Remember the day the world found out that Leonard Cohen died? Today. We all put up our favorite songs on Facebook, whatsapped friends and family, listened to all his songs in the privacy of home and remembered what each song meant to us.
“Suzanne”, “Hallelujah”, “Democracy”, “Dance Me To The End Of Love”.
And then, if you didn’t already realise it, you discovered that he had penned one final album, his knowing goodbye, “You Want it Darker”. So on the day after his death, we could relish nine new unheard songs and listen to his soul pouring out before his death. Life doesn’t get grittier and more true than that.
How many people around the world poured out messages of love and loss and grief and thankfulness today for Leonard Cohen, whose words and music struck with something common, very deep inside all of us?
It felt like joint prayer and it united many people. And it was powerful.
When I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death, I remarked, “the world is a poorer place now”. I knew it was coming, he had a fragile frame of late. And there lies the sadness of death, the loss of the physical being here relative to the people left behind. But his music and poetry remain and so his spirit, the common spirit, belonging to everyone lives on. The spirit that is individual, not global; personal, not political. I am thankful that, despite his weakness and fragility, he brought forth his final breaths in very special songs, that today were written for his own consolation perhaps and for me and for you.
“So much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos” (Cohen, London concert 2008), but we have the power to raise each other up with our prayers and common spirit and keep ourselves free enough to allow this spirit course through our beings, like Cohen. The world doesn’t have to be a poorer place without him. At the moment he took his last breath, a new life inhaled his first. An experience, which he elaborates on in his acceptance speech at the Prince of Asturias Awards ceremony.
To ensure a new life becomes great, it takes parents, educators, the world to provide a good education with unbiased history and cultural lessons and the space and acceptance in which to develop through time.
“So ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” (Anthem)
I was roused from a sweet and pleasant sleep, minutes before the alarm clock sounded, by the appearance of the title of this blogpost as a thought written across my mind’s eye. I’ve had ideas brewing for days and unsure about how to tie them all together in a coherent text, I had abandoned them as scribbled notes strewn across various notes on my tablet.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8.
I haven’t been asking God to help me write a better blog post (now that would be senseless) but I was reminded of this very simple method of supplicating to God, while reading this week and I felt compelled to write it down.
So what have I been asking for?
To be an instrument of His peace; to allow myself to do as He wills with me; to relax more in His presence, worship Him and trust in Him more.
A response so far has been a thought to dedicate less time to senseless scrolling on gadgets; I have recognized it is a source of unhappiness, discontentment with what I’ve got myself and envy of others. A renewed reminder not to take my tiredness out on those close to me now, my children, husband and mother. I struggle with this and need lots of support, lots of reminders.
And what about that title? Well, having lived through the “ocean of pink experience” on the 19th of this month (breast cancer awareness day) and attending a talk on the medical future for breast cancer survivors, I refuse to accept breast cancer as a modern inconvenience, which is sometimes how I perceive it seems to be portrayed.
The fact of the matter is, if I had been born less than two hundred years ago, and coming from Ireland, if I’d survived childhood, (and there was a fifty-fifty chance that an infectious disease would have caught me before the widespread availability of penicillin), and if a lack of food (due to The Great Irish Famine or just poverty) wasn’t weakening my bodily frame to death, I’d naturally, at age forty, be reaching my expiry date.
If all these screening and diagnostic tests weren’t available to me, (as they are not so freely available to a very large portion of women around the world), I wouldn’t even know I was walking around with breast cancer. And if the extensive variety of medication, the fan of which is widening at a YEARLY rate, didn’t exist, the number of my days would be easier to count.
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12)
And the fact of the matter is, that the medication available to me now and in the future is not there for every woman around the globe. I am one of the PRIVILEGED ones.
Instead, those women less fortunate than me, are finding out too late that they have breast cancer or indeed, will never find out because they didn’t make it past childhood or girlhood due to excessive hunger or lack of antibiotics or simple saline solution. Or perhaps, lucky enough to survive past school-going age (but not necessarily school-educated, like me) a girl has been sold in to marital or sexual slavery, or raped by attacking soldiers, or mutilated by gun people for trying to protect her children or an endless list of unthinkable attrocities. Breast cancer will probably never register on these women’s radar of fear.
I live a comfortable life, with a nice, soft bed on which to rest my chemical-wearied body and cancer is foremost on my radar of fear and pain. This is my walk. And it is as valid and important as the walk of any other woman around the world, even if I have to suffer less or more.
Modern medicine will prolong my life so I’m getting a second chance. I am SO grateful for that because I don’t want my children to be motherless or my husband to be alone any time soon.
A second chance at what though? To reconstruct my breast and cover up what was? To return to the mad rush of living like a head-less chicken? No. That would render this disease simply “a modern inconvenience”, an interruption to my life. But it has to be, in order to make sense of my journey, more, much more than that. This medical interruption of my life has to be a stoppage, a spiritual introspection and redirection.
I finally realise where I’m going, heaven. And at last I know what I’m supposed to be doing, preparing my soul for that place, and blazing my trail along the way for others to follow.
At this stage, I’m content with my children following me. They’re the closest to my realm of influence. I’ll continue to teach them to pray and to follow their heart in everything, because, as long as they are aware of and allow His presence there, it is the place, where God resides and directs our lives.
And so I “knock on the door” and “seek” the roadmap. In my illness I “find” the answers, “the door is being opened”. So I’ve had to “suffer” to get here, I’ll do it again if I need more reminding. Jesus suffered, we all suffer in some way. God made no easy promises about this world.
“For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him” (Philippians 1:29).
But I find with this roadmap, the journey becomes easier and more restful. And that provides the spiritual meaning to my illness, one that far outweighs the importance of the modern inconvenience that is this disease in itself.
(I think it’s worth having a look at this website, which helped me put life, evolution and health inequity in to perspective: https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy/).
There is a woman
Hanging out the clothes.
On my balcony
I reflect her actions
But mirror not her face.
Which is old
I can see
By the drooping
Of her jowls
Deep but soft
Around her mouth.
She is wearing
Big pearl earrings
And her hair
Curled and grey
The long-sleeved blouse
Which is buttoned
Up to her neck.
A look of Jesus
From time to time
A quiet calm
And yet knowing
What life is all about.
As she continues
To hang up clothes
Neatly in a line
It is beautiful
In its orderliness
She has nothing
Else to do
Because there is
In that instant
But hang out clothes
On a balcony.
To peg up
The first piece
Not yet scarved
And the breast
I’ve not yet fitted
For the day.
I hide my secret
A pair of shorts
With each new item
To crouch more
And then still more.
Is the fear
Hanging out the clothes.
No I do not
Reflect the face
Of the woman
On the balcony.
And yet her face
Has graced me
For a moment
My lost appearance.
In this moment
I will mirror
That look of Jesus
One sees on faces
From time to time
When walking streets
Or watching people
On their balconies
In their eyes
The look of One
Is all about.
Nicht der Fluß fließt,
sondern das Wasser,
nicht die Zeit vergeht,
(it’s not the River that flows, but the Water, it’s not Time that goes by, but us.)
During my fortnightly stays in Oviedo, in between chemotherapy sessions, I am sleeping in a room that is furnished floor to ceiling on every wall with books. There are books about physics and biology, history and art, religion and philosophy, mythology and civilizations, biographies and novels, classical and neo-classical, Spain and Asturias, the natural world and cooking, dictionaries and maps, to classify in some way.
But above all else, the subject which most occupies these shelves is mathematics. There are books here on the inside and outside, upside-down side and right side up side of all areas of mathematics. I, as a middle school teacher of maths in Madrid by chance, would neither have the imagination nor the inclination to open even one of those books as I fear I’d get lost in trying to understand just the introduction.
Collectively they make up the great depth of knowledge that my brother-in-law José has of the very broad subject of mathematics. They demonstrate, at least to me, a great passion that José has for the subject he imparts year-in, year-out at the University of Oviedo. It forms perhaps a complex and intricate scaffolding of understanding of the world, the kind of perspective I don’t think I’ll ever have in this lifetime.
I wonder about the simple beauty of numbers and the complexity with which they can be manipulated into patterns and series and curves and lines, (and I’ll stop right here with my descriptions of mathematics, lest I destroy it with flowery falsities) and ponder if their discovery, collectively called mathematics, could be a demonstration of the existence of a God, who is marvelous.
As a maths teacher, I am well aware that it is not a subject for everyone. Many students are not touched by the energy of mathematics. But lying here now surrounded by hundreds of titles and not just mathematical ones, I am aware of a spirit of great minds, of advancing minds, which over time must cause shifts in perspective a kind of societal evolution.
I call this spirit The Holy Spirit. (The admission of this here in a public place has caused me some anguish over the last few days and it has taken a few discussions and arguments and a lot of reading to come to terms with it). I thought by naming, what I believe is the spirit or breath or energy of God, the Christian way, I was isolating myself from over half the world but when I scratched the surface of some of the major world religions, I realized in fact I’m not.
The recognition of some other force that transcends the mere human energy is a phenomenon, named distinctly in all religions. For example, Buddhism calls it mindfulness, (https://mettarefuge.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/thich-nhat-hanh-on-buddhism-mindfulness-and-the-holy-spirit/), Hinduism calls it Shakti, though inherently different from the historical meaning of the Christian Holy Spirit apparently (http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/hinduism/articles/holy-spirit-is-not-the-same-as-shakti-or-kundalini.aspx) and Islam calls it in Arabic Ruh al Qudus, which translates into English as… the Holy Spirit, as quoted, not from The Bible but from The Quran,
“(The day) when God saith: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount My favour to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity.”
I was washed up onto a predominantly Catholic (at least at the time of my birth) Irish shore. My parents, perhaps due to a strong conviction or perhaps because it was still the accepted norm, initiated my journey with Catholicism by accepting on my behalf the first blessed sacrament of Baptism shortly after I was born. Educated in a school under the auspice of The Mercy Order of nuns (and which then still actually had nuns teaching), I continued to receive the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation, in theory strengthening my faith and union with God, but in practice I was part of a rote system where no other choice was available.
I quickly undid my ties with the Church when I realized I had a mind of my own and decided that it was scientifically impossible for a virgin birth to occur and that it was all a pile of fictitious codswallop. It was like a sacrament of Coming of Age. And I got a thrilling pleasure then out of first skipping mass and later deciding outright not to attend any more.
I remember well the day Jesus Christ was presented to me again. By then a university student, I was sitting in a café in Galway with my good friend Elaine. We were chatting, about what I don’t recall, but suddenly she said that there was always Jesus. That literally stopped me in my tracks,
Tell me more and she told me more. I bought a Bible and I devoured it, underlined it. It all made sense to me then and I felt at peace. It was, at the time, my opium.
I gave it up again the instant I began to feel uncomfortable with public worship. Something didn’t quite sit right with me. So I left my relationship with Jesus lapse again and I placed the The Holy Bible on an upper shelf.
But like a loyal friend, He has always shown his face and pulled on my heart and soul strings both in good and in bad times, most often when accompanied by that profound sense of emptiness and the missing entity which pervades over my mood. It is then when I realise I am craving for something more, a spiritual depth of understanding and being.
For me, an important definition of who you are and what you stand for comes when you have a child and the life of important decisions opens up before you. The first, and perhaps now the most important one for me I realise, is the decision to baptize or not to baptize.
I did not want to baptize or christen my first child, Pablo. My instincts told me that baptizing my son into a major world religion was conditioning him for the rest of his life according to the norms of the Catholic shores (Spain and Ireland) he was washed up onto. Who was I to hand down to him a less and less (at least in Europe) accepted way of thinking and living. My instincts said, “Let him decide for himself when he’s older”. So Carlos and I did nothing except play and bath and feed and enjoy our first born for a year and a half.
And then we succumbed to whatever perceived pressures we felt at the time and opened up the gates of the Catholic Church to Pablo. He walked up in his white and baby blue linen suit to the Baptismal font in Malahide and had the whole church in stitches at his eyes and reactions of wonder and curiosity at the pageantry of the whole event. Of course we followed suit with the two girls. The decision to christen or not to christen had already been made.
I would say so far in our children’s religious education we have taken a lazy approach. We go to church on Sundays sometimes, we say a prayer before going to sleep, Pablo reluctantly receives a Catechism lesson on Tuesdays in preparation for his “Communion with the saints” and we read stories from the Bible when I remember to or it takes my fancy.
But there’s nothing constant about my children’s spiritual guidance. I put it down to not making it a priority when it comes to time management, not being a well educated Christian myself and therefore not being entirely convinced by the religious path itself. There are always niggling doubts about other world religions, a good God who allows so much suffering, the perception of judging others by your own standards, the past and present crimes of Catholics, Muslims, Jews and all in the name of religion.
And yet here I am again, lying down with the fatigue and nausea of the third chemotherapeutic session, no longer surrounded by all the books in my brother-in-law’s house but back in the now unfamiliar quietness of my own home (some important and instructive time has lapsed since I first started writing this post). My heart swells with a certain presence, a certain glow and I, perhaps because of my Christian birth shores, or perhaps by constantly popping up unexpectedly throughout my life in a friend’s voice, in an aunt’s book, in a sister-in-law’s words and a brother-in-law’s book recommendations, detect a persistent and loyal friend named Jesus Christ and it is He that fills that pervasive void in my life.
Once again, He has shown His face in my illness. By reading my daily devotions, referring to the Bible, discovering how other people in history have lived their spiritual experiences with God and comparing my findings with other world religions, I have come closer to the face of Jesus Christ.
I do not compare the suffering I have endured because of this breast cancer (and I quote from My Morning Prayer, ” In this world I know this pain Is nothing, But it’s mine), to that of Jesus Christ, who was pursued, arrested, tortured on the streets of Jerusalem and crucified to death. But somehow it has made we want to get to know this person more and listen to what He has said. And in that spiritual journey I read The Word and it resounds in truth.
Praying – that constant conversation with the presence of God in my heart- listening to my thoughts, which I know are sometimes just mine and very much “this worldly”, but on other occasions and especially during my illness are coming from beyond me, letting my impressions form, reading, discussing and writing are all helping me to deepen my faith, understand and carve out my spiritual walk through life.
Putting my findings into action is the challenging part and I make it my goal for the rest of my life.
My human experience has been greatly enhanced so far by a persistently continuous awakening and re-awakening to the life beyond the “porcelain”. I have found Jesus Christ, thanks to that seed that was planted by Noel and Mary forty years ago, and I have no doubt that practitioners of other religions and even atheist and agnostic people of this world, have found their own means to spiritual awakening.
In these times of massive upheaval and wars in the name of God, when there seems to be a definite trend towards the meeting of Eastern and Western philosophies, religions, medicines, cultures, civilizations, I do believe that I personally must face the challenge of understanding the Other – all that is different to me – so that one day, as society evolves, a common understanding of good and evil, spirit, God and the Son, the prophets and the saints, may be reached. That we may live in Love and Forgiveness, as laid out in The Word.
And now playing patience with myself for the umpteenth time to allay the cancer tedium, I see my grandmother Ellen’s arthritic hands laying out the cards. She was born on the eve of the First World War, gave birth to seven children during the Second World War, became a young widow and lived until she was ninety nine. She never heard of the Internet and didn’t have access to the global and collective knowledge we have at out fingertips now. All that she had (and by that ‘all’ I mean everything not only) was her own heart, her own spirit, the shores onto which she was born and the passed on wisdom of the times. Like my paternal grandmother, Mary, she had the rosary beads and the bells of the Angelas, chimed out every day over the airs before the six o’ clock news on RTE Radio 1.
“Jesus the branch, Mary the flower, Jesus and Mary be with us this hour.”
That was the first and most simple way I learnt to call God’s presence into my heart. And I think it is beautiful.
I like to think that in the long tedious hours of aging my two grandmothers found immense comfort and strength and joy, which to me represent the enhancement of the human experience that I mentioned earlier, in the presence of God in their hearts. And I am grateful that Carlos and I made the decision to plant that seed in the hearts of our children. Now all that awaits us is its constant nourishment.
No matter how many ways the cancer card is turned, regardless of how I look at its face, being dealt it at this stage in my life is a devastating reality.
I can eat my way back to strength, take salt baths, take light, regular exercise and rest a lot, which is essentially in the hope of assisting all the aggressive treatments of cancer. But it doesn’t change the reality of having had cancer, something which is inevitably leaving its stamp on my whole being.
The questions lingering on my mind are,
“What did I do wrong?”
“What if I had eaten more healthily?”
“What if I had breast-fed each child for longer?”
“What if I had chosen a less stressful life path (worked part-time instead of full-time or even continued on with my extended maternity leave)?”
“What if I had been more of a purist in terms of food (organic versus conventional agriculture), cosmetics (always reading the label to ensure they had zero parabens and whatever else is deemed harmful nowadays), packaging (the use of plastic versus paper)?”
Would I have avoided getting cancer?
There’s the genetic predisposition explanation, which remains unexplored for now but as that journey, separate in itself, unfolds, I intend to write about it in the future.
The feelings associated with having got cancer at my age are surprising me. There’s guilt precisely at not having opted for the purer route. There’s inferiority when looking at other women my age who haven’t been struck. “She won’t get breast cancer because she’s too health conscious or because she exercises so much.” And this brings a feeling of impurity. My body has become diseased, the exact reason for which I am unsure about, and there is a certain sense of failure, above all a bodily failure.
Doctor Arantxa Moreno, the first professional to consult me on breast cancer, said,
“Have confidence in your own body.”
Now I comprehend why she said that. Somehow I think she is aware of how sick people can lose spirit, lose hope, lose confidence and lose vitality, all the qualities absolutely necessary to invest in the long road to recovery from cancer.
Because always at the end of that route exists the possibilities of getting fully better, partially recovering but suffering debilitating consequences, experiencing reoccurrence or not recovering at all.
I am hopeful of a full recovery. I have confidence in my body as I feed it with fortifying foods and drinks everyday. I am gentle with it too, recognizing when I need to just sit or lie down and do nothing or have a long restful sleep. I also believe modern medicine is so advanced that breast cancer, when found early enough, as mine was, can be cured.
I am fortunate enough so far not to suffer any uncomfortable consequences of the mastectomy such as lymphedema in my arm or muscular imbalance in my neck and back often caused by a unilateral breast removal.
However there still remains a small chance that this breast cancer will come back, either in the same place, in the other breast or will metastasize to a distant location like the bones or the stomach or liver (most likely metastatic sites of breast cancer). If the doctor isn’t willing to give you a guesstimate of your cancer-free survival rate, there are an abundance of tools on the Internet (http://www.predict.nhs.uk/predict.html).
It sounds morbid but I’m definitely a person who likes to know the facts. That way I can confront the reality and deal with it in my own way.
But actually I don’t really need a life expectancy predictor from the Internet with its cold statistics. The harsh reality of cancer is revealed to me at every hospital visit. For the most part, there are relatively healthy people like me, I would say, arriving with their mothers or daughters, husbands or wives, doing what must be done to get on with life. Hopefully these represent the 70 to 90% of “cancer-free survivors” in the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years.
It’s also impossible to avoid seeing the very sick people. The other 10% who possibly will not survive the disease. The emaciated woman, wheeled in regularly in a wheelchair by her elderly parents, who one day I was appalled to see being wheeled in by her husband with her four-year old son, perhaps, holding her hand. And the forty-four year old woman, who I met at the beginning of my journey, who has been battling breast cancer, since she got married, eleven years ago. Her prognosis then was good but it still came back after two years. She now has metastatic cancer in her bones and liver and her last hope is to take part in drug trials.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
So although I’ve not finished this journey to recovery, I’ve already got a glimpse at the possibility of cancer reoccurrence and where that can lead to. I believe there are therapies to help deal with the fear and anxiety caused by this possibility. I must admit, I was in a panic about it for quite a while.
But I’ve relaxed about it all, thankfully. I’ve had the opportunity to properly confront and contemplate my own mortality, which ironically has dissipated the fear associated with that. I now more fully comprehend and believe my life is in the hands of another entity, God, my Creator and
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
The mysteriousness of suffering on earth is beyond my comprehension but having faith in the path God has paved for me and accepting that cancer is a part of it has made me more aware of the simple joys of life. My quest now is to slow way down and learn to appreciate and enjoy them more, but not by my own force and energy as I have always endeavoured to do in the past. I am learning (and faltering at every post so far) to let my Creator flow through me and direct the show that is my life.
And perhaps, I ponder, that is just a small part of the plan.
I am an outline
My eyes have sunken
My hair is quickly
Shedding to the wind.
One breast gone
The left one
To be taken
With the other
To the grave.
Of my youth
Into last month
Into memories of
Chasing after children
And eating apples
by the mountain streams.
In this world,
I know this pain
But it’s mine.
I offer it
To the shadows
Of the dawn chorus.
Take the depths
Of my swelling heart
And mold it
How You meant
To show my beauty.
Stay with me
For this day.
Hold up this
To be colored in
With Your blessings
The four questions my friends, family and people around my neighborhood ask me these days are,
“How are you?”, “How are the children?”, “How’s Carlos bearing everything?” and “How’s your head?”
Thankfully I can respond positively most of the time and conversations often end by acknowledging the importance of a positive attitude.
I realise a positive attitude for me starts with an action, like deciding to exercise my arm and to be constant about it. When I don’t exercise it, I’m usually feeling down, so the positive action gets pushed aside. My Mum is my constant inspiration and driving force here as I recall how she single-handedly exercised her broken shoulder back to full capacity in record time.
Healthy eating which requires planning, shopping, cooking and eating are a multitude of positive deeds needing lots of positive energy. There are lots of hurdles here to fall down at and Angela, my sister-in-law, is my nutritional adviser and chef this week and keeping me on track.
As for positive thinking, I have never mastered any skill in honing my thoughts in on the plus side only. I’m not sure I believe in that. Sadness or fear or loneliness, even anger are valid emotions and perhaps when felt, named, acknowledged, and explored a little (with some therapeutic blog writing for example) maybe that’s displaying a positive attitude.
So what is chemotherapy?
Before starting I struggled to find anything positive or happy to say or think about chemotherapy.
It starts with a pill in the morning just before breakfast, to protect the stomach lining. A bowl of porridge and some acidophilus also helps with the stomach preparation. It then continues with a blood test and a two hour wait* for a consultation with your oncologist to get the results of the blood test. If you’re healthy enough, you can go ahead to get the neoplastic drugs pumped into your veins. If your immune system has been diminished so much by previous chemotherapeutic visits that you’re deemed too unwell to receive the hit, you go home until the white cells have recuperated.
So on my first visit yesterday, of course I was going to be healthy enough. I’ve been eating salads, vegetable soups and fruit cocktails. White meat, oily fish and legumes. Porridge, quinoa and multigrain bread, rice and pasta. Turmeric, cumin, cardamom, olive oil, lemon juice and seeds for flavoring. (Angela and the anti-cancer diet). My drink of election has been mostly tea, green, black, red, spicy, fruity. If it’s hot and wet, I’ve been drinking it. And lots and lots of water.
I’ve done my best to cut down on anything I think might be harsh on my liver. So no wine and just the odd sip of Carlos’ beer. Decaffeinated coffee for the last week and the vitamin supplements have been stored away for recuperation at a later date. I still enjoy ice-cream and chocolate and my biscuits for dunking since my weight is healthy, I’ve decided that looking after my endorphin levels is important too!
But there was still a part of me that was hoping the doctor would say,
“Ah you’re alright for another week.”
Anything to put the chemo off for another week. I’ve been dreading it for days but it’s not one of those therapies that can be postponed for very long as there is an accepted optimum window of time (4 to 6 weeks) after the surgery, in which to begin.
So what is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is waiting for your number to be called to enter into the oncological day hospital. A roomfull of numbered reclining chairs with drips beside each one and two chairs for companions to sit and wait through the procedure.
Chemotherapy is a reception with a nurse who greeted me with my name “Dairy”.
“My name is Deirdre.” I replied, “D.E.I.R.D.R.E.”
“Here it says DEIRERE.”
“That’s a mistake, I told them at reception last week…Oh never mind.”
“Chair 14.” the nurse indicated.
Chemotherapy is a quick glance around the room and spotting the old woman I had seen earlier, wheeled in, in a chair, either too sick or too tired or both to hold up her
head. And there she was sitting in a corner, with her aging husband and someone else, sister, friend or helper, receiving her intravenous therapy.
Chemotherapy is realizing that you’re not the youngest in the room. There beside the reception was a young beautiful tan-bodied twenty-something-year-old girl with her curly-locked wig tapping away on her phone and laughing with her sister or friend. (There are no children here and thank God for that because that would be too heart-breaking. Sick children are cases apart that need an extra special kind of love and attention I can only imagine.)
Chemotherapy is walking past all the other mostly older recipients lying back and I reading the number on their chairs. Five, nine, thirteen. Ah number fourteen, the empty one for me.
Chemotherapy is arriving at your chair, throwing your bag down on one of the accompanying seats, climbing up and stretching out your arm for being pricked (my vein port won’t be healed for use until the next session in three weeks time).
I hadn’t prepared myself for this, no tears in advance were shed because really I didn’t know what to expect and I denied doing any research. All the feelings associated with cancer diagnosis welled up in my eyes, anger, fear, sadness, disbelief and shock and the tears fell. I couldn’t hide them but it didn’t really matter. Somehow I believed that everyone in this room, cancer patients and companions alike had all been through the same. Felt the same feelings and cried the same tears.
Chemotherapy is sitting for your prescribed time to receive your prescribed drugs, reading books, writing blog posts and watching others, some snoring, some eating lunch, some doing crosswords.
Chemotherapy is waiting for the beep of your drug administering machine and for the nurse to come round and say, “one last dose of saline solution and in five minutes you’re done.”
Chemotherapy is arriving home, and following the advice of Belcha who went through this seven years ago, of resting up and moving around very little, drinking lots of liquids because the more you do and the less you drink, the harder the hit of the secondary effects will be. Twenty four hours later I’m still waiting. I’m feeling nauseous but that’s all for now.
There will be more side effects to come, once the drugs have had time to be absorbed not only by any stray cancerous cells around my body but also by all the fast-growing ones like in the skin, hair-follicles, bone marrow, mouth and stomach lining and bind with the cells’ DNA to prevent replication. So I’ll be busy over the next few weeks addressing my susceptibility to infection, the loss of my hair, the possible mouth sores and drying out of my skin and nails.
My first session is over, eleven more to go. Already my attitude is changing:
Chemotherapy is acceptance of and trust in modern medicine with all its wonders and flaws; persistence in the face of despair; hope in being cured for the future; faith in the hands of God or whatever one believes in and a love of life expressed by the will to continue.
Chemotherapy for me is having a positive attitude on a prolonged scale of time and a developing sense of special admiration of the very old and the very young, (and their parents who watch them receive it) for having the courage needed to accept this kind of bitter-sweet therapy.
*Waiting for Chemotherapy
I am empty
Like a water bottle
To the last drop.
No fountain gushing,
Onto this bench,
Where still I sit
With the sun
Reaching its rays
Out to drench me
A gentle warmth.
I lap it up
I thank the Gods.
From Earth I came,
With whose bounty
I will replenish
The coffers of my
I am down but not defeated,
I am scared but not trodden.
Standing up and facing them
Consenting to this bitter care.
In this life, in this day
This way to Resurrection.
The next storm on this journey is brewing on the horizon. There is a whirlwind of papers and appointments, surgeon for inserting a vein port, rehabilitation for my right arm, schedule of dates for chemotherapy sessions, the first to start on the 14th of June.
My right hand chauffeurs are lined up, my father, my husband, my brother, my sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, driving me to and from hospital, taking and collecting the children from school.
My replacement mother’s brain, heart and soul, is in situ, my own mother and father, co-ordinating meals, shopping, laundry, children’s entertainment.
Summer holidays, the most memorable yet booked with my sister, her husband and her children, my brothers, Mum and Dad, my sisters- and brothers-in-law and their children, family friends. The brochure looked fantastic when I made the reservation! A guarantee of sunshine in Northern Spain, country walks, flower-pressing art, bird table crafting, evening swims at the beach and it’s all on offer for…free !!! No hidden costs. There’s no where else in the world a holiday like that is available.
Carlos my husband is me so he’s right here riding the storm under my skin.
I need a brain massage. Nothing a good night’s sleep and the occasional whinge won’t cure.
My daily devotion from “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young posted to me by my aunt in New Jersey is a little gem too:
“Relax in My healing, holy Presence…Let go of cares and worries so that you receive My Peace”.
Ahh. Ok I will. Thanks Renee. And thanks to all my aunts, uncles cousins and friends elevating me with thoughtful gifts, lit candles and prayers.
I’m going to take a rest from posting for a while. I’m going to ride the storm. I’ll let my impressions form, my thoughts arrange themselves and when I’m feeling better, I look forward to continuing this written journey.
I’ll sign out with my song of the moment. My children’s choir have finished all their performances for the year, Christmas and end of year concerts. Now they’re just singing for fun. I’ve latched on to this one:
Of all the 28 risk factors for getting breast cancer, as listed on this website: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors, realistically four apply to me.
1. Being a woman but since, and I quote from the internet, “changing your sex to reduce your risk of breast cancer is not a realistic or reasonable possibility”, there’s nothing to be done or said about that.
2. First period before the age of 12.
I remember the evening I got my first period. I’ll save any reader the gory details of that episode but when my mother announced,
“Oh love you’ve got your period!”,
I sobbed into her shoulder for a long time. Today I name my childish feelings “disbelief” and “disgust” at the very idea that firstly, this bleeding had a name and secondly, that it seemed to be normal. I was ten years old, (and a half judging by the darkness outside and the lit fire that I sat beside all that evening.)
2. Dense breasts
That very same evening of the first period episode and after my mother teaching me the mechanics of hygienic care, I received a crash course from my father on “the facts of life”. I sat down at the kitchen table and on the back of an envelope, he proceeded to draw two small circles with pipes coming out of them, which both lead down to a bigger oval further down. It was a diagram of the female reproductive system apparently. It looked like a rams head with horns to me! There was a mention of eggs and ovaries and babies and male and female mice. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT MY FATHER WAS ON ABOUT! I wanted to go back to my Lego house designs.
But sure enough, everything my father talked about that night, slowly started to unfold, the monthly periods and all that. My interest in Lego houses declined, and I paid more attention to my growing breasts and boys.
The genes for adolescent hormones were well and truly switched on at that stage and they were expressing the familiar changes in a growing girl’s body. Amongst them were the developing breasts, which kept growing and growing and then growing some more. When were they going to cease taking on their fullness? I stopped athletic running with the pain caused by their annoying jiggling. And what’s more, they swelled even more every month before the period.
Dense breasts I was blessed with and dense breasts have been my on-off friends for thirty years. So dense, they hid the growing cancer from my regular palpating fingers. So dense, they hid the cancer even from the first imaging (ultrasound) test I did and from the mammogram and even the fine needle biopsy. I and Carlos and even the gynecologist were beginning to wonder if the confirmed cancer in the lump under my arm could be coming from elsewhere in my body. I never thought it possible to be hoping for breast cancer and that it would be good news at that.
4. Age of giving birth to first child greater than 30 years.
Pablo, my first-born, arrived on the 13 th of October 2007 and I was was aged 31 years and 5 months. I remember well my exact age because not long afterwards my father read out the statistic about the average age Irish women gave birth for the first time: 31 years and 5 months.
An average statistic for an average girl I say. There’s nothing wrong with being average. It’s safe to belong to the masses of normality. Discovering breast cancer at 39 is against the odds, which depending on the website you read and the year published, the chances are 1 in quite a high number. So all of a sudden, I have deviated from being healthily normal and joined the thousands of young and younger women around the world who are diagnosed annually with breast cancer into a different kind of reality.
Amidst my frenzied panic at the beginning, to the forefront, literally, of my mind was the question,
It’s almost as if with the pang of each strained headache, the words came pelting across my forehead, why me, why me?
Each woman I saw on the street, more overweight than me, why not her? For each cigarette I saw perched on a passerby’s lips, why not them? Why not the drug addicts or the winos, the hormone pushers or someone older? I’m young, I’m healthy, I’ve always done all the “right” things so why the hell me? Who’s out there to answer me that? Who will explain in plain English why I got breast cancer at age 39? I have a young family to rear, I need all my strength and energy for them. This is not fair. Life is not fair.
Unlike many people in such circumstances, who prefer to deal with their journey with an illness in private, I have felt a compelling need to tell people, to connect, to reach out. People have unknowingly offered their interpretations of this illness, which I have listened to in an attempt to build up some kind of sense.
Nieves maintains the whole earth is contaminated, from the soil which nourishes our fruit and vegetables and grains, to the water we drink, to the air we breathe. According to her it’s impossible to avoid. It made me wonder why we all didn’t have cancer.
Someone very dear to my heart mentioned that it could be a manifestation of my unhappiness at being in a foreign city. I didn’t think I was that unhappy, permanently exhausted yes, but unhappy enough to warrant breast cancer?
Then my sister-in-law Esther said something, which rattled me at first, but it stayed with me and it has persisted with me ever since. “This had to come,” she said, “and only good things can come from it.”
I’ve given up asking, “why me?” and I’ve taken to asking “why not me?”.
This has shaken up my life, my mind (and hence the blogging), my memories and my reality. Esther was referring to grace from God. I don’t really, deeply, comprehend it but somehow I don’t think it’s for me to get my mind around. I will lay back and rest my muscles with the thought and let its meaning slowly be absorbed.