There is a narcotic effect that comes with tough news.
We met during the launch of the ‘Untire’-app. What brought you there?
It was actually by chance: my dad wanted to go there but did not succeed in convincing my mother to join. She’s not the reception-visiting type, you see. He asked whether I wanted to join him, because it is an app that supports cancer patients that suffer from being fatigued. I was intrigued by the app. If so many people suffer from chronic fatigue, it is important an app like that is created to help them.
Your father told me that you would receive your last radiotherapy the next day, to treat the breast cancer that spread to your hip. So I found it remarkable that you came, and that you were so upbeat.
The main reason I was there, was my dad. And once you’re there, you may as well make sure you are having a good time. Besides, tough news has a narcotic effect: it’s like your brain can not comprehend it all at once. It works this way with me, at least. I can stay with my mind in the present, until it becomes almost absurd. When I needed to see the dentist when I was younger, I could keep that at a distance in my mind until the moment I actually sat down in the chair. But then it would hit me twice as hard. You can compare it with the greatest vacation you ever had: you push away the fact that you have to leave in three days.
Has it always been like that? Could you elaborate a bit on you background?
I come from a very warm, loving and quite traditional family. My dad always worked hard and my mother stayed at home. I have a sister who is three years younger then me, with which I always got along. I grew up in a small village in Brabant. When I was younger I loved that, it was nice and secure and we used to play outside all the time. But once I got older, I started to dislike this. It all became a bit boring, actually. When I turned 18 I started a study in law. The first year, I only partied and enjoyed my life as a student. The study itself appeared to be a bit dry in theory, so I finished it purely relying on discipline. Afterwards, I had no clue what to do. Becoming a lawyer did not interest me that much and besides that, my mother got sick. She got breast cancer, as well. I was really upset about it, she really was my tower of strength. I had never seen her that scared… This made a lasting impression on me. My life had been super secure up until that point, and now all of the sudden there was a lot going on in my private live. It took me a couple of years to reshape the fundament I had – the one I built up in my youth, when I thought I knew how everything worked – into one I could stand on from that moment on. I thought I found it back then, but to be honest, I think I only formed that fundament recently.
To really understand how everything works, you mean…
Yes, and I understand how to be at peace with it. It is really hard sometimes to distinguish between just dealing with something, and accepting something. I only found this peace recently.
Even though, you are sick now. Is it because of that you found this peace, you think?
Sometimes, it is the inevitable that gives you a feeling of reassurance. I think that every woman who has ever birthed a child, would have liked to stop at some point during the process. But that is not possible, so after this point comes a certain submission. You are able to tap into a stream of power, and go on. This feels the same. I do not have a choice. I could say ‘I don’t want this’ but by saying that, it will not go away.
When did you get ill?
I got breast cancer seven years ago. My children were only three and one year old. I perceived it as a local matter: just a couple of cells who took the wrong exit. We would throw a bomb on it, and they would be gone. But I was actually denying the seriousness of the situation. The bomb worked, by the way. I still went to work and everything was fine. I can not do that anymore, I can not say that it will be fixed easily. Because it will not.
Because you just found out that the cancer has spread..
My hip is treated, if all is well, but I suffer a lot from my lower back. That may not be a good sign. They might be able to treat it, with immunotherapy or chemo, but it will never go away.
You actually became very wise…
That’s been quite a process. Before my 21st I was young. Quite smart, but very young. My mother’s disease scared me a lot and triggered all kinds of defense mechanisms. It took me the following twenty years to understand the manual of these mechanisms. Only now the pieces of the puzzle seem to come together.
When you got breast cancer, your children were of a very young age. How is that going right now?
They are now eight years old and ten years old. They know the breast cancer returned. The youngest asked whether it can come back after this, and I answered yes. After the divorce I promised them not to tell them any lies, so I will not lie to them. But I do try to protect them from unnecessary fear. I give them a truth with which they can deal. As far as I know, the disease can go into a remission for ten years, and I don’t want to keep them at a state of awareness all these years. My kids have the same talent as I have, to live primarily in the now. Actually, they are currently more occupied with processing the divorce.
That has been two years now…
We chose for co-parenthood: a week here, a week here. So that means saying goodbye every week.
How is the contact with your ex-husband?
Good, but it is also a process. People sometimes say that our break up went so civilised, but that is of course a contradictio in terminis. Because a relationship never ends so civil, otherwise we would not have broken up. But we decided that we would remain the parents of our children together, and through this a system arises in which you can appreciate each other again and wish each other the best.
You sound like you are a very strong person, at least, well balanced. You do hear stories that the disease slows you down.
I am not so sure about that. Every notion of control is complicated. Is dairy good, or not? Do I have to eat more vegetables or drink beetlejuice from the centrifuge? And, am I really happy or just denying my disease? Let’s just take it day by day. I have moments in which I feel very bad, but after that I will feel okay again. It is impossible to just cry for a full day.
You are also still working
I have got my own company as a coach and trainer, specialised in the field of personal guidance. I decided to change course after getting sick seven years ago. I did not want to work in this harsh, corporate world anymore, where everyone leaves their personality in the parking lot. I wanted to create a safe world for people to develop themselves, to talk about what restricts them, and then find a solution together. I believe in the fact that you can get pleasure out of your work if you can play with the things that happen around you. You can admit it, if you do not know something.
But you wanted to become a veterinarian?
Yes, but that became quite impossible since I was not that good at science. When I was a kid, I took a bumblebee to the veterinarian and once, I kept a dead hedgehog in a box in the kitchen for a week because I was sure it was still alive. In animals, I see a vulnerability that is quite moving. I have a dog, two cats, a rabbit and I would love to have a potbellied pig. I considered getting a goat, but they apparently destroy everything, someone told me.
Wouldn’t you like to own a farm?
Yes, a ranch, somewhere in Texas. But I really like being a coach and I am also HR Manager. So, that’s not an option. Still, I give myself until the summer to make a decision about this. Because why wait? Maybe there is some place in the welfare of animals I can become a part of, or which I can support. Because actually, I am a little bit of a farmer inside.