It’s twenty years, minus a few days, since we met. You 19, me 17. Fueled by an insatiable energy of optimism, hope, and adventure, longing for a life of which we’d dreamed. But simultaneously deeply fearing and hurting, with only a fragile belief that we could create a life different from that which we dreaded. A two-sided coin. Maybe these kindred drives meeting at that time was how such a deep friendship could be laid so quickly. Maybe it was coming from two countries, meeting in a third, then living on a ship and traveling to 30 more that made this bond inescapable. Maybe it’s our dogged tenacity and this ongoing belief that beauty can always be created.
And here we are now, 20 years later, with plenty of battle scars along the way. If only something could record the intricacies and undulations of a marriage and friendship; the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Now two little lives puff gently in their sleep at the other end of the camper trailer; here, in the middle of outback Queensland, yet right at the centre of where they should be.
39 years beautiful, and an honour to have been along for most of them with you. The future looks shaky and fearful, but it’s a privilege to face it with you. Again, this two-sided coin, of hope and love and enduring beauty, and fear and sadness and the feeling of powerlessness to change an outcome. The beauty’s excruciating, as is the pain, and it’s sometimes easier to keep both at bay. This traveling, this great unraveling, makes that more difficult to do. I’m glad we can unravel together.
Happy birthday to the best, the centre of our lives.
And that’s the thing. It’s like joy — sometimes I think there’s a conception of joy as meaning something like something easy. And to me, joy has nothing to do with ease. And joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. That’s actually — when I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment. That is every moment.
Ross Gay, in interview with Krista Tippett, On Being
By accepting the truth of change, accepting that we don’t know how our life will unfold, we open ourselves to hope so that we can move forward with vitality and will…[M]uch of our driven pace and habitual controlling in daily life does not serve surviving, and certainly not thriving. It arises from a free-floating anxiety about something being wrong or not enough. Even when our fear arises in the face of actual failure, loss, or death, our instinctive tensing and striving are often ineffectual and unwise.
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
We’ve set off on a six-month road trip. It was a quick decision made after a camping trip at Easter, during which Eva felt the best she had done in some months. She is loathe to call it a bucket list event, but it was something we had always hoped to do as a family when the kids were older. It became clear, quickly, that if there was something we could do now, which added not only to Eva’s enjoyment of life but our quality of life as a family, we should do it now. It was a straightforward decision on an emotional level, but more tricky for me in regards to work; I had not long before started a new position in a capacity I was excited about which seemed to be a step in the direction of where I was starting to see my career going. This was exacerbated by my already disrupted medical career progression after a change of specialty and then Eva’s initial diagnosis of cancer. However, I’ve been wanting to practice an attitude of holding lightly to career goals or aspirations; partly because I know they can change, and mostly because I’ve always wanted to prioritise my own and my family’s wellbeing over the more traditional and visible markers of success and accomplishment. I was aware of this tension and I am still learning to sit with the discomfort.
Our emergence into a 24/7 life together as a foursome in a camper trailer is taking shape. Already patterns and routines have emerged, all of which are underpinned by a simplicity which Eva and I were hopeful of. One of the most stressful aspects of her metastatic breast cancer on a day-to-day basis, is having to ‘manage’ it amongst all the usual trappings of life. Kids need to be tended to and brought to school or looked after at home. Jobs need to be done, long commutes need traversed, a home needs looked after. Whilst all these things are expected of all of us, I think we so often felt drained by having to conduct the ‘normal’ whilst simultaneously carrying this extra weight in our minds and hearts and, for Eva, her body. So often we have just wanted space and quiet to sit with the enormity of the thoughts and feelings that arise at times, but still to have the head space and energy to enjoy family life and to parent as we want. One thing we have both struggled with in various forms is the fear that our own experience of stress and worry is transferred onto our children in a way that is unhelpful to them. This is their life too, and their experience which they will have to go through, but we felt acutely aware of not wanting to add to that through manifesting our own tension. Which is obviously a potential spiral into self-perpetuating worry about worry which does no-one any good.
For us this family time together is about living fully in the present, and experiencing joy today. But Ross Gay’s quote above, about joy being possible only because of our awareness of death, feels wholly relevant. Eva said that if we had to go home now for whatever reason, she felt that this time had been worth it already. There is a constant brooding sense of the significance of this journey that causes some pain and discomfort whilst it simultaneously creates moments of love and joy. The joy and the sorrow are closely intertwined. We try to hold both lightly, knowing that predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but physical symptoms such as fatigue or bone pain can rather jolt us into the future. This continuum of the here and now with momentary excursions to months or years down the line is something we are becoming more used to, but it is tiresome nonetheless. There are hours and days where we are lulled into hopeful dreaming that this insidious disease will somehow burn itself out and fade into oblivion, and I think on some level we both do hope for some kind of weirdly good outcome. At our second camp, the owner, a special man in his 70s called Wazza, told us of his wife who died of breast cancer in in 1984 aged 36. Tanya, a full-time traveler whom we met at Wazza’s bush camp, told Eva of her mother’s death aged 51 from malignant melanoma, and her own experience of feeling uncertain of life when she reached the age of 52. There are constant reminders which are difficult to swallow.
Finch Hatton Gorge, QLD
Nevertheless, we hope that forest bathing and creek plunging and beach walking and sun worshiping and family immersion does wonders for Eva’s cellular pathways, boosts her immune system, and encourages an ongoing zest for life. It’s beautiful to be surrounded by all types of natural beauty and to feel like each one does something a little bit magical; soothing greens, cleansing crystal clear water, rich earth, majestic trees, soaking saltiness, and enlivening sun. It’s a reminder that whenever we do come back to normality and routine that this sense of vitality can always be present. We live in a coastal paradise with incredible beaches and verdant hinterlands, but still life becomes consumed with the confines of work and dates and speed and harried interactions. How can we automate this ingestion of and live fully in and aware of the slowness and steadiness of nature? Other things seem to fade in comparison, yet we are so addicted to being validated and affirmed and seen to be doing what is expected of us.
Tara Brach talks a lot about pausing to become aware of the sensation in our bodies prior to reacting to something. I have plenty of opportunity to do this living in a camper with two small children, but usually I’ve crossed the finish line before even remembering to pause. It’s a scary but rewarding thing to do. What does it feel like in my body when I’m experiencing joy? Where does sorrow sit and how do I hold it? How does this anger arise and when can I become aware of it at the earliest opportunity? What is this sadness and how deep does it go? For some it feels like unhelpful navel gazing; but I wonder if this is because usually the pace of our lives doesn’t allow this degree of examination and interrogation of ourselves. How would our world – or even just our own personal relationships – be changed if we developed the habit of pausing and sitting with the most uncomfortable of feelings before they are expressed as words or actions? I think if we did, possibly we would see that our joy resides not so far from sorrow, and our anger not so far from love. They are separated by porous boundaries, and sometimes it takes quietness, or a great uprooting in life, to feel the movement between them, to acknowledge the depths of the fear of loss and the joy of having.
The last year has been a whirlwind. I think it’s only over the last month or two we feel like we’re emerging from the shock of Eva’s diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer about 12 months ago. We’ve found a new normal, to some degree, and have put down more roots and established ourselves. Some of you have been in touch, enquiring after Eva’s health and wondering how our family is doing. I’d love to blog again over the coming months, and feel perhaps more in a space to do so. In a little over a week we are setting off traveling for six months in a camper trailer. The aim is to have uninterrupted time as a family together, instead of squeezing this in between school runs, work, and living in this shadow of mortality. Follow us on Instagram at @smenelaws but hopefully I’ll blog here too.
Thanks for your love for our family, amidst a world where our experience is but a miniscule fraction of the vastness of our collective suffering. I just started reading Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance where she says, ‘DH Lawrence decsribed our Western culture as being like a great uprooted tree with its roots in the air. “We are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs.” he wrote, “we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal.” We come alive as we rediscover the truth of our goodness and our natural connectedness to all of life. Our “greater needs” are met in relating lovingly wth each otherm relating with full presence to each moment, relating to the beauty and pain that is within and around us. As Lawrence said, “We must plant ourselves again in the universe.”‘
I continue to share openly about our experience as there is somehow a truth to our “natural connectedness”. It’s easy to portray life as beautiful and easy and joyful; it’s meaningful to share the hard stuff as we all seek “fulfillment of our greater needs”, and one thing suffering can do is clarify those needs.
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
“She is a friend of mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.
There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.
In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.
– Rev. Safire Rose, She Let Go
‘Your cancer’s biologically challenging,’ she said. ‘It has survived dose-dense chemotherapy, aggressive surgery, and hormonal suppression. You’ve had good oestrogen-blocking medication, but you’ve still relapsed in less than a year, and yesterday’s bone scan is worse than July’s.’
This was about the sum of the recent meeting with a breast oncologist for a second opinion. She confirmed Eva’s feelings about her cancer; from the start, she had been unimpressed with the cancer’s response to chemotherapy. The initial breast mass had only reduced by about 30% in size after the initial brutal chemotherapy regime for advanced, large cancers.
The last week has felt surreal at times. In a sense, there is a paradoxical release of pressure. Eva’s primary oncologist kept referencing a patient whom she has with bone mets who has managed for about 10 years on a fairly conservative regime of hormonal therapy and bone protecting medication. That scenario was starting to feel incongruent with how Eva’s cancer presented, relapsed, and is now progressing, though. In a sense, we wondered what we had to do to keep Eva alive for this magical ten years when things are pointing resoundingly in another direction. And we tread the strange line of opinions about what is the optimal treatment regime: those who think her treatment is not aggressive enough and she should now be on chemotherapy already, and those who think that she should now be utilising one of ten or twenty diets which detoxify, alkalinise, macrofy, and heal the microbiome, among other things.
We discussed further with the oncologist. If the next treatment, ribociclib, works, the best case scenario is that it slows disease progression for 12 months or so. The main aim of that medication is to sensitise the cancer to the oestrogen-blocking medication, which until now has been pretty ineffective. If that doesn’t work, or when it does stop working, the next step is chemotherapy. When pushing her for a prognosis, she said that she thinks Eva will be alive in one year as she has not had any chemotherapy yet (since her metastatic diagnosis), but she ‘just can’t say’ about two years. So we’ve made some sort mental aim of two years, and anything else will be a bonus.
There feels such a tremendous pressure to display a type of positivity that does not consider death, or even the possibility of it. Considering death is one of the last major taboos, especially in our society which is averse to its possibility and the view of death as the final defeat. Well-meaning people say, ‘Be strong’, ‘be positive’, ‘don’t think about the future; just think about today’. I’m not quite sure what the other options are; lying in bed weeping, not working, not caring for ourselves or our children? Is the consideration of death as a natural part of life a pessimistic acceptance? Would we tell an 8 year-old with leukaemia to ‘stay positive’, or suggest that his or her state of mind is perhaps the deal-breaker in whether they survive or not?
Throughout this trip (I can’t bring myself to write ‘journey’ again), it’s been immensely important to us to be completely honest with ourselves and one another about what the final outcome of this may be. To not consider this – to somehow think that a consideration of death could undo the effects of the current available treatment – to us seems inconsiderate, especially for our children. Of course death is scary and sad and inconceivable and seems absurdly unfair in Eva’s situation. It helps me, somehow, to consider the unfairness of millions of people’s lives each day. Unfairness and sadness and suffering are intrinsic to our human condition. Would we advise a slum resident in Mumbai that it’s merely their attitude that will determine whether they get out of there or not? And do we consider the unfairness of a mother who has lost multiple infants in a country where child mortality is still high? What about my friend who lost three children at once in a plane accident? Or another friend whose adult son died in horrendous circumstances in an industrial accident? Unfairness is not uncommon, and is not reserved for the Other.
Death and dying are abhorrent in our society. We’d rather talk about people’s sexual fetishes involving cold custard and mashed potatoes than about death, despite the 100% ubiquity of the latter. (I presume the former is a less common human experience.)
For us to live well as a family, and for Eva to maintain her pragmatic, life-affirming approach to her mortality, death needs to be part of the narrative. Of course we hope for this end point to be delayed as long as possible and will consider ways in which to achieve this; I don’t think there is much stronger than a mother’s desire to be with her children as long as possible and to spare them grief for as long as she can, whilst maintaining a quality of life that allows her to be present in a meaningful way. But to not allow this consideration and to frame death as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named feels somewhat unhelpful.
In stoic philosophy, the contemplation of death is encouraged. Marcus Aurelius says, ‘Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.’ And, even more eloquently, ‘In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.’
Medieaval Christians practiced memento mori, the consideration and remembering of death to help live a more disciplined and ascetic life.
Some Buddhists observe maranasati, a meditation practice on death which helps to live today with urgency and mindfulness.
Is it something to do with our post-religious culture which does not value death as one of the rites of passage and, therefore, cannot discuss it openly? Some beautiful, well-meaning Christian friends have also focused on the post-death experience as being an impetus to think of God in a certain way today.
I wonder if we can become more conscious of death in a way that is removed from the overwhelming tragedy traditionally associated with it in our culture, or as the reason to cling to a rigid belief system whilst still alive? I wonder if we can accept it in a way that makes us more able to live fully and engaged and authentic in our day-to-day lives now? Since a young age I was brought up in a fundamentalist religious household, where death was both a promise of somewhere where everything would become better, but simultaneously potentially where you would burn for eternity should you not do the right thing. So I’ve spent many years considering how I will deal with death, both pre-emptively and posthumously. But this new, acute confrontation with it actually somehow helps me feel less alone to know that so many others have traveled this path, and that it will be my own to take one day – who knows, maybe unexpectedly or suddenly, much sooner than I could imagine? I have observed death as a doctor, in my family, and may experience it again as an observer much sooner than I had ever feared. Can I come to that place, like the poet above, to think that it isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it is what it is and it is just that? I doubt that will happen any time soon, but I love the sentiment.
For now, we have a biologically challenging cancer in Eva’s body to deal with. We wish to goodness that we could go back to that pre-November 2016 innocence, where our biggest concern was getting our 8 month-old to sleep through the night. This is Eva’s lot for now, and I need to be present for her and our children in facing all potential scenarios and outcomes in the weeks, months and (hopefully many) years ahead. We need to accept the awful vulnerability of love which will end up in heartache and pain at some point. We need to simultaneously let go of all expectations, not grasping or fighting to mental and emotional exhaustion. It is a dreadfully beautiful experience of anticipatory grief because of how much we have to love now.
Light up, light up As if you have a choice Even if you cannot hear my voice I’ll be right beside you dear Louder, louder And we’ll run for our lives I can hardly speak I understand Why you can’t raise your voice to say.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world…
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defense
And so it came, much sooner than expected, a gradual crescendo of unsuspecting pain, dismissed possibilities slowly taking shape into real likelihoods, anxious thoughts tumbling onwards and upwards until, with one nervous phrase by the poor secretary, our fears were confirmed.
It’s been one year since Eva finished radiotherapy for her stage 3b breast cancer. It was preceded by a double mastectomy, and before that four months of dose-dense chemotherapy. In August last year, she had a relatively insignificant-seeming operation to remove her ovaries; a surgical ‘P.S.’ to reduce the likelihood of cancer recurrence, underlined by the bold fact of her new menopausal status. The final third of last year was a slog. For Eva, it was marked by this recovery of her body from the onslaught of treatment it had been subject to that year, with all the complex emotions and psychological chess moves that cancer ‘survivors’ have to make. We were both exhausted mentally and were only too happy to begin 2018 and to see Eva beginning to recover her strength. She did everything she was ‘supposed’to; she continued her healthy lifestyle and got back to doing exercise almost daily. Yoga, pilates, Strength After Breast Cancer weights program. The appointments continued as she sought to manage lymphoedema in the arm from which she’d had 29 lymph nodes removed.
But the niggling possibility never left us. Friends and family were pleased to see us move on from this unsightly, uncomfortable stage of life, into a future burgeoning with new hope and possibility. And so were we, but cautiously so. The facts were burned indelibly on our brains, though: a 36 year-old woman, with no family history of breast cancer, who had discovered a breast lump 17 months prior to her diagnosis of breast cancer, whose tumour mass was 8cm in diameter by time of diagnosis (lost amidst lumpy bumpy lactating breasts), with five lymph nodes positive for cancer, the surgeon’s manner throughout the treatment…the medic in me knew that these were never good prognostic indicators. Eva also presumed that, through her scanty knowledge of cancer prior to her own diagnosis, a recurrence was not unlikely. The ’70/30′ chance of non-recurrence cited by the oncologist was really best-case scenario. Thus far Eva had spectacularly missed every best-case scenario.
So we surfed the blood tests every few months. We’d have a frisson of nerves prior to a follow-up appointment with her surgeon or oncologist, then would feel elated at the ‘normal’ test results. And then the tumour marker, CA 15 3, started to go up. 13. 13. 14. 14. 15. 19. 19. But all below normal – less than 30. When Eva was first diagnosed, her CA 15 3 was 19. This imprecise, crude marker can be raised in all sorts of conditions – benign and malignant – but is also NOT raised in 40% of breast cancers. The doctor in me struggled; if I had a patient whose blood tests were rising but were still below normal, what would I do? Nothing – they are normal. But for a blood test which is a tumour marker, which is imprecise? This is harder.
At one point, the surgeon suggested that ‘if she was his wife’, he would get a PET scan just to monitor for recurrence. This would first require a CT of the chest to justify the decision-making to obtain a PET scan. Eva thought about it and discussed it with her oncologist: should she have extra investigations despite being asymptomatic on the basis of a rising but normal blood test? She decided not to. Had we discovered 3 months ago she had metastases it would have changed nothing, but robbed us of another 3 relatively peaceful months.
And they were. For the first time Eva started consciously imagining three and five and ten years ahead. She took part in new creative interests and explored new opportunities; drawing classes, art therapy, Zumba. She engaged in psychological therapy to navigate this post-cancer world. She thought about possibilities of further postgraduate training. And she was offered a full-time temporary teaching job at her old school, which she accepted.
The low back pain started like one of the many niggles she has experienced throughout treatment. It seemed likely that it was muscular strain as a result of the weights’ training she was doing in her Strength After Breast Cancer program. But it persisted, and more frequently she would walk around with a heat pack tied to her back. Five weeks ago she became very constipated and bloated, and the pain got worse. In a matter of days it was waking her up at night. Friends arrived from abroad; she is a GP and she too – like Eva’s own GP and surgeon – thought that this was likely muscular strain. Two days later I was about to walk out the house to go to work when, for some reason, I said to Eva that I was going to take the morning off and we were going to get a CT of her abdomen. I was more concerned about the sudden-onset bloating and constipation and wanted to rule out abdominal or pelvic pathology. I called the radiology department and booked an ultrasound and a CT. We attended and were told that we would be given the results if we returned two hours later.
We went and had lunch, and then returned. The secretary told us nervously that the radiologist had had to send someone to get Eva’s old CT images to compare with the new ones and that he would give the results to her surgeon directly.
We went round to the surgeon’s office in the hospital. He wasn’t there but his secretary listened to us and said that she would phone him when he was out of theatre and ensure that he spoke to the radiologist.
About thirty minutes later she phoned us. She said that the surgeon wanted to see us at 5.20pm the following day. Eva started panicking and crying. Her first thought was that this was a terrible time of day as it was just before the kids had dinner. She used my phone to phone back the secretary, but inadvertently dialled the surgeon’s personal mobile number which I had saved.
‘Some spots on your bones….I’m flying blind – I haven’t seen the scans myself….your spine….likely secondaries….’
A bone scan two days later confirmed the findings. Multiple vertebrae, ribs, head of left humerus, her skull, and throughout her anterior pelvic girdle. The painful spots were her pelvis – which progressed so rapidly that within the space of a week I had to be helping her sit up out of bed – her L4 vertebra, and the head of her left humerus (shoulder). She had two weeks of radiotherapy to these spots – one hour per day. During the second week one of the spots on one of her left ribs became painful, so she had a further session of high-dose radiotherapy to that – not before it fractured at the tumour site, resulting in a new, more excruciating pain.
So, this is it. Metastatic or secondary breast cancer. In her bones. An incurable disease. All treatment is to slow disease progression. A 22% 5-year survival rate. A 3-year median survival. No return to work – at this time – like she’d planned.
I’m writing this a month and a day after she received this news. We’ve moved from that first week’s state of shock into the next stage. This stage consists of every feeling under the sun, every single day. Hopefulness, peace, fear, disbelief, worry about the kids, the struggle with uncertainty. We have no idea how quickly things will progress. We have no idea whether we should be banning anything but the most positive thoughts of her being in the 1% that lives another ten years. We have no idea how much time we have together as a foursome. We are alternating between overwhelm and normality and emotional numbness. It’s a shitter.
Yet, somehow, we also feel like we are doing…okay. One of the positives of having been a catastrophiser in the past is that reality is rarely as bad as what one has catastrophised about. We are not falling apart. We are still able to laugh (a lot). We still have a weird sense of humour. Death jokes are not taboo. We somehow move in and out of imagining an extended period of time together, with a more rapid change in our foursome’s existence. There are periods of bleakness and fear and of loss and sadness, absolutely. But as Eva said in relation to considering the grief that is to come, ‘It’s easy to turn it into a Susan Sarandon movie in our heads with violins playing as we imagine our motherless children. But the fact is, they are likely to grow up to be fairly normal human beings.’
But we somehow relish the rational black-and-white of it: this is simply a shit hand of genes. Eva’s mum tracked down her dad in Italy, with whom she has had no contact for 33 years; he confirmed that there is no cancer in his family. So beautiful Eva, the offspring of two families with no cancer (except her maternal grandfather who had lung cancer in his 70s), is the one manifesting some epigenetic-mediated phenotype of irate oncogenes.
We know where the future is heading, but just not at what pace. But wait – isn’t that true for all of us? We are all heading in this direction, pace undetermined. Does that fact that we have more knowledge about Eva’s pace disconcert us more? Is it that the mystery of mortality is being thrust so rudely upon us that we have to deal with this so much more acutely?
All of us must choose, daily, to have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world…We must admit there will be music despite everything.
There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive. You’re deeply in the present and can let go of past and future and your personal narrative, in some ways. You have shared an experience with everyone around you, and you often find very direct but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with.
(Rebecca Solnit, on On Being with Krista Tippett)
Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change…[it] sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.
When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.
Just over a year ago, Eva received her first dose of chemotherapy. Her next one was two weeks later on December 20th. Christmas Day 2016 was outstandingly depressing; she spent most of the day in a post-chemo fog, prostrate on the couch. I remember in the afternoon walking down to the veggie village with our 9-month old baby as our 4 year-old daughter stayed home and watched a movie on the sofa beside Eva. The heaviness was immense, exacerbated by the season. But even then, there was peace in nature. The grass was at its greenest before the long months of a Queensland summer took its toll. Our son crawled and bum-shuffled, fascinated by sticks and stones and the cool earth.
So one year on, where are we along this road? Over the last months, Eva has re-read parts of the Breast Days of Our Life. She described it as providing a narrative and structure for her own personal experience of diagnosis and treatment of stage 3 breast cancer. The four months of chemotherapy are particularly hazy for her due to the cognitive effects of the cytotoxic medicine. She asked me recently if I had thought about writing anything on it again; I had, but also needed a break in the post-treatment period. We needed space to recreate and re-establish this new existence.
And life has gone on. Our daughter finished her first year of school, apparently unscathed by the experience of the last year (if her volume of speech and energy levels are anything to go by). She thrived and buzzed under the tutelage of her amazing prep teacher. She had mini-dramas with friends, grew stronger and more co-ordinated, and now is able to read her toddler brother his baby books.
Our baby is well and truly a toddler. He speaks first words in a mixture of Germlish (German and English). He propels himself headfirst into the swimming pool. He is doted upon by his older sister’s friends. He is engaging and smiling and affable. He shrieks with delight, and also with dismay when he is no longer allowed to play with the Christmas tree lights plug at the socket.
In the past month Eva has experienced more and more days where her energy levels remain equal and stable over the course of a day. She no longer feels like she must sleep as soon as Luca has a nap, for fear of not being able to make it to the end of the day without feeling like death. She continues to process her new body which has changed in so many ways. She has gone from a breastfeeding mother of an 8 month-old to a menopausal 37 year-old whose hair is no longer even the same anymore, who has had both breasts and her ovaries removed. She has pragmatically and bravely faced questions and potential issues around her new identity, and asked herself if it even changes anything about her identity? She is re-establishing a life which she had just settled in to one year ago – enjoying being a stay-at-home parent looking after a baby – to questioning whether she ‘should’ go back to work, or should she stay at home with a rambunctious toddler? Her feelings change but she has found some settledness in the thought of letting her body and mind continue to heal for the coming year at least without having to consider re-embarking on her professional journey again. The comorbidities of breast cancer survivors are now well-recognised in the literature; it is difficult and tiring to try and explain to people why she is not yet herself.
We attended the ‘Club Chemo’ Christmas party, organised by her medical oncologist for 300 of her patients and their families/support people. It was a good, if strange, experience. Eva appeared to be the youngest in the room, with perhaps a few more patients in their forties. But it was a good reminder of how life goes on and people continue to return to this Christmas party year after year.
But we hold within us the tension of two potential futures; one is where Eva lives to old-age and dies of a non-cancer related event and has nothing to consider again in relation to her experience of cancer. And the other option is of a recurrence, which, at present, is a terminal diagnosis. Metastatic breast cancer has no cure, although people can live for years with ongoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy to reduce the cancer burden.
I remember in one of the first blog posts I stated rather emphatically and probably aggressively that I did not want to view this as a heuristic or didactic process. I would never condone portraying any difficult experience as being there primarily as a reason to teach or instruct. However, there have been surprising and noticeable lessons gleaned over the past year. Here is a distilled version of them.
Uncertainty is endemic to the human condition
So much of our life is concerned with trying to reduce uncertainty and increase security. (It’s interesting that I used ‘security’ as a synonym for ‘certainty’.) Starting with dealing with a crying baby, we are unnerved by not knowing exactly why they are crying. As we grow older, education is perceived as an investment in the future to make certain of financial stability and opportunity in adulthood. Financial stability is one of the hallmarks of how we define security and certainty; are we financially ‘secure’? Are we financially ‘independent’? Whole sectors are based on identifying variables which are a potential threats to this source of security. And it goes on and on. This year’s experience of cancer has thrown the uncertainty of multiple areas of our life into a harsh light of scrutiny: health, finances, employment, relationships (both within and outwith our family), mental wellbeing, and the unknown future.
But out of this uncertainty has come growth and opportunity: our relationship is better than it has ever been; we’ve experienced how resilient we are as individuals, a couple, and as a family; we’ve experienced overwhelming love and care and generosity from others; we’ve learned to ask for help from others; we’ve realised new areas of strengths, and have framed our weaknesses within a more balanced perspective; we have experienced how vulnerability has begotten courage, which has led to strength. We have learned to be less unnerved by the vicissitudes of life, and to accept that suffering is part of this beautiful, unpredictable, rich, and rewarding life. Our blessings are inestimably more than the trials of millions (billions?) of others.
2. Perhaps people are mostly kind, good, and caring?
The premise of our individualistic western societies is that we need to care for ourselves first, which then extends to our immediate families. Thereafter, it can be a free for all. We have outsourced care for extended family to other organisations and the state. The corporate sector is beginning to wake up to the fact that people are no longer driven purely by financial reward, celebrated success, or prestige. People require purpose and meaning in their occupations to maintain feelings of contentment and connection. One of the main ways of doing this is by identifying ways in which an organisation is helping others. Personal experience through our upbringing and later life experiences can darken this view. Religious beliefs in some circles are based on the premise that humans are ‘fallen’ and innately sinful and lacking goodness. One of our experiences, alluded to above, is re-experiencing the goodness of others. The presence of demonstrable expressions of love and care was a shocking reminder of how much I did NOT expect this from people. We feel irrevocably changed by others’ openness and thoughtfulness. Rebecca Solnit (above) describes this as ‘this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection’, this ‘violent gift…that makes you feel more alive.’ We do feel more alive, more purposeful in our day-to-day existence. We’ve started learning self-compassion, seeing the uselessness of perfectionistic, fearful, driven tendencies. Imagine how we would change our worlds if we treated ourselves and others with the expectation of kindness, goodness, and altruism?
3. Vulnerability, strength, courage, and purpose are closely related
We tend to idolise overt displays of success and achievement. We ascribe characteristics of strength and courage to people who seem to have reached significant states of wealth, fame, or even ‘nobler’ pursuits, such as personal development or artistic endeavour. But we are slow to recognise the traits which stem from vulnerability – openness, transparency, genuineness. We tend to downplay that courage is not always comfortable, as Brené Brown says, and that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.
It’s hard to encapsulate how the vulnerabilty we have felt and displayed this year has changed us and opened up new opportunities, because it is still an emerging and ongoing process. But it’s undeniable that our willingness to change, despite not feeling ready (when are we ever ready for disaster?), is endowing us with a greater sense of expectancy and excitement for the future, no matter what that may be. Like Paul Coehlo says, the challenge will not wait, and life does not look back.