The beautiful thing about having cancer, probably the only beautiful thing about having cancer is that it opens your eyes, wide, to life and all it’s possibilities and meanings – things that we as humans spend a lot of our time searching for. The “What the fuck’s this all about?” conundrum that is life. Especially life when you’re in your mid 20s and things have gone, er, slightly off track shall we say. Let’s be honest, your twenties are quite a confusing time as it is. Will I ever be successful? What even is success? What does success mean to me? If I just drink green juices for 3 days will I be that thin, successful person I keep seeing on instagram? Shall I just fuck this whole career thing off and go travelling? Work or play work or play? Am I drinking too much? Is it acceptable to call a pizza delivery service at 11am when they have literally just opened because I’m too hungover to move? Why am I drinking so much? Is there some deeper meaning to life that I’m just not getting? Do you think I’m infertile? Fuck what if I’m infertile and can’t have kids? Do I even want kids anyway? Is that selfish of me? Jesus, am I living in a city full of selfish wankers who just want to make money? Surely there’s more to life than this? Ahhh, fuck this, shall I just go to the bar and order another drink? Up until about 4 months ago this was pretty much my internal monologue, day in day out, night out after night out. Searching, endlessly for meaning, understanding and something I could grasp onto and hold tightly in my mitt.
Then life decided to throw cancer at me. A fast moving, aggressive cancer at that. Or as my consultant put it in my diagnosis report “In a nutshell this is the description of very advanced Hodgkin’s disease with extensive lymphadenopathy above and below the diaphragm and clear evidence of skeletal, splenic, pericardial and pulmonary involvement. It is many years since I have encountered a patient presenting such advanced features.” WOW – hold on a minute Doc. Advanced? Advanced features? Two months ago I was at a festival dancing like a twat with people I’d just met, glitter smeared all over my face. Fast forward 2 months and I’m lying in a hospital bed, a stone and a half lighter with stage 4 “advanced” cancer.
At the start of this journey, or race out of hell as I’d like to rename it, my body went into survival mode. Medical jargon and new information was hurled at me 100 miles an hour leaving no time for me to fully comprehend my situation. My body slowly started to shut down on me, my periods stopped, I slept constantly and my brain, the little fucking genius that it is, stopped processing information that was going to cause me too much stress or anxiety. Believe it or not, I hadn’t really grasped the idea that I had cancer and what this truly meant, the gravitas of the situation, or put quite simply, the fact that I was dying. The fact that if I hadn’t have gone to the doctors when I did, if I hadn’t been diagnosed when I was, I would have probably died, and pretty fucking quickly at that. Instead, I went into survival mode, flight or fight, and fight I bloody did.
When you get cancer no one likes to talk about the D word. I haven’t discussed it with anyone, my friends, my family, even my nurses or consultant. It’s a hushed up topic, almost as if talking about death will some how mean that you will do just that and die from this awful disease. I know of course this is to protect me but also, I hope, because I have a “good” cancer, a cancer with a 90% curability rate. In other words; I am a lucky one, I am going to live. The only person who did mention it to me, was one of my chemo friends Mary. She is a hilarious old lady, with a thick Somerset accent and honest, no nonsense nature to match. She was having treatment on my first chemo session and a few cycles later I bumped into her on the ward again. She asked me how I was getting on and I told her much better. She agreed “If I’m honest, the last time I saw you I thought you were a goner”. Cheers Mary, just trying my best to keep my chin up.
So finally, after a pretty delayed response to it all, almost post traumatic stress like, it has finally dawned on me in the last few weeks, in all it’s stark, black and white glory. Life and death. And death has been following me around quite a bit since. I keep thinking about it, all the time. It cannot seem to escape my thoughts. I’ve even googled “How do you die from cancer?”, trust the guardian to have written a helpful little article all about this. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/17/how-do-people-die-from-cancer-google
This was all part of the healing process for me, acceptance of my current state and facing my fear of death. After a week or so of playing the death card over and over again in my mind, I took a trip to Glastonbury Tor. Legend has it that the Tor is the gateway to the land of the dead, Avalon or Annwn in Celtic mythology. A world of delights and eternal youth where disease is absent and food ever-abundant. Standing there, at the top of the Tor, looking across the beautiful rolling hills of Somerset and beyond, my birth place, I suddenly found a sense of peace and calm settling in me. I’m not ready for you, seriously, death mate, not now, not until I am old and grey and frail. Who knows if we can actually sense our own, eminent death or not but standing there that day I just knew that now is not my time. It has helped me mentally so much to have faced this fear. I feel like I have made a break through and much of my anxiety has since dissipated, allowing me to focus all my energy on healing. Of course we all have an understanding of death, and normally by 28 most of us have, unfortunately experienced a loved one who has died. But when you yourself are faced with your own death you’re understanding of what it means reaches a big much deeper level. For once I am unable to put this into words, it is rather more a feeling, a sense of something much greater than you, a spiritual awakening perhaps. With all this comes questions but also acceptance and peace. An unbuttoning of control, a loosening of desire and drive, a mellowing of the need to know one’s future destiny, living instead in the moment. This is what it must feel like to be truly free.
“Let’s get mortal” (aka horrifically drunk) and “I feel like death” (when describing a hangover from hell) use to be some of most used and loved catch phrases back when I was well. Oh the irony I hear you cry, Oh the Irony! Another of life’s little cruel jokes. I vow never to use them again. And of course my previous internal monologue also feels completely insignificant now too. The pressure I put on myself to have a successful career, the perfect weight and size 8 body, to be rich, whilst trying desperately (as much as I hate to admit it) to be cool and “on trend” is slowly starting to cease, because let’s face it, when you’re lying on your death bed no one, including yourself, really gives a fuck about all that.