This is tonight’s sunset.
We’ve spent the day in preparation for the uknown week ahead: cleaning the house, ordering in shopping, attending Mia’s end of term Christmas ballet concert, putting food into freezer bags. We’ve been on edge, this constant alternating between feeling like ‘this is fine, we’ll ride this wave’ with, ‘shit, why now? What’s going to happen? How are the kids going to be? How long can I be off work?’ I reckon this will be the pattern over the next weeks, until we will get into some sort of chemo groove and know how and when to call in help.
But banter and fun continues. Thank God for WhatsApp with great mates in far off lands: ‘I hope you’re not sitting alone, drinking gin to the Christmas tree lights, and weeping to Home Alone 2. This would finish me off…Yeah, [your hair] looks very Trumpian. Trumpesque.’
Other messages are more raw: ‘I think the overall feeling just now is threat. It’s hard not to feel unsafe.’
I’m noticing how much my mind has been humming over the past ten days with memories of working as a house officer, and then as a resident in emergency. (The young man with testicular pain, whom I had reassured that pain was relatively uncommon in testicular cancer, until I examined the hard, craggy, solid mass that was about four times the size of his other testicle. The elderly man unsteady on his feet, who turned out to have a brain metastasis and a massive primary lung cancer. The mother in her forties coming in to emergency at 3am in horrific pain with advanced breast cancer and widespread bony metastases, who had declined mainstream medical treatment and instead she and her husband had got into severe financial difficulty funding alternative treatment which denied her opioid painkillers. The women in cardiac arrest in emergency who, when we removed her top to perform CPR had a massive, fungating tumour of her breast, and had probably died from a pulmonary embolus (a blood clot which has traveled to the lung and is more common in people with cancer) and had likely never sought treatment for her breast cancer. The old lady with difficulty breathing due to the massive ascites (a collection of fluid in the abdominal activity) secondary to her ovarian cancer. The multiple people in the liver ward in Edinburgh, jaundiced with end-stage hepatocellular carcinoma. The pancreatic cancer which killed the patient within three weeks of diagnosis. The colorectal cancer in the young women who attributed her constipation to pregnancy. The man in his thirties who had worked as a gardener whose malignant melanoma had seeded metastases in his femoral region. The young man with colorectal cancer who kept apologising to us for sobbing as the surgeon delivered the extent of how advanced his cancer was. The women who arrested whilst I examined her for her sudden onset chest pain and breathlessness as a first year doctor in the middle of the night. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.)
My mind buzzes away, denying the possibility of other things going wrong (venousthromboembolic disease, neutropenic sepsis, renal injury from chemotherapy).
And I breathe. And hope. And pray, in various ways. Not always literal prayers, like I would have in years gone by. But prayers all the same. Not prayers for help and healing – I don’t believe it makes sense to pray for that if you believe in a God who oversees all things, including breast cancer in a young mother – but for peace, and endurance, and optimism, and mental and emotional stability, and acceptance of what has been and what is coming.
I come back to breathing. I come back to the beauty around me. The messages, the love. Eva in the pool, enjoying this last day before treatment starts. Mia somersaulting off the edge. Luca slapping the water in glee. The incredible food being dropped off by people. The offers of help coming left, right and centre. The beautiful weather, the sea and the sand. The safety of our home. The kindness of our community. The warmth of people both near and far. These are the concrete, tangible expressions of life and spirituality and something bigger than us, bigger than illness and disease.
I am tired of this to and fro between fear and anxiety, and all the present love and warmth around us. I think the former is more present in the tired hours, or when we have been dealing with something particularly stressful, or considering the practicalities of life that still need to go on.
It’s a good lesson for me. Sit back. Breathe. Be present. Acknowledge the fear. Acknowledge all the conflict inside. Acknowledge the pain and the anger. Breathe into it.