost and the nightmare – mainly fear of recurrence – persists long after eyelashes and pubic hair have grown back. In my case the fear was/is not of death, but of further chemotherapy (and for those who sailed through chemotherapy, well, I’m very happy for you, but you probably didn’t have breast cancer chemo, which I’m reliably informed is The Worst.)

But it was the best of times, the worst of times… I’ve never known such compassion, from my inspiring surgeon (“If you’re going to get breast cancer, this is the kind to have”), to my oncologist who seemed as dismayed as I was that my neuropathic pain wouldn’t go away, to the magnificent nurses in the Macmillan suite who – almost apologeticaly – pumped cherry-coloured poison into my veins and checked on me every few minutes to see how I was coping. (Thank you, Norma! You will have forgotten me, but I will never forget you or your professional kindness.)

Her eloquent and courageous confidences have given others permission to share their abiding worries and traumas. Which all helps me to recognise that I am the one who is most out of sync here. And it’s reinforced the importance of reading, reading, reading; listening, listening, listening some more, in order to gain real empathy with those who are challenged by the issues I explore in my books.

I was reminded in some small way of Sabine Dardenne, a twelve year old Belgian girl who was kidnapped by a psychopath and subjected to the most appalling and degrading abuse. When she was discovered after eighty days incarcerated in a filthy ‘hell hole’, everyone expected her to be severely traumatised and in need of sensitive psychiatric help. Instead all she wanted was to get back to normality.

The general view was that I was ill. I was probably in shock, but I wasn’t ill. When talking about me, people would say, ‘She’s got her feet on the ground,’ and that’s probably true. You can’t rewrite history, and I know I can never wipe out what happened, but the best medicine is just to get on with your life and sort it out yourself. At the time, no one understood that …
In fact, my parents and my sisters were the ones who needed a psychiatrist, not me: all of them ended up having years of therapy, so they were the last people I could confide in.

Sabine is one truly remarkable girl whose story (told with help from translators in I Choose to Live) makes humbling and impressive reading. I am certainly not in her league but I do understand where she’s coming from.

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