Nothing prepares you
Not all the worry in the world
Everything remains the same
Life goes on
The world doesn’t end
The sun still rises
You miss a beat but
Yet nothing is ever the same
There are lots of people in the room and a big cake on a table. It’s somebody’s birthday. The cake’s filled with cream and fruit and it’s 2006 and I’ve just had my first operation. They ask me if I want a slice and I shake my head. They say that I can’t go until I’ve eaten some. I try to eat a teeny piece so that they will shut up. I can’t find my mouth. There’s cream on my cheek. I go home.
I’ve been prodded and poked and tested and stared at. I look different. My accent is funny. People stare at me in the waiting room. Doctors and nurses say things like “Oooh, isn’t she pretty? Isn’t she sweet?” But not to my face. I feel like a doll. When they examine me, there are lots of people in the room. I wish they would go away. I feel small and embarrassed. I don’t want to take my top off. But I’m not scared. Not yet.
On the day, we bump into Dr M. He’s off to have lunch. He says he’s going to eat a big plate of spaghetti before he operates on me. I wonder whether he will drink wine. Red wine. Then I’m in the hospital and it starts again: prodding and poking; needles and pain and the fear starts to surface and I feel woozy but not in a good way. I feel asleep yet awake and my heart is thud, thud, thudding. The tears start falling but I don’t make a sound. I don’t move. I realize now that this is what I do when I am scared. I don’t move. I don’t say a word. I am still. I am silent.
And then the anesthetist appears and he’s got a huge, livid strawberry birthmark that covers one side of his face and neck. I bet people have stared at him all his life. I expect some people think he’s ‘ugly’. I see that somebody loves him because he’s wearing a wedding ring. And I see his eyes and they’re brown and kind. And he holds my hand and he says, “What’s the matter?” and I say “I’m scared.” And he tells me not to be frightened and he holds my hand.
Then there are bright lights above me and people in masks and he holds my hand. Then there’s more drug stuff but it’s only a local and my heart is still leaping and my eyes are still wet and he strokes my forehead and keeps on stroking. Then I feel something. “Oww!” And I think, “I don’t like this.” And I say that I can feel something and they give me more drugs. And it’s ok for a bit but then I can feel it again and they tell me that they can’t give me any more anesthetic. And I lie there and I feel pulling and pricking. My heart is racing faster and faster. Now I’m really scared, but it’s too late, it’s over.
I’m on a trolley in a corridor and the man is back and he holds my hand again and says that everything’s ok and I don’t see the strawberry, I see the kindest man in the world.
Nowadays, I rarely look back. Part of ‘living with cancer’ is dealing with the ‘now’. Being present. One day at a time. A little hopeful glimpse into the future. Not much looking back. The feelings and memories are too intense. But sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves how far we’ve come and what we’ve achieved. At one point I couldn’t see through the enormity of my situation, but here I am as lucid and sane and happy as anyone who is reading. So this next fragment carries on the story, and it’s called ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’
I asked my consultant ‘How long?’ and she didn’t want to answer. So I asked again. She said ‘Well, how long do you think?’ So I told her and she hesitated and then she told me something that I didn’t want to hear. So I blocked it out and I went to see my parents and then I went home. I sent a text. Some people called. Some people didn’t. Some people cried. But I couldn’t feel anything. No, that’s not true. I DID feel something. I felt something awful and alien. All I thought was, ‘it’s happening to ME!’
Anyway A was staying so we did things. We travelled around London. I laughed. I saw some friends. I kept saying ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’ Every now and again A would look at me and he would sob. And I would put my arms around him and say, ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’ And of course the person who needs comforting becomes the comforter. I couldn’t cry because I thought I would never stop. Nothing felt real. Going through the motions. Terror. I felt like I was suffocating. Or drowning. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I felt like I would never be normal again.
And then A went home. And I hid. I hid under my duvet and sometimes I would answer the phone. And sometimes I wouldn’t. I spent days lying in bed, the covers over my head. I couldn’t read. I watched dvds but I didn’t see anything. I remember thinking ‘I can’t go on like this.’ I looked at people on the tube and I wanted to scream, ‘I’m dying!’ But I said nothing. And the days yawned ahead of me.
I could feel the presence of cancer around me. I felt it saying ‘Boo!’ and ‘Aha!’. When I imagined it I thought of a black heart because my original ultra sound had shown something ‘abnormal’. And I had looked at the scan and had seen that the ‘abnormality’ was in the shape of a little black heart. And I had laughed and thought ‘Typical’! That was before the cancer was confirmed. But I ‘knew’.
So when I think of cancer, I think of something black. A blob. A misshapen heart. A fog. A cloud. An abyss. A blackguard. And I think, ‘Nobody wants you.’ And ‘Go away.’ But my black heart cancer just sits there. I can’t think of anything else. I am scared but I don’t want people to know that. So I say, ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’
Where to begin? I suppose the idea of doing a blog has arisen out of a need or desire to have my voice heard. Since being diagnosed with cancer – for the second time – I have often felt that I have lost my place in a society that relies heavily upon ‘status’ to identify oneself. Indeed I have pondered for a long time on the sensation of loss. For a while I have thought about things from the perspective of ‘losing’, but have I really lost anything? In many ways I’ve gained a lot through having cancer: a greater perspective of myself, the appreciation of friends and family, the ability to concentrate on the present and the recognition of hither-to unknown reserves of inner strength. This blog is likely to jump around time wise and may be of interest to no-one, nevertheless it is ‘out there’ – a bit like me!
So I’ll start a little story which goes like this…once upon a time there was a girl called Alison. She was fed up with London life (sorry Mr Johnson) and, on a whim, decided to shake things up with a little study trip to Italy. Her adventures took her to the south and a city called Salerno. A good time was had and she decided to try and forge a new life abroad. To this end she enrolled in a TEFL course and got a job teaching in Sicily.
All was going well (well, not really: bad pay, l-o-o-o-n-g hours, an inclement winter) when, one evening whilst watching a film, she discovered a lump on her breast……
The big C.
Jump to the almost present. A barrage of tests late 2009 led to ‘results day’ in January 2010. Strangely I can’t remember the exact date. I remember being called into the consultant’s room. I remember thinking that it was ‘nothing’. And then she told me.
And then everything changed.
And then I had to call in my ex from the waiting room.
And then I had to translate the news into Italian.
And then I had to call my sister.
And then I sat in the hospital pharmacy with a prescription list for various pain killers and sedatives. And then I looked at the people around me and I saw how everyone was carrying on with their lives. How nobody had noticed. How everything and yet nothing had changed. And that the world had only stopped for me.