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.
7 thoughts on “Dread again”
Even when you write about dread you write so well! I wish for the capacity to write words in reply that would ease your burden or give some consolation but in this I am impotent. I toy with not posting a reply but then you would not know that far away in the land of your ancestry well wishes and longing for your full recovery are kindled in a heart you don’t even know.
Warm wishes and hugs,
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Thank you Nial! I’m grateful for the wishes and hugs!
I echo Nial’s words below, as I too have been reading your recent posts with an aching heart and so desperately wishing I could find adequate words of hope and support that I could write on your blog to offer you some comfort. But each time I read your blogs, instead of finding adequate words to write, I find myself feeling pretty wordless and with a complex mixture of emotions: deep gratitude and wonder for your eloquent, exquisite and vulnerable writing; sadness at all the confusion and pain you are experiencing with breast cancer; gladness for the many acts of kindness and love you are receiving from dear ones at home and around the world; and amazement at the way you are poignantly and elegantly juxtaposing your challenging personal journey with the shenanigans of the president-elect and the current baffling US political situation.
Most of all, as I read your words, I’m grateful that I know and love you, and that you are gifting us all with your unfolding journey in a way that we can companion you – whether with or without words. And what I want most for you is health and a long-life, and for you to know how dearly you are loved and held by so many folks around the world.
I send you my fondest love, holding and prayers as you head into this next stage of radiotherapy,
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Thank you for your writing, so honestly expressing your hopes and fears. It’s so helpful, not only to you for the therapeutic effect of writing it and sharing these aspects of our humanity, but also to those who are familiar with this territory, who have seen similar landmarks.
I was delighted to read your previous posting — when Jennifer met Sally, because I want to hope for good outcomes even when the future looks bleak. Today your message touches me differently because when I arrived home my darling Zoe asked me to read something she’d been writing. She’d been re-reading a wonderful book by Phil Kerslake: Life, Happiness … and Cancer, had taken his advice and written her current anguish and fears for me to read. So thank you, dear friend, for preparing me to read such hard things and talk about them. It’s been 16 years since her surgery for breast cancer. Now she has a different flavour. Yesterday the confirmation of her diagnosis, today an MRI, next week the next decision. I feel deeply for you both. Always our mortality, always the pain of not-knowing, always the “what-if?” scenarios.
And yet, though you speak of the “ultimate aloneness of cancer”, this blog is evidence to the contrary, your sharing and connectedness to us all. One breath at a time, dear friend! Remember Sleepless in Seattle? It is perhaps incongruous that I crave such hopeful endings even as I revisit alternatives such as Terminator as a distraction. Each day I hope for good news amidst the other realities of Trump, polar ice-caps melting, and good friends suffering.
As always, love to you and Michael both. Continue to savour each new dawn, despite the fractions!
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Oh my dear friend, and oh dear Zoe. My whole heart opens to you two and the difficult pathway ahead. I hope that you are breathing into the storm (the house shakes in the gale as I write–like life, eh?). I am reaching my energy and prayers to you that the diagnosis is difficult but not tragic, and that the way ahead is confusing but ultimately clear. I’m not sure I know a higher hope than that. Let me know how you’re both doing, ok?
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Thank you, dear Jennifer! Zoe and I were both deeply touched by your reply.
I notice she has placed a bookmark in Kerslake’s writing: Today is all you ever had, tomorrow was always in question. She was buoyed up yesterday by a heightened appreciation of the difference she is making to some of the clients of her counselling. Her surgeon said it would be helpful for her to keep working to avoid dwelling on what might be, so she has another full day today and tomorrow, but there is some irony that she’s had to ask the Cancer Society not to refer anyone else to her for a while.
You’re so right that the way ahead will become clear. I trust the words of the surgeon when he says that she will be cured, and it’s just a matter of how much surgery and what treatment is needed. Your storm has not arrived here yet, but we need the rain it will bring because the land is so dry. This morning I picked more blueberries than we could eat for breakfast, and the extras will go into the freezer for the time when the season is over and the crop is finished. I know you would understand that: storing up goodies for an uncertain future!
A virtual hug until we meet again! 🙂
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