Beating bowel cancer together

Katie shares her top tips on looking after your mental health

Katie Smale, 33 from Hemel Hempstead, is wife to Dave who has stage four bowel cancer and mum to Maisie, 3. On World Mental Health Day (Thursday 10 October), she shares with us her top tips on looking after your mental health whilst caring for a loved one.

I’ve always been an avid writer of lists. In times where I’ve felt overwhelmed in life, I’ve felt comforted by the action of crossing off small achievable goals. But what happens when your list goes beyond the usual day to day matters that you used to see as boring actions? What happens when that simple list is infiltrated with scan dates and an intimidating new itinerary that you never thought you’d have in your life? 

Firstly, you crumble and then you regain control, eventually. Well, in my case, that’s what I did. I chose to power on and look for beauty and things to be thankful for.

In this blog post, I’m going to outline how I have managed to - most of the time - maintain control of my well-being and gain clarity and calm.

Disclaimer: I honestly believe it is impossible and unrealistic to float along and let the severity of cancer wash over you and it is paramount that you don’t have that expectation of yourself! However, I do believe it is possible to seek out happiness and continue living in the face of adversity.

Don’t have expectations of people!

Yes, the above notion sounds pessimistic but, it is imperative that you don’t have high expectations of how you wish others to behave towards you. People aren’t mind readers. If they were, I’d have a constant stream of people at my door dropping off luxury bath products and boxes of Ferrero Rocher.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and it’s quite unrealistic to have an agenda of how you dream of others acting. Yes, this sinister disease is paramount in your life but don’t get cross when it’s not prevalent in the lives of others. I can recall times when I knew of people around me who had family members battling this. I continued with my life and thought of them from time to time. Knowing what I now know, I feel I am perfectly equipped to support people in a beneficial way but, until you’ve gone through this, you don’t know how to help others and you wonder if your gestures will intrude and be welcome.

The most heartwarming thing is you WILL feel loved by many and there will be individuals around you who become an important part of your support network and it’s often those that you weren’t expecting. If any of those people are reading this, my pamper stash is dwindling and chocolate is in short supply in my home. Pop over whenever you fancy!

When you feel like it, make yourself heard

When my husband was in remission, before this insidious thing returned, I had a good run of therapy sessions. Initially, I thought that this was just something that people in movies experienced and I felt like I wouldn’t meet the criteria for having to seek such advice.

I couldn’t imagine myself, laid out flat on a leather couch while a stranger scribed down my inner most thoughts. The truth is, I suffered - badly - from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when my husband was declared as ‘clear’. The severity of what ‘could have been’ hit me and I felt suffocated by my own fears.

I plucked up the courage and sat in front of a smiley therapist who had a way of digging deep into my heart and alleviating fears and anxiety. This is honestly the best thing I’ve ever done! I felt light, free and, most of all, I felt like I could be the version of myself that I longed to be.

Doctor Google is not your friend!

My husband has stage four bowel cancer. If I google his diagnosis, this unhelpful search engine churns out terrifying statistics that would leave me rocking in a dark corner somewhere. Do not allow these webpages to take you down a disturbing and sinister pathway.

Remember that, the person in your life is their own individual person with their own individual diagnosis of cancer. Their prognosis and future will not exactly mirror some other completely individual person. Oh, and while I’m on this thread of thinking, steer clear of the videos on YouTube that claim that cottage cheese cures cancer! Yes, they really do exist...

Be mindful and present

I know this may sound like one of those - airy fairy quaint hippie vibes - however I cannot convey the benefits of mindfulness enough. I once read ‘if you have time to breathe, you have time to meditate’. Granted, there have been times when I’ve felt almost incapable of such a simple process and times where I’ve felt almost suffocated, but everyone can fit mindfulness into their day.

My therapist told me, when you feel yourself drifting to the past or future, you need to ‘ground’ yourself. This doesn’t mean you send yourself to your room and disallow yourself to go to the park with your mates, it means you need to, quite simply, place your feet on the ground. Stop, sit down, and push your feet into the ground. If you can do deep breathing at the same time, you’re winning.

I’ve coped with many a doctor’s waiting room just by simply ‘grounding myself’ and also by visualising a massive glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a Chinese takeaway.

Allow the tears to flow

This one was/is a real humdinger for me. In fact, my therapist said I really need to work on being vulnerable. I refrain from showing my emotions to the point where they pile up until someone opens the flood gates. 

Sometimes, a work colleague could purely say ‘morning’ while I’m at the photocopier, and all my emotions will pour out. Over time, I’ve learnt to not apologise for this as, most people wonder how I’m working anyway and, secondly, I don’t need to say sorry because I’m sad that my husband has cancer.

Let it out. Whenever, wherever and around whoever. I promise people will be more than willing to help. Admittedly, it can be rather cathartic to have a good hard cry in the shower. It sounds strange and solitary but I find it cleansing.

Plus, I get to pretend I’m the leading lady in some Hollywood blockbuster who has just experienced a tragedy. Whatever helps me get through this, right?

Make a list and put yourself right at the top!

I have to throw myself into the practicalities of life. As I said at the start of this ongoing stream of consciousness, I’m an avid writer of lists. I write down my goals, rejoice in the feeling of crossing them off and even write down and then tick off things I’ve already done.

I have a list of our dinners for the week so that I can ensure Dave is eating healthy: you know, cottage cheese casserole, cottage cheese soufflé and cottage cheese pie each night. I make a list of cleaning jobs and tasks I can do at home so that I’ve got control of our environment. I am able to control these aspects of my life but I can’t control the activity of cancer in his body. I will leave this to the professionals!

Do you know what I put at the top of that list? And this has taken time for me to perfect this...I put MYSELF at the top of that list. I care for myself, treat myself, pamper myself and give myself little rewards along the way. I plan spa breaks, nights out and times where I can momentarily escape things. I fill up a basket on ASOS and sometimes I even press ‘checkout’. I book some highlights, get eyelash extensions and have a blissful half an hour in a nail bar.

I do that face mask, wash my hair and ensure I carry out some flipping self-care because, in the words of RuPaul ‘If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love someone else?’ I need to put on my metaphorical oxygen mask before assisting others otherwise I cannot be at my best. Yep, that’s how I justify to my husband why there’s another delivery that’s turned up at our door.

I guess I should wrap this up now before it ends up as long as my dissertation. The only thing you can truly do is take one day at a time. Celebrate when you get into bed that you ‘made it’ and rejoice if you managed to even smile that day.

If all you managed to do was ‘get up, survive, go back to bed’ then that’s great too. Hold on through those tough parts and exhale deeply through the beautiful parts of normality. I promise you, no matter how broken you feel, and how much you feel like you are down on your knees, this feeling will always pass. And for me, my husband and our daughter, this too shall pass.

P.S I actually cannot stand the taste of cottage cheese!

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