The dread

Quite often I feel it’s a small miracle to have survived cancer. At the same time, there is a surreal edge to it as if I can’t quite believe I was placed in this situation. I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but sometimes I think I only have to wake up, or give a vigorous shake of the head, to find it was all a dream.

The sense of the surreal is compounded when I meet people who haven’t seen me since before all of this happened, as is the case with some this week. Almost invariably they give me a searching look examining me for scars and signs of my illness, before proclaiming that I don’t look too bad, and, better than they thought.

I smile at that and agree, there’s been a great improvement, much more than I thought likely. Still, the signs are clear to see.

The other night I got a message from an ex-colleague who had only just discovered my situation. He was shocked and sympathetic, as you would expect, and asked what happened. I stared at the screen of my phone and wondered how I could possibly answer in a couple of sentences. In the end, I gave him a few laconic cliches. That’s what they’re there for.

Having survived for over a year since surgery I can now discern separate stages of the process.

Initially, it’s all fear and uncertainty. The word cancer by itself is enough to conjure up a sense of utter dread. You don’t know if you’ll survive and the thought of an abrupt – or drawn out – ending is terrifying. For me, there were all sorts of existential pangs that went with that. I felt bruised and sorry at the thought that I might die unfulfilled. More immediately, I had to deal with surgery and treatment and that was confronting – though I clung to it like a man marooned clings to a liferaft.

Then comes the stage of treatment. Surgery has utterly drained you. You feel feeble and weak. You can barely eat. Walking is difficult. The day is a dull and repetitive routine starting with the ambulance picking you up to take you to the hospital. You stare out the window. You do your treatment – radiotherapy mostly, but chemo occasionally. You go home to sit in the corner or lie down, and do it all again tomorrow. Quite often, you feel dreadful.

The prevailing memory of that time is of enduring. I hated it, but I knew it might save my life. I counted down the days and was tempted to take a day off here and there, but I refused that. I had to stay the course. Head down, do it. I don’t recall much emotion. Perhaps I was too exhausted for it, but I think the truth is that it gets push aside. You have no time for it, no energy, and there’s no point to it. All of your being is focussed on getting through to the other side.

Then it’s past and you’re on the long, slow recovery. I was so weak. Eating remained an issue. I had lost so much weight, and I lost more. It was a different mode of endurance, the focus of which was getting stronger. I set myself goals. I was positive, optimistic. Get through this and you’ll be home free. At the same time it was hard to comprehend how much I had lost.

Then you start feeling better. You put on weight. You can do more, walk further. You become more functional generally and that continues, week by week. There’s a sense of hope and belief. It will pay off in the end, you figure. You look forward to a time when you believe you might return to some semblance of regular life. The news is good about the cancer and you push on, feeling bolder and like your old self. A sense washes over you that through this you have gained wisdom.

Now I’m in the next stage, which is more difficult.

The improvement has continued, but I’m frustrated at the pace of it, and impatient to be somewhat normal again. All that you can deal with. Be patient, grasshopper.

The thing is though, you suddenly remember you’re not out of the woods. It’s as if all this time busy getting better that you’ve forgotten that the cancer can easily return. Now it comes to you.

Everytime I hear of someone with cancer, my ears prick. A friend of mine, his mum died when her cancer returned. The news of ONJ the other week was a reminder of how you’re never free of the spectre. Then, getting in the car at the airport in Coolangatta, my mate tells me he’s come from a wake – for a man who died of cancer.

The reality is that there’s a pretty good chance that cancer, in some form, will return. The doctors tell me they’ll deal with it if it comes. They seem pretty upbeat, as doctors will be, and talk about immunotherapy.

I don’t know what the odds are, but let’s say it’s 50/50 that the cancer will come back in the next five years. And let’s say my chances of surviving that are 50/50. That gives me a one in four chance of dying from it in the next 5-10 years.

All this is speculation based on numbers pulled from my head, but the logic holds if not the odds. It’s at my shoulder, and probably will be the rest of my life.

This hit me hard when I got up here. I felt different. I’d been living in my own bubble and suddenly I had moved out of it. I saw myself as others did, as someone recovering from cancer and different from everyone else. I expected, and hoped for, an opening of my mind coming up here, but didn’t expect it to be so abrupt.

I imagined the despair I would feel at the thought of having to go through all this again. It was tough the first time, but you move into action. It must be different the next time.

I wondered if this is something I should prepare myself for. Should I accept that it may come back and kill me the next time? Should I confront death – non-existence – now, while I’m still capable? Do I make my peace?

Somehow, it’s not in my nature. I know I will fight every inch of the way if comes my way again. I don’t know that I’ll ever accept it. To be honest, I don’t know that I have the strength or philosophy to deal with it now.

I can feel it though, and hate it. There’s so much I want to do, so many plans I want to make, and it horrifies me that all that may come to naught. There’s no fairness in these things, but it feels unfair.

I think I have to continue on the presumption that I have many years ahead of me. You can’t live crimped thinking it might end anytime now. The odds, in the end, favour me. All that is fine, except I can feel it there. I suspect the only way of getting past the sense of dread is to live fully and in defiance of what may be. Give it time and life will normalise. In the meantime, I’ll make my plans, and move towards the changes I think must be.

Next stage? I don’t know. Perhaps there is a blossoming.

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