Thursday, 29 May 2014

Living with mortality: the legacy of cancer




Oncology season is approaching again. Next month, I will arrive with sweaty palms and dry mouth at the hospital which summons supressed fear the moment the A-road heralds the big ‘H’ signpost.

While I perch restlessly waiting my turn alongside fellow cancerees, I will swallow the dreamlike memories that seem to send Pavlovian blades of ice through my heart, and will flick blindly through an old issue of a tacky magazine. 

By the time a nurse calls me in, I’ll be so stricken with embittered adrenalin that I won’t be able to smile. I shall come across as supercilious as I take my seat in the consultation room and wait for the oncologist to enter. Yes, I know what’s coming because I’ve done it all before, many times over the past ten years. Yet still, I never know the full story.

My father taught me from an early age to deal with unwelcome events by looking forward to them being over. ‘Just think how good it will feel when you put down your pen as the exam ends,’ he would say when he dropped me off to sit a GCSE. But although the philosophy has stood the test of time and many a circumstance, it can’t be simply applied to oncology appointments. If luck is on my side, I may have another six months’ reprieve from quizzes and proddings, scans and needles before the cycle begins again. But as I enter the room, there’s also a chance that this time, I could walk out a dying woman.

It’s a maudlin thought, but since I lost my na├»ve, youthful invincibility all those years ago, I’ve been learning to live with my own mortality. Only I still have a way to go. 

My attitude towards cancer has changed since my second diagnosis. Until then, I wanted as many checks and scans as the NHS would allow. But even though it was a routine scan that found a recurrence and I have to thank for giving me several extra years of life, I have to fight the devil on my shoulder which whispers to me ‘Stay away from the hospital; it will only make you ill.’ 

That’s the thing about cancer – so often it rumbles silently. If we’re lucky and it hasn’t spread too far, we do not know we’re ill until the mutilation and the drugs and the radiation reveal the shadow of the monster we’re dealing with. Cancer has an uncanny way of passing the buck, giving the illusion that the onus lies with the treatment, rather than the disease.

As I anticipate this summer’s oncology meeting, I find a use for my father’s philosophy by slamming it firmly into reverse. Instead of living in tension and waiting for life to begin when the appointment is over, I live these days as though they are my last. 

While I’m not ready for a bucket list just yet, living with mortality has taught me to savour the everyday and the mundane, those things I know a terminal diagnosis would leave me longing for most.

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