“When I mean abnormal cells, I do mean cancer.” In one sentence, the consultant moulded my existence into a finite entity. I felt shocked, blood pumping furiously through my neck.
He went on, and as he did, I sat back in the chair and tried to take stock. A flurry of questions then fell out of my mouth. My ex husband sat next to me, with his own questions too. This was a gynaecologist, not an oncologist, so most of his answers were short and unsure.
Memories of my father’s death from small cell lung cancer flashed through my mind. Then all went slo-mo, an oil slick of emotion, suffering my senses to numbness and the whole thing rendering me flightless. I can’t remember much else, but with a business-like handshake, I found myself being driven the road home on a bright Summer’s day, bound in a tide of sticky, suffocating fear.
“I don’t want to die,” I said to Adam. He was so good with me. And still is. We planned a way of telling our daughter, but softly, so she could adjust. That’s not how it went. She’s that bright Summer’s day, and quickly garnered the brevity of how I felt.
My mortality; she stayed with me for days. She left no space, her eyes, blue-ice cold, fixed on me and in my face. Anxiety gripped me. I panicked, so upon invitation retreated to my brother’s house two hour’s drive away near a forest, itself under threat. There, with gratitude, I found a sanctuary, with birds and newts and damselfies. Over those few days, I also found myself some kind of steady state.
Cancer does not like oxygen and a healthy immune system, so these things I can work on. It revels in stress, and I’ve been stressed for a long while. Strong, close relationships are so important; many of mine are lost, unresolved or just not physically present in everyday life (the cons of cyber contact). I downloaded the Headspace App and still keep it very close, fixed now on meditation as a calming influence each day.
But inevitably, there followed a return to Cardiff. Difficult discussions, drives, phone calls, delays, CT scans, waiting rooms, more delays and and generous GP intervention to speed things up (she too has been through something similar, the power of shared experience). The day I had my second CT, I was given my radiotherapy tatoos. Three prussian blue dots now decorate me, hip to pubis to hip. I was aligned and ready for the machine, ten years to the day after I found my mother dead from suicide.
That same day, the radiotherapist, without hesitation, told me straight as he fixed a canula into the top of my hand for the IV contrast…
“You’re a lucky girl.”
Organs by which I produced my daughter (womb, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, cervix), a fibroid that caused anaemia, and a tumour of self-defeating, once-multiplying, highly undifferentiated cells, are now away from me, unable to hurt me or my loved ones.
“Someone on high has intervened,” he continued. “Radiotherapy, chemotherapy; you’ll look back at this as a blip in life. Next year, you’ll be getting on with life again. Leave this to us. We know what we are doing.”
I told him about my mother and the ten-year anniversary of a death I wished never had happened. He smiled, with faith. “You see.” And he looked up.
The machine whirred around me, in black and red circles.
…with the thought, I love my daughter so much. I want to be with her growing up!
The incidental finding of a grade three Stage 1B sarcocarcinoma in my womb after hysterectomy for a fibroid in May, means my lymph remains untested, but the scans show no spread, no swelling, no inflammation. Uncertainty still clings to my wings, however, in the idea of micrometastasis; rogue cells that may find traction again, somewhere, sometime. It’s a mental ache within me like the ghost of that suffocating oiled-bird.
I begin all ‘sterilising’ treatments next week. A six-month insurance policy, the premium of which I must pay in side effects and some long-term risks. I’ll take all the help I can get, and with much gratitude. I’m certainly not the first, and won’t be the last. That’s what I am learning, and fast. We are all journeymen.
And my mortality? She occasionally averts her eyes, especially when I remember the radiographer’s words. The day he spoke to me, on that mind-mark of an anniversary, I emerged from the cancer centre into the sunlight. I looked high up in the sky. Gulls were riding thermals, wings out-stretched, no slick and free of oil – they too are journeymen.
Again, gratitude. And with a deep love for all life.