I have been blissfully distracted in this week before radiotherapy. First, a tricky gig and then a quick but delightful holiday with Aidan, who met me at my exotic hotel and played for four days. Like the times years ago when I was blue and the kids pulled me outside to play at the beach or walk in the park, Aidan’s presence pulled me out of myself and into the world.
But now the holiday is over and the 25 sessions of radiotherapy begin. 18 hours after I land, I head to the hospital for my first “fraction.” At first, they tell me, I will notice nothing. Around fraction 10 my skin will start to get uncomfortable and my fatigue will increase. After fraction 25, I stop going in, but oddly the symptoms worsen for a couple of weeks and then recede. It is then that you begin to see what permanent damage there is to tissue and muscle and organ (and implant, in my case), but the full damage—and the full benefits—can take years to be obvious.
One week in, I get the belly shot that catapults me into menopause. They have no idea how soon I will notice the effects of that, but assume it will be relatively fast.
At the same time, the horrific new American president will be sworn in. I am guessing that in the first weeks of that era, we will begin to notice damage, but the full damage (and could there also be benefits?) will also not be known for months or years.
In this bewildering, unpredictable, unpleasant context, my beautiful little firm will meet—in Wellington so that I can head to radiotherapy each morning of our gathering. We will think about the future together—about who we are collectively becoming, about what path we want to walk—at exactly the time I cannot imagine the future at all.
So I have been thinking about the future and the present and the past. It is, of course, true that the only thing we have is now. And at the same time, the human mind is obsessed with everything that is Not Now. For me right now, Not Now is painful and my mind ricochets around it. I was at a water park with Aidan, surrounded by breasts of all shape and size and age, and I got caught up in what my life and body were like before cancer. I am well aware that my third day of radiotherapy is the third anniversary of my mastectomy. My mind flutters to the past and to an imaginary future that spreads out from the moment the tumour started to form. What if, then, my immune system did what immune systems were supposed to do and just killed the cancerous cells as they began to reproduce. What would this Now be like without cancer? (My mind replays election day even more often and with even more regret and dread—what would this Now be like on the eve of President Clinton’s inauguration?)
And then my mind heads forward into the dreadful 2017. Trump and cancer treatment all at once? What barren ground! Where are the seeds of delight and hope in that landscape? What precious flower, however small, could my vision alight on as a guide to a more beautiful future? A holiday with my family? A piece of exciting and interesting work? The prospect of writing my new book and then holding it in my hand? I bounce off all of these things, searching, searching, my mind like a fly trapped in a jar.
I remember when I entered into chemo, my field of vision shrank back to nothing. The picture I drew of it the week before was of a bald and robed me entering a bleak and mysterious path. I worked to have daily delights—Mark’s poems, the sun sinking into the sea, the laughter of my children. I will find my way to such delights again, surely. The kindness of the people at the radiotherapy centre. The love and support of my family and friends. The inexorable march of time—so sad during good periods and so welcome during hard ones.
I have been journaling. I have been meditating. I have been exercising. I have been trying to turn away from dread which I know is an unhelpful emotion right now. And sometimes I sink into it and feel it pour over me. Sometimes it floods through me in a moment and I am suddenly bereft and blinking back tears in the sunlight.
My life is made up of starkly contrarian forces. The delight of a holiday with Aidan and the dread of radiotherapy. The camaraderie of my firm all together and the ultimate aloneness of cancer. The hope for the progress we are making as a human race and the terror of this moment in history. The realization that each moment is precious and the wish for these next weeks to pass as quickly as possible. It is not the bleak terror of chemotherapy by a long shot. But, here on cancer island, this coming season looks grey and stormy.