After a disturbed night of some sleep, I awoke on Friday 10 September feeling quite optimistic.
The previous evening I had dipped a toe into the information pool available about my condition on the internet, in particular the IWMF website (which has since received a welcome makeover). I had emerged reasonably sanguine from the experience such that, lying in bed next morning talking to my wife (I will call her “C”) about whom we should tell “our news” personally, I offered the opinion that there would be no need to be too dramatic. Unknown to me, my dear wife had spent much of the previous evening doing her own researches, with a rather different outcome from mine.
My cheerfulness proved too much for her to bear and these were the blackened bitter grains of the harvest she now offered me with a small voice and tears: “it’s not good: five to seven years…”
Shit, now I was scared, God... The ground once again shifted beneath me as I faced the darkest fear that had assailed me—us both—when I had first come home with the news: that my time on this earth would indeed be short and that I would be taken from my home and my family before I had seen my children grown up and established; that my wife and I would not grow old together, exploring National Trust tearooms, sharing gentle walks and cycle rides alongside French canals…
Truly horrified, I just managed to step back from the brink of these grim thoughts, remembering that statistics require interpretation. The blighted harvest was based on old data and older patients, this wretched disease typically being diagnosed around age 63 or so. I was sure I had read that there were sufferers still alive after 20 or more years. Surely I stood a chance of being among their number. The thought of this chance was enough to restore essential hope in that moment of crisis and remains with me still. Without such hope I will surely die inwardly, no matter what happens to the shell of my body. I cling to the wisdom of those who have lived with this thing longer than I when they say:
“Relax and settle in for the long journey of discovery and reflection. Resolve to take action and get involved and become an active participant in your own health care. In the process of becoming a cancer patient, and with all the pain this brings to patients and their loved ones, many patients find new clarity and purpose in life. Many are led to make life choices to enhance their time with loved ones and engage in the use of ‘filters’ to clear out their lives and make decisions about what they now want to do with the time ahead. Many patients find this to be a unique growth experience.”
Mercifully, having named the fear, we were able to embrace a common hope as we stood side-by-side a short while later by the breakfast bar surveying my collection of pills. C, a special needs teacher, offered to draw up a table to help me keep tabs on the tabs, as she does for some of her pupils. In the end, this did not prove necessary, but I took heart from the confirmation that we were in this together. In due course the pills were consumed, the chemo having to be kept in the fridge, like some organic thing. There were many pills and much water needed to down them all, leaving me somewhat bloated but otherwise in good order. This was the first meal of many such and so far we were doing all right.
I made a call later in the day to my mother, it being (of all days, oh heavens!) the anniversary of her wedding to my father in 1949. Dad died in 2005 and my brother and I had sent Mum flowers. She was thrilled with these but I had to waste no time in telling her what had been happening, now that diagnosis and treatment were mapped out. Mum is in many ways a formidably strong woman of 85, but her pain on hearing what I had to say was palpable. She was dignified and understanding in the midst of her distress, listening to my account and gently raising practical questions about the future of my work and finances, all the time conscious that I might not have much energy for too many enquiries. Our conversation closed with her praying for me, one of the simplest and most profoundly wise prayers I have heard from anyone. She affirmed that I was not alone in the illness and commended the whole family to God. It was enough and my spirits were lifted.
I also called an old friend (“J”), who is a lay member of a Franciscan order and a writer who for many years worked as a counsellor in a GP surgery in South London. She is the perfect listener and also close to God. As she too prayed, she saw and described to me the sun making the shape of a cross on her floor in Worcester as it shone through the window. She sensed too as she prayed that the illness would have a significant impact on the work that I did over the rest of my life. This observation was unbidden by me, but made perfect sense. Humbled by the support I was already beginning to sense from J and other friends and family, I spent the rest of the day in relative peace.
Chemo tablets are the little brown items in the dark bowl.
Get well cards begin to gather in the background.