Life becomes very simple when the consultant says you have breast cancer and he doesn't know the prognosis. All other concerns become irrelevant - in the way the horizons narrow in late pregnancy or during a newborn baby's early weeks. Six years ago I found a lump in my left breast. After two mammograms proved inconclusive, I had a needle biopsy and cancer was diagnosed. Within a few weeks I was admitted to hospital for an operation to remove the lump and lymph glands.
Doctors told me the cancer was aggressive but had been caught early. With treatment, I had an 80 per cent chance of being alive in 10 years' time; without it, I might have been dead within six months.
I spent the next few months in a state of emotional shock and physical exhaustion. My children were then aged eight and 12; my greatest fear was that I might die before they grew up. In the middle of this emotional turmoil, I still had to go shopping, keep the house clean and the children occupied. During their summer holidays, I was having radiotherapy daily.
Tying up loose ends became important. I reread my will and sorted out all my possessions: the dustbin overflowed while bundles of clothes went to the local charity shop. If secondaries developed, I knew I would never have the energy to clear things out and I didn't want to leave it to my husband and children. Their lives would be stressful enough with me gone.
I also felt my family should become more competent: over the next few months they were taught to cook, operate the washing machine and sew on their own buttons.
A year passed and I was still alive. I began to accept that every minor twinge might not, after all, be galloping bone secondaries. I no longer felt frozen, as though my blood had retreated from fingers and toes just to keep the vital organs working. My energies were no longer totally occupied with keeping the house and family going, when all I wanted to do was crawl under the duvet. Slowly, I began to reclaim life.
But I still felt terrified about how much time I might have left. Most Western women in their late forties can assume they have at least 20 years of active life ahead of them: not me.
I was no longer prepared to postpone things: tomorrow might not come. I started having piano lessons instead of waiting until the children had left home and we could afford it.
After a year I tried to stop thinking obsessively about cancer. Everyone, including my nearest and dearest, assumed that I was back to "normal". But I wasn't and I never could be again.
Hanging on to friends in a crisis is quite a skill; of necessity you become more self-centred. I was given such wonderful support that life continued with the bonus of knowing how much they cared about me.
One often reads articles by magnificent, upbeat women who say how a diagnosis of cancer taught them to appreciate life and take nothing for granted. For me, the knowledge that I might be doing something for the last time caused stress rather than pleasure. My daughter's ninth birthday party, for example, had to be absolutely perfect - in case it was the last one I gave her.
Some survivors become tireless campaigners for cancer charities. I have raised money for the hospital that treated me and joined the protest march when it was threatened with closure. But cancer hasn't given me a personality transplant. I will never be a dynamic committee woman or a crusader.
I have, though, become a resource for other people - a name that friends can give to others who have been recently diagnosed. I also find it easier than in the past to spend time with the elderly, the ill. I know what it's like to feel there may not be much time left, to feel endlessly exhausted, to feel cut off from everyone else, with their busy lives and plans for the future.
Having cancer intensifies the normal mid-life crisis, the question of what is left undone. I had to abandon cherished dreams, to face the fact that I would never be a world-famous novelist. Instead I started to focus on dreams that might still be realised: learning to speak German, to use a computer, starting to write.
Six years later, I still return to the hospital each year for a check- up. As time passes, and the chances of survival become greater, I feel able to "let go" of my cancer; it no longer dominates my life.
At the back of my mind, though, there is always the knowledge that it could return. However busy I am, I always try to answer my children's questions fully - I know that I might not have another chance.
Having cancer has changed my life: it's much fuller and happier than before. Nowadays I don't mind going grey. I'm just grateful to be alive.Reuse content