Storying Sheffield

An Interview with Rachel Burton

You can read Rachel’s poem ‘Intersection’ here


What does it feel like to hear the news that you have cancer?

Getting the news is a physiological and psychological shockwave. The body reacts in the same way that it does when we’re faced with something terrifying. My ears were ringing, my heart pounding, my palms were sweaty, my brain was scrambled, unable to form thoughts properly. You know the nightmares that jolt you into consciousness when they become too unbearable to continue? That feeling of overwhelm and figuring out where you are in time and space. It’s all very disorienting.

I think the waiting beforehand is almost worse than getting the news. We were like caged wild animals in the hours before the appointment. There’s an anxiety that can threaten to consume you. The type of anxiety that made me pace endlessly, as if my body needed to dull the edges with the steady grind of putting one step in front of the other.

How did your life change in the hours that followed the news?

As we drove back home we called my husband’s family. We had had an insanely difficult year in 2019 and when we delivered this piece of news it was like Thor’s hammer pounding down. They were in disbelief that anything more could go wrong for us. Jason’s stepmother was in the background of the call to his Dad and all we could hear was her saying, “OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD”. Like she was yelling at the universe on our behalf.

After a few calls I realized that everyone had responded exactly as I would have predicted. It’s like their whole personality was condensed into their reaction.

Thankfully, our ten year old daughter had just left for the UK to spend six weeks with my parents. I was less worried about breaking the news to her than I was my Mum. I knew she would fall apart, I mean who wouldn’t hearing your kid has cancer? Whereas kids don’t have the narrative we have around cancer, they’re going to respond based on how we respond. I waited 26 hours before I had the mental strength to make that call.

How did you manage the fear the diagnosis must have brought about?

I compartmentalized the information for the most part. But I had lived through a couple of significantly traumatic experiences before my diagnosis and they had taught me some valuable strategies.

The most helpful thing I remembered was that it takes around 30 seconds for the physiological impact to work through the body. Once that’s flushed through your system it is possible to regain control of your body and attempt to engage your brain more logically. I got pretty good at letting the fear wash through me, just observing it rather than responding to it with a tornado of fear-based thoughts. Overriding your fear response is something Marine’s and other military elite are trained to do, we could all use that kind of training when faced with a crisis.

I also monitored my thoughts diligently when I was receiving difficult news. I knew that bad news was going to be exacerbated, or soothed by my own imagination.

The other piece that was really key for me was I didn’t google anything. But I was also incredibly lucky that I had an outstanding medical team. I didn’t feel the need to check every piece of advice. I can’t imagine going through something like this if you don’t like your doctor, or have any faith in their ability.