14. Debilitating C:
The test results fanned out on the doctor’s desk like messenger pigeons coming home to roost. They carried destructive messages within the tiny rings attached to their legs; messages that were devoid of hope. Each fragment fitted into the overall puzzle of Cancer.
I sat there paralyzed with fear as the world around me lost coherency and faded to black. Extreme panic turned my rational mind into a pile of gibbering mush. Sounds turned into static, white noise. For a while I was deaf and blind, until reality returned and with it rational thought. This was the death sentence that I had feared and the reason why I had put the tests and examinations off as long as possible. I couldn’t avoid the truth anymore, this was where I either had to come to terms with my inevitable demise or fight for all I was worth.
The oncologist rattled off the facts by rote. He seemed distant, detached and unemotional.
‘For the moment the cancer is confined to the lungs and large intestine. I can excise the tumors and you will be able to start with chemotherapy and radiation within two weeks following surgery. Chemotherapy consists of a cocktail of various cancer eradicating chemicals. I will not bore you with the exact details or the science behind it. Chemotherapy is administered intravenously, which means that you will have to receive it here at the hospital, so that we can monitor you. It will make you nauseous and of course there will be the inevitable hair loss. You will be constantly tired. If you decide against the option of chemotherapy you will have six months to a year of quality life left after which the pain will become worse and morphine will be administered and you will eventually die. In my opinion chemotherapy is the best bet, but the decision remains yours. It has been my experience that even after surgery and chemotherapy the cancer will return in a more aggressive form. The common life expectancy is three to four years. Take a few days to decide and let me know.’
The oncologist delivered this with hardly a pause for breath. I had received the rehearsed speech with no thought on the oncologist’s part as to how my heart seemed to be pounding in my ears or how my body trembled uncontrollably. This was his job, a routine, yet to me a death sentence had been delivered and I was being trundled to the gallows kicking and screaming. I stood up, feeling the world shift on its axis. I had lived a thousand lifetimes in the last half hour.
‘Thanks, Doctor, I will be in touch.’ It seemed absurd and inappropriate to give thanks for the received message of agony and death. I would rather have told him to shut up and go to hell, yet etiquette insisted that I thank him. With a wry smile I wondered what etiquette could change about the situation I had to face. I felt hysterical laughter bubbling up in my throat and beat a hasty retreat, afraid they might think me insane as well as terminal.
At home I spent hours browsing the internet; researching alternative therapies and strange herbal remedies. A healthy diet seemed par for the course and idiotic to even mention. Several websites advocated crystal therapy, religious healing, druidic interventions, the cleansing of auras and baths in warm springs. They ran the gamut from the rational to the seriously insane and the patently absurd. I resigned myself to the chemotherapy route. I would allow the poisonous cocktail to run through my veins and steal strength, vitality and hair. I did not mind the extra pounds melting off though, that would be a hidden bonus.
My husband and sons refused to accept the truth of the monster that was eating me up inside. I had a fatalistic view and knew that my time had been cut short, yet they clung to a positive outcome, hoping against the absolute inevitability of the cancer. Somehow I knew that although I would be seen as fighting the disease for the good of my family, my heart and mind were filled with the fact that I would die. It was as if the outcome had been pre-ordained and the present was but a brief interlude to my demise.
I hid my true feelings behind a mask of smiles and apparent strength. My family never suspected that I woke in the early hours, drenched in cold sweat. I envisioned the cancer monster gnawing at my soft tissue, obliterating healthy cells and leaving behind a slick, slimy trail of destruction. Every night I felt the bonds between healthy cells rot, soften and snap leaving my entire body vulnerable. I seemed unable to force the fight response from my soul; indeed had trouble visualizing survival. At times I thought that I had in truth given up ages ago. Life itself had been too difficult to plunge my way through and I had merely breathed and ran on automatic pilot most of the time. I supposed that ironically this was why cancer had sought me out. I had wished for its destructive force to set me free without having to commit the unforgiveable sin of suicide; this way I had an excuse.
My marriage had never been ideal and motherhood had not come naturally. I loved my sons, but there had never been the strong bond that all parenting books deemed appropriate. I had to work at both roles until there was precious little of me left to give. I was an anomaly, an unnatural biologically incapable woman. I could not conform to the idyllic picture of the dutiful wife and the loving mother. I cherished the time that I could spend alone without anyone clamoring for my attention or wanting something from me; a misplaced book or spectacles, a shirt that needed ironing, a lost hockey stick. At times I caught myself wishing that they would all disappear and leave me the hell alone. All this I had buried so deep that no one would ever find it. I was adept at wearing the correct, expected mask. My life was a series of disguises I wore for different occasions.
I realized that the time to clear my life cupboard of cobwebs and the stash of useless, hoarded junk had come. I expected to be crucified and vilified by friends and family for what I was about to do, but I would rather spend my remaining years living the way I wanted and deserved. If surgery and chemotherapy succeeded I would have three to four years of quality time left. I decided to spend this time wisely and as I saw fit, which meant that I owed my husband and sons the truth. At least an explanation for the devastation that was about to hit them. I needed to leave and craved independence free from responsibilities like I imagined a heroin addict craved the next fix. I knew I was being desperate and selfish, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter all that much. I was committed to taking my life back, so to speak, considering the circumstances. However little time remained would be spent solely on my terms.
Tomorrow morning early I would get up and fetch the newspaper as it thudded onto the front porch. I would make a cup of steaming coffee and search for a small apartment. Near enough that my sons and husband could visit, yet far enough away to prevent it becoming a daily occurrence. I needed a sense of autonomy. I allowed myself a throaty chuckle in the silence of the sleeping house. How strange it would seem to others that a debilitating disease like cancer could also be the key to freedom from a dreary existence. At long last just to be able to live and breathe as myself and not the mask wearing puppet; as the true individual and not the one the world saw. My burden seemed inexplicably lighter and desperation had turned into hope; albeit a hope that no one but I understood.
I looked around the dining room and realized that I wouldn’t miss anything we had accumulated over the years. Cancer made one aware of how little you needed in life to be truly happy. I sighed gratefully, shut down my laptop and climbed the elaborately carved staircase for the very last time.