‘I’m the healthiest person I know’ had always been my catch cry. Overnight that changed to ‘I never had a days sickness in my life’…up until now.
Catching the big C rocked me to my core. It's not that I thought I was impervious to cancer, it was really just that I didn’t see it as part of my life plan.
Now I look back, across the divide of what is my new normal, I realise how I was living the dream. A gorgeous family, a great career, goals, ambition, fun times and a carefree existence. Could life get better?
Suddenly, and seemingly without much fuss, the ‘pronouncement of death’ came my way. I now realise that this is pretty much business as usual given the high prevalence of breast cancer in our society. At the time the experience seemed at juxtaposition to the gravity of the situation.
I knew before they told me – the look on the sonographer’s face made me fear as much for her as for me. Luckily she dodged the bullet and the radiologist got the hit job. Reassurance that it was probably nothing and let's wait until the biopsy.
All good advice that ran off me like mercury. I understood my diagnosis at that moment in exactly the same way I knew I was pregnant all those years before even when no pink line appeared on the first test.
Waiting, waiting, the longest Easter ever and still now my most unfavourite season. New beginnings – I guess that was appropriate but I just wanted to get on with it – whatever that was.
The kids were still young so all decisions were made for me. Radical surgery – bring it on. Chemo – as much as you think I need. A Faustian deal but this time it was to sacrifice the body not the soul. Anything to buy more family time.
I’ve watched enough TV drama to feel I was across the side effects. You cry, you puke, you lose your hair, people bring you casseroles. In lots of ways, you become a better version of yourself. You certainly see things more clearly.
Overnight I learnt not to sweat the small stuff. What I didn’t know was just how scared I was going to feel.So here’s the thing – my day job is to help other people deal with their anxiety. Surely then I had all the tools to deal with this myself. Certainly had all the know-how and it didn’t help a bit. It’s a funny thing to consider that life is finite. Why had it not occurred to me that three score years and ten was really just bookies odds and not an unenviable right?
Somehow, living a good life or at least a purposeful and intentional one never seemed to have come upon any ’to-do’ list or dinner party conversation. Willfully blind or just plain stupid – definitely unconscious as the Buddhists would have it.
The nights were the worst and at my worst, I was too scared to go to sleep. La petite mort was not a petty thing. I would pace, sometimes drink wine and always would reassure myself with others optimism.
I voraciously read every book on someone else’s battle with cancer. I had found my tribe but the task was to find every reason for why my fate would not be the same as theirs.
Feeding the beast, my partner would say. How could I not? It was as though I travelled through my days with an evil twin who would not be ignored. I can honestly and I think accurately say that every moment was suffused with all things cancer.
And there is the rub. I knew this was hard on those around me who cared. The mother love came out fiercely and certainly gave me purpose and a structure. Still, I felt guilty. How had I allowed this to happen?
Definitely, there were no ‘why me’ moments. I could think of no reasons for why not…but rather something that had hurt the ones I loved so much and for which I was at the epicentre.
My mother died of cancer when I was an adult. Not a mother myself at that stage I was oblivious of the depth of emotion that accompanies that state of grace. Women are social beings and each fibre resonates with the hum of human connectedness. Getting sick, I had let down all those I loved.
The sword of Damocles.
Sitting in the sun, I opened my book. Christopher Hitchens a hero for me not only for his intellect and wit but because he sucked the marrow and made his words count. Now, his posthumously published work, Mortality spoke to my soul. If my memory serves me right, it was something like ‘how could I give up when those around me have not given up on me? These simple words have now become the very ones that I live by.