I had never really felt vulnerable until I had chemotherapy for 6 months at age 53. I had done years of personal psychotherapy, qualified as a psychotherapist, studied Buddhism, been married for 30 years, raised two adult daughters and trained as a yoga teacher. I had also experienced the surprise of initiating couples counseling for my husband and I and discovering, with horror, the large part I had been playing in the decline of our relationship!
However, none of this prepared me for the vulnerability I felt at my total inability to cope with life during chemotherapy. I had always been “someone who coped”. I’m sure I had learned to put vulnerable feelings aside from an early age. Being raised as a white child in Africa, the youngest of 4 with an alcoholic mother – taught me to be tough and being knowledgeable and funny were my defence mechanisms. I was even “coping” when I had the large, fast growing malignant tumour cut out of my left breast.
So when I came home from my first chemotherapy infusion to vomit for 9 hours and not be able to eat for 4 days – I began to feel my vulnerability. The anti nausea meds were changed and I only vomited for 4 hours after the next dose of chemo 3 weeks later. However, I wasn’t “coping”. I couldn’t shop, or work or think or cook or care for my home and family. I could lie on the couch, in the winter sun and rest while my wonderful husband (the one I carted off to couples counselling so he could see his erroneous ways), and my children took care of me, the house, the dog, the cat and life. This went on for 6 months and the last three months were worse as I had the “red” chemo mixture – the one that rots your nails and numbs your toes and fingertips. This was followed by 6 weeks of radiation where I showed my burnt and bleeding breast to the doctors, sure that they would postpone the treatment, to be put straight back under the machine and cooked some more.
I think it was the fear of the cancer – my fear of a slow death - that robbed me of my will and decision making ability as I took my place on the conveyor belt of breast cancer treatments.
I felt powerless and vulnerable as I succumbed to treatment after treatment
I would feel slightly stronger and less bewildered at the end of week three, to be told that I had enough blood cells to undergo another dose which would annihilate me again. It was a nightmare of a time during which I was forced to allow others to care for me. Eventually I came to need and crave their care and support, and I realised how much I needed it and the tenderness, generosity and love with which it was given. I think that this high degree of vulnerability allowed me to open to the love that was and had always been on offer, and had I not been that vulnerable I might never have given myself permission to feel and receive it. Being able to be this vulnerable and receive loving support has resulted in more trust between all of us in my immediate family and in a much deeper level of intimacy between my husband and I.
My close friendships have also moved to a deeper level of intimacy and connection, all of which brings more joy and satisfaction to my relationships.
So now, 7 years later, even though I have never felt quite as strong and well as I did before chemo, I am grateful for this experience as the vulnerability I felt opened me to a tenderness and need within myself that I might otherwise never have felt.
Being able to feel this tenderness has allowed me to be much more gentle and loving with myself and others, which has made my relationships and friendships more open and loving.
I no longer have to make effort to show the world how capable, clever and funny I am – I can just be ordinary and vulnerable when I need to. It is wonderful to allow people in to help me when I need help and to just allow closeness and connection without the need to protect myself.
My “dreadful” experience of chemotherapy has left me with a gratitude I never thought I would feel.
Hear more from Jean Gamble on her experience with Breast Cancer in an interview with her daughter Jessica Gamble >> View Video Interview
(First Published 2015: Women in Livingness Edition #1: Breast Care)