April 30, 2018
“Who the hell do you think you are?
Your cancer has been eliminated and now you can just get on with it? A splash of life threatening illness to remind you of what is important, and now for happily ever after? It’s back to the fairy-tale, is it?
That’s a joke, Nicole. You are in the fairy-tale, sweetheart; thick in a fiction of charmingly unusual joy that is approximately 9.5 trillion kilometres from your reality. Get a grip. You have cancer. You will always have cancer. It was lurk in the shadows, loiter in the corner, obfuscate your future, steal your innocence, shit on your daydreams and eventually, kill you. It happens every day. Beautiful souls, tough fighters, irrepressible spirits, resilient energies, all raided and robbed and ravaged. How could you possibly conceive of an alternative? What makes you so exceptional? Who gifted you a free ride past the statistics? Where do you get the nerve?”
* * *
I present for consideration this afternoon’s internal dialogue. To be honest, it is a relief to share it with you. It was quite the dismal melancholy, attempting to process it alone.
Now, I couldn’t have predicted it was going to be a particularly bad day. My spirits were up. I had a near perfect start to my weekend – motherhood, wife-zone and friend-dom were all in immaculate shape.
This morning, Tim and I woke to Joshy’s quite insistent call: “Mumma, Mumma. Dadda, Dadda. Mummmmmmmm-ma. Dadddddddd-da”. The little man is finding new ways to charm us every day, and this daybreak summons is a particularly adorable development.
Tim delivered Josh to our bed, together with a bundle of books; before I settled in for our morning reading session, I made a dash for my morning wee.
As I stood, the pain exploded through my right side. And with it, a terrorising familiarity. I was having shoulder tip pain. Nerve pain, referred pain. Familiar, because of my experience in ICU after my liver resection. But, far more notably on this Sunday morning: familiar, because I felt the same thing just before I was diagnosed with cancer. When my swollen liver, riddled with advanced metastatic disease, was swelling in my abdomen, and pushing my organs into places they didn’t belong.
In an instant. I was ripped from my lazy Sunday morning with my boys. My cancer is back. I am dying. It is back. It will take me. I am toast. It will get me. It is back.
Sitting on the toilet, a tear ran down my cheek. And another.
I sat slumped, hugging my legs, as my logic kicked off what would turn out to be a 9-hour battle with my emotions.
“Nicole, this is not cancer. This is indigestion. This is gas. This is the beans you ate last night. Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Come on, you have got this.”
But alas, I didn’t. I didn’t have it at all. I was out of control. It didn’t matter how I tried to reason with myself. I was completely derailed.
I tried to explain it to Tim. He was tender and reasonable. He reminded me that my blood tests were clear. He reminded me that it was perhaps possible but realistically, quite unlikely to travel from remission to terminal overnight. He encouraged me to talk him through my symptoms, reminding me that I was still fresh out of surgery and needed to be vigilant and aware of post-surgical complications. And that all sounded sensible, for a moment.
I tried to explain it to my mum. She was compassionate and pragmatic. She coached me towards logic and reason, resilience and balance. She reminded me of all of the techniques I can use, have used, to great success, to pull up from such a turbulent spiral. And that was all relevant, well-intentioned and useful advice; advice that emotionally chaotic and self-sabotaging me promptly overruled.
Because, there is no doubt. There is no consideration. There is no alternative. When you are dying of cancer, you are fucking dying of cancer. It just is. This is the ground zero of mortality. When you are at the point of detonation, of expiration, of no second chances, that is all there is. And for a small part of today, my tormented mind was inconsolable: I was dying of cancer.
“You didn’t have cancer in March 2017, either, did you? Until, you did.”
And it is not enough to become convinced that death is inevitable: today’s distressed, anxiety-riddled self also became accusatory. Critical. Nasty. Who did I think I was? Flitting around town living my best life while people who I had met since my diagnosis, people who I now cared deeply about, were very, very sick. Or gone. Between today’s long stretches of fearing that death was inevitable, I felt deeply guilty for being alive.
Cancer can be a cruel companion.
* * *
I would describe this debacle as a comprehensive erosion of my resilience and grit; gradual at first, and then more snowball-like in character. It took me around 8 hours to hit the bottom, which occurred in a Melbourne shopping mall with my Mum and Joshua this afternoon. I had to walk away. Fear and dread paralysed me, standing in a children’s clothing store, gripping a size two hoodie.
Perhaps it is necessary to hit the bottom in order to make a play for the rebound. Today, it was necessary. That was a bottoming-out moment, a true low, and within minutes I began to recover. The logic won. I was going to be able to let go of it all.
It took a little over an hour to diffuse. It seems inconceivable as I write it down, given where I was. But really, just 60 minutes later, my shoulder tip pain was gone and my smile was full and my future was bright.
Recovery is so fragile. The promise of health is so tenuous.
I need five years of remission to arrive at a cure. That’s 1825 days. It has been 38 days since my lung surgery rendered me cancer-free. Meaning we are 2 per cent of the way there. But who’s counting.
Every precious day….
…some slightly more stressful than others.
* * *
I leave you with this. On Monday afternoon, I will head into chemotherapy to continue my fight for life. This will be round twenty. Mentally, I am feeling fit and strong. Physically, my body is progressing beautifully in its recovery from lung surgery. In short, there is really no explanation for my dive into the death zone – my head took me there, and my head was able to pull me out.
I am not dying. I know that, even though I have had no medical opinion to confirm I remain cancer-free. No blood test to reassure me or scan to relax me. My outlook is upbeat, my glass is half full. I simply had to work through this and come out the other side. This is what living with cancer looks like. This is what dealing with your own mortality feels like.
And this is where a round of tacos can take you! Lesson learned… ;)