A week after Valentine’s Day a man called Garth stuck his finger up my bum and I went from being somebody, to somebody who has cancer.
Wait. Don’t jump to conclusions. The first thing you need to hear is that I’ll probably make a full recovery. It could be much worse.
When I tell people my news, I premise everything with the doctors’ predictions of a successful outcome, to manage their expectations. Then I typically shrug and say something like “Yuuup, I’ve got a tumour up my arse”, before quickly changing the subject to save myself from the tedium of repetition.
Everyone asks how I am, obviously. So I think about my health over the last few weeks and joyfully announce that I’m in just about the best shape of my life. I’ve cut the booze and carbs down, upped the exercise, and been getting plenty of sleep. I have also found it easier to reject stressful and unhealthy environments, and reprioritise my work and life tasks to a manageable level. Come to think of it, I’m great! Oh, yeh, except for the ASS CANCER. Ahhh right, so that’s actually why I’ve been able to look after myself so diligently. How ironic.
Is it ironic? Maybe. It makes a perverse kind of sense though too, because I haven’t been suffering. As I write, I’ve just finished my fourth of five weeks of combined radio- and chemotherapy, and my only symptom so far has been an urgent bowel a few times a day. I waddle towards the loo, balancing on the edge of a little accident, before making it just in time. But that’s been going on for months anyway, before it had a dramatic label like ‘cancer’ attached to it. The suffering, if there is to be any, is ahead of me. For the time-being, I am pleasantly healthy.
One curious side-effect is the need to manage my communications now. As soon as I began to tell people I was sick, working my way out from my immediate circle of family, my bosses and a few of my closest friends, I realised that I was building an exponentially growing set of well-wishers. Every one of them would be keen to know how I was doing, some would want to offer advice, a few would insist on cracking the whip to ensure that I was doing all I could to manage the disease. I’ve tried to consolidate my news for that entire set of people into a couple of WhatsApp groups and the occasional email. That way I can write once, then copy-and-paste. Easy. It still results in several messages and a couple of phone calls every day.
So as I write this post, and expect to accompany it with some kind of announcement in my social networks, I worry that I’m committing myself to a part-time job as my own medical news reporter. I have to ask everyone to give me space and not take it personally if I don’t respond to every message.
I’ll state the obvious, just in case: I appreciate the love and support. It’s life-affirming. I’m having the pleasure of conversation with old friends and relatives more than ever. I have never felt so loved. My network of companions closed in around me, baffling the shockwave of the diagnosis like mangrove roots in a storm. But it’s also a strange burden. Now I have a communications management problem that wasn’t around before.
It’s largely a practical issue. The time it takes simply to answer calls and write messages could be put to better use. For instance, I could be researching or acting to support my therapy, like with exercise and diet. But on some less tangible level, I also feel that giving this disease so much real-estate in my life could make it too manifest, too much of a thing. It starts to become my story. But it’s not my story, it’s something that is happening to me, that I didn’t choose. It’s like my surname, my hair colour or my nationality: it’s not my fault. I don’t want it to consume my consciousness just as it’s consuming a small patch of my bowels.
If I have the motivation I’ll keep this blog updated with news and thoughts on my progress. But also I might not. I’m not making promises to anyone right now. That’s one of the indulgences I’m allowing myself: to be a little selfish, insular. I’ve been cancelling adventures that I had previously been looking forward to, and instead of feeling down I get a guilty sense of delight from each tiny act of martyrdom, each newly vacated patch in my calendar or sympathetic message. I get to kick back at home, with the simple lifestyle of someone who has a singular objective at hand. I get to be a crude kind of hero in a story that is all mine to tell.
This hero journey is mostly ahead of me. I’m not making predictions, just gently preparing myself for the terrain. Having been pushed onto this uncertain path I have had no choice but to take the first few steps. On aggregate, so far, the journey has brought more good than bad. Sure, I’ve cried a little in the dark over Disney movies. But, errr, only slightly more than usual. You could label that as sadness but those are the moments in which I feel most alive. It’s a curious gift from somewhere deep inside me. Kinda like this tumour, I guess.
My only failure in this whole adventure would be not to learn from it. For any setbacks that might occur – treatment side-effects, permanent dysfunction after surgery, even that unlikely worst-case demon of the cancer going terminal – the least I can do is use it for personal growth. I’ve never had a better excuse to ditch some bad habits and adopt some good ones. While it might get uncomfortable, and certainly scary, I’m allowed to see the humour and beauty in this shitty but oh-so-real chapter in my life. It’s OK, I think, to decide to enjoy it. And so far, I am.