My Cancer Diagnosis: Crossing a New Threshold

Where do I begin?

I’ve had conflicting thoughts about writing and sharing this post. To those who know me, this might come as a surprise. If you’ve interacted with me professionally or listened to me speak at conferences or events, you might perceive me as an extrovert, someone eager to share and bring people together. And in part, this is true. But it’s only a part of who I am.

There exists another facet of Viv Grant, a deeply introverted part of me that seeks refuge in solitude, retreating from the hustle of daily life and finding solace and comfort in my own company. This part of me shies away from social media, often overwhelmed by its cacophonous nature.

Yet, I understand that this is the world in which we all live, and it’s up to me to determine how and when I engage with social media, especially concerning matters of a deeply personal nature. So, the two sides of Viv Grant have been in dialogue with one another and just like in any healthy relationship, they have come to an agreement. The extrovert in me has agreed to share this piece but has allowed my introverted side to pen the content; that part of me that wondered and wandered (quite literally, through numerous walks during my recovery) about the nature of my cancer, its origin, and the subsequent impact on my life.

Deepening my relationship with Vulnerability

The introvert in me also wants to share this post because this is the part of me that is intimately acquainted with vulnerability. This part of me sits silently in my 1:1 coaching sessions with senior leaders, creating a safe space where they know their vulnerability is welcome and accepted, joined together in mutual respect and understanding. Knowing that whatever unfolds during our conversations will be valued, heard and listened to.

Furthermore, this part of me now knows all too well that vulnerability is something we all experience whenever a new threshold comes upon us. For those of us working in education, certain thresholds are predictable, like the start and end of each school term. However, life often surprises us with unforeseen and unplanned thresholds that can alter our lives in an instant.

An Unexpected Threshold

Such was the case for me in late August 2023, when following minor surgery for the removal of uterine polyps,  I received a call from my local hospital requesting that I attend for emergency CT & MRI scans of my abdomen and pelvis. The details as to why an administrator contacted me and not my gynaecologist are too lengthy to delve into here, but suffice it to say in August of last year, we were in the middle of the doctor’s strike, which sadly, meant that I had to resort to putting my medical report into Chat GPT to decipher my prognosis!

It turns out that I had been diagnosed with a rare form of Uterine Cancer. I later found out that the type of cancer that I had occurs more often in women of colour. This seemed to be of little relevance to my medical team. But it mattered to me. A lot! I have written elsewhere about my own experience of racism. And there may be some of you reading this who have read books such as “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk or “My Grandmother’s Hands” By Resmaa Menakem, who will therefore know that there is such a thing as generational trauma and that the body does indeed keep the score! I am still working through my feelings around the dismissal of this fact and how I believe it shaped a non-holistic approach by my medical team to my cancer treatment.

Suffice it to say though, at this moment in time, this particular part of my cancer journey has served to strengthen my resolve to do all that I can to ensure our schools are places of safety for all children and people of colour. Racism wounds. It injures and it hurts. It is beholden onto all of us as educators to do our level best to ensure that racism’s wounds do not manifest in later life as illness or sickness for the children and adults of colour in our schools. We all need to thrive, and we all need to play our part in creating a world that is fair, equal and just for all.

A great complexity of emotion

Upon my diagnosis, I felt like I was living someone else’s life, half-expecting a call to tell me they’d confused my patient records.

However, as one doctor’s appointment led to another, followed by referrals and visits to the Royal Marsden (the leading cancer hospital in London), the reality set in. No mistake had been made; it was indeed me, Viv Grant who had Uterine Serous Carcinoma, and it was I who needed a hysterectomy and possibly additional treatment to prevent a recurrence.

The late Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue said that when we stand at a threshold, “A great complexity of emotion comes alive.” This was indeed true for me. I experienced sadness, confusion, fear, and a whole range of other emotions in between.

As I gradually came to terms with the truth of my situation, I knew that the question I needed to grapple with upon encountering this unexpected threshold was not just “What do I need to do?” Yes, research and seeking information about my specific cancer were necessary. Still, an equally, if not more crucial, question emerged – a question I’ve often posed to Headteachers facing crises: “Who do I need to be?”

Finding an answer

Once again, the writings of John O’Donohue helped me find an answer to this question. In his Blessing “For a Friend, on the arrival of illness”, he writes,

“May you find in yourself

A courageous hospitality

Towards what is difficult,

Painful and unknown.”

“How do I summon a courageous hospitality towards a cancer diagnosis? How do I extend a courageous hospitality to a body now marked by major surgery? How do I offer such hospitality to the wounds, hurts, and confusion that envelop me on almost every level?” For a while, these questions circled around in my head. My instinctive response was to rely on my intellect to accumulate knowledge about my diagnosis and take action. However, something on the fringes of my awareness whispered, “Viv, thinking, reading, and researching alone won’t carry you through this.”

I now recognise that whisper, that gentle nudge at the edge of my consciousness, as the voice of my soul. It wasn’t until I quieted the voice of my ego – the fear, the worries, the “what ifs” – that I formed a deeper connection with myself and found answers through silence and a huge amount of self-compassion. I needed to let go, if only momentarily, of my role as Viv Grant, Director of Integrity Coaching. I needed to cry, or rather, to sob! I needed to withdraw from the world. I needed to embrace the winter of my life and explore the elemental nature of my being. I needed to embrace vulnerability and confront the darkness and its accompanying shadows.

Have I crossed the Threshold?

My cancer treatment has now come to an end. But because of the type of cancer, I will now be closely monitored by the NHS for the next five years. And so… I am still processing. I am still journeying. I plan to share the lessons I have learned thus far in further blog posts over the coming weeks.

And so, I now sit with another question. “Have I crossed the threshold into a new life and way of being?” If I have, I know that the ground beneath me still feels a little unsure. Life after cancer is another threshold to be crossed. Like a child learning to walk, at times, my feet feel a little unsteady. I feel as though I am having to learn one day, one step at a time, how to navigate this new landscape, how to be myself in the world when the world may not necessarily have changed, but I have.  A cancer diagnosis changes you. It changes your perspective on life, and as I have already said, it invites a much deeper relationship with the fragility of human life and our own vulnerability.

And so, as I learn to find my feet again, I am taking with me the words of the late fellow cancer traveller, coach, and author Sophie Sabbage:

“I am letting cancer awaken, heal and transform my mind and spirit. I am more, not less, of myself because of it.”

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