Banality, A Bitter Pill to Swallow

I find myself trying to look at the current situation I am in from different angles. A portion of this is because it makes good content for the blog, but it is mainly because it is a good technique for gaining some perspective on the situation. The topic of cancer can become banal rather quickly, and regular readers of this blog may feel that the same content does get regurgitated to an extent. The fact is that dealing with cancer becomes somewhat banal, and leads to a lifestyle that reflects this reality. I try to mix the content of the blog up by dealing with specific events, like what happens during the different chemotherapy cycles, but there is only so much variation to be expected from it. I assume that no one is reading The Chemotherapy Diaries series and expecting killer demons to appear in the narrative. If they are, they’re going to be waiting a while and left feeling rather frustrated; I’ll consider it for chemotherapy session #666, but I’m hoping it won’t take this many sessions to kill my tumour.

Running with The Chemotherapy Diaries example, these posts consist of me attending treatment, spending a few days assessing how awful I feel, watching the cycle unravel in front of me, for better or for worse, and then preparing myself for the next one. This routine has become my life since November. It is the stories found within these constraints that I hope make the content more interesting and provide variation. Unlucky for me, but lucky for the series, chemotherapy does throw in some curveballs, and they help to keep it interesting. It doesn’t mean that things aren’t mostly predictable, though. I’m under no illusion that every post contains groundbreaking new content, unexplored themes or novel information about cancer. Fighting cancer is mostly a waiting game for the patient. I want to talk about this banality today, as it has been on my mind since the weekend.

I’m using the word ‘banal’ in regards to both the content of the blog, as well as the content of life more generally at the minute. Originality is a futile concept from the perspective of a cancer blog anyway – there are many of them around and the things I talk about are not unique. I hope that my writing style provides uniqueness to an extent, but I have read plenty of other cancer blogs that have their own unique tone and style. It is like claiming that every podcast on history is unique because the presenter has a different accent.

The concept of ‘originality’ in terms of life is more tenuous. When I state that life on cancer treatment becomes banal, I mean that you lose a lot of your ability to do novel things. You are constrained to a treatment schedule, as well as feeling the physical effects of the treatment on your body. Motivation to travel, even to close destinations, diminishes greatly if you can barely walk for 5 minutes without feeling sick. There is a small window in the cycle where you feel well enough to do more, but this tends to be towards the end of it, which is also where most of your pre-cycle appointments are scheduled. That means you cannot easily make plans during this part of the treatment, so your reward is usually that you don’t feel as terrible for a few days before you’re back at the hospital and doing it all again. Even simple things like eating have changed forever. Due to the type of cancer I have, I must take tablets whenever I eat. In my old life, I might see a food stall in a park and decide to try it. These days, I see a food stall in the park, realise I don’t have my pills with me and feel a renewed bout of anger towards the situation.

On Saturday, I walked into my bedroom to find my mum consoling my fiancee, Anna. She was upset because she felt that everyone around us was making plans and doing things, whilst we exist in a strange form of limbo. It is true. We have lost a certain amount of autonomy over our lives, especially me. We had made plans to go to Dorset to visit my fiancee’s family, followed by London to go back to our flat a few weeks ago. Of course, something went wrong in the chemotherapy cycle and messed up the plans. The message was clear – don’t get excited about things and, if possible, don’t even plan them in the first place, to ensure you can’t get excited about things. The cycle is king; everything else falls in line or falls off. I can’t exactly decide that I’m not going to chemotherapy this week because I would rather visit friends in London. Of course, I actually can do this, and the hospital would fully support me – they’ve made that abundantly clear. “If you ever need a break or you feel you’re struggling, just let us know and we’ll adjust the schedule,” that’s what the team said to me, and I felt extremely grateful when they did. Why would I do that, though? It would just delay the inevitable – sitting in that chair at the hospital for 6 hours, hooked up to the machine and feeling the colour drain from my face as the poison hits my system.

I’ve indulged in ultra-marathons during torrential rain – I pride myself on digging deep and doing things that feel hard. Embracing the struggle permits the downtime in normal life, but the downtime isn’t that rewarding with chemotherapy. You don’t feel proud of yourself as you fight through a haze of lethargy, sickness and diarrhoea, you just feel happy to go to sleep each night knowing you’re one day closer to finishing. Choosing to delay a cycle will just delay that end date of chemotherapy. The ultimate reward is being cured, but you don’t know if you’re going to get there. “Once you’re cured, you can have all of the fun you like”, you say to yourself, knowing that you don’t fully believe that you’re going to be cured, but also knowing that it is not very helpful to assume you’ll die either. Staying cured is even more out of your hands, assuming your idea of a good time isn’t swimming in a lake in Chernobyl whilst smoking cigarettes and eating red meat; you’re in trouble if it is, dear dark tourist.

Sunday was my mum’s birthday. All but one of the family made it back for a meal to celebrate. We had a lovely day and it was nice to get out and do something with family and friends. Life is not like this the majority of the time anymore. My old life was cadenced by plans and events – going to friends for dinner that weekend, working in the office 3 days that week, jetting off to that country in June. The gaps fill themselves without you even realising. Potential lingers in every thought – “maybe I’ll get a new job and leave London,” you think after a tough day at the office. Even if you don’t act on those thoughts, you have them and they aren’t preposterous. Planning for the future is preposterous once you’re getting treatment for cancer, especially one that is commonly put at the top of the ‘Least Survivable Cancers’ category. It doesn’t fill me with hope for my life, but there’s a sadistic satisfaction in topping a table. At least I’m winning something.

As you can tell, my bitterness is increasing. I’ve found myself quietly resenting the world around me more. Friends are starting to go on holiday, former colleagues are getting promotions or moving on to new opportunities and people are making bold decisions about their future. A simple message from a friend into a WhatsApp group asking if anyone is up for attending that festival in a few weeks is a reminder to me that life continues as normal for most people. I’m happy it does; this isn’t meant to be the start of my origin story, wreaking revenge on the world for daring to get on with their lives whilst I am struck down by cancer.

I’m allowed to feel a bit bitter though, right? I’m trying to muster up the courage to dare to claim that I might be alive in 5 years. That’s the new standard for me. Whatever I’m doing then is almost irrelevant so long as I am still living and breathing. Apart from it isn’t irrelevant, is it? I’m still a human with ambitions, desires and hopes for my future. I frequently worry that this ‘downtime’ is ruining my career, somehow making me less attractive to employers because I succumbed to cancer and the brutal means of treating it – the months of chemotherapy, the major operation and whatever else it threw at me. “Doreen worked all through her chemotherapy,” I imagine the two people reviewing my CV saying to each other, “this guy just wrote a blog for 12 months”.

Sometimes I worry I’m using cancer as an excuse for my own shortcomings… maybe I should be working full time and not using this as an excuse to salvage my time; if I’m thinking that and I know how hard things have been, what must others think? These types of thoughts clash with the revelation that these might be my last years alive – do I want to spend them working at a job or indulging myself in a blog all about myself and my selfless struggle? And with regards to the blog, is there less of my self left for family and friends to enjoy now that I choose to put everything in a medium that is perfectly consumable by anyone who stumbles across the hashtag #Cancer on Twitter? Most of my family only found out I was in A&E a few days ago because I posted a blog about it. Is that really acceptable?

The struggle is complex but the subject’s life is anything but. Occasional dinners out, seeing friends when you have the energy and writing a blog. Most of the time, these things are enough. Today is just not one of those days. I guess I’ll eat chips for lunch, that’ll cheer me up; maybe a friend will even join me. I’ve already written a blog post today.

13 thoughts on “Banality, A Bitter Pill to Swallow

  1. I enjoy reading your posts. It gives me an insight into how my mum was feeling during her illness. She was such a positive person and would never let on how much pain she was in. Sorry I don’t have a happy ending for you as we sadly lost her in oct last year, five months after diagnosis. I am really rooting for you though and I admire your strength. The content of your blog is inspiring and enlightening. Thank you for sharing your experiences

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    1. Thank you for sharing this and I’m so sorry to hear about your mum. It is nice to know what the ‘appeal’ is of the content, too! I feel like I’ve been going through a strange patch recently which I’m sure is reflected in the content. It’s just so relentless with all the hospital visits, the ups and downs etc. I’m sure you are well aware of this, though, with what you and your mum would have gone through. Take care, Dan.

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  2. Hi Dan, I know what you mean, for sure your every word again rings a giant bell in my head of things I also think about on a daily basis. Whether it’s good or bad we get thru it somehow, I have never asked how long I have got to live with my condition, mostly from fear that I would be counting down the months & or years, so would rather just be oblivious to it all & keep my fingers crossed that hopefully I have at least another 5years. Sometimes I think we just think too much about stuff & find it all too much to deal with, so it is easier to blot it all out & live one day at a time & enjoy the very simple things about being alive is enough.
    Last week a lovely neighbour died very suddenly of a heart attack, he was only in his early 50’s & left a lovely wife & 3 lovely sons. It was very upsetting & humbling as it made me realise we just don’t know what is around the corner & to be very thankful in just being alive today.

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    1. Hey Gaywin. It is true that it isn’t worth focusing on ‘time left’ or anything like that. I’ve heard about so many tragedies recently where things have happened suddenly and randomly. I’ve been trying to focus on the 1 day at a time approach again. The pickup in weather certainly helps that – don’t you think? I’m very sorry to hear about your neighbour too. Definitely provides some perspective on things!

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  3. I’m sorry you’re feeling bitter. It is alright, I think, to allow oneself to feel bitter, as long as it doesn’t start eating you up and taking control. As long as you are choosing to indulge in a bit of bitterness and work through the anger in a good way, all is good.

    I also wouldn’t worry about the downtime from your career – the reason it’s annoying is that you’re forced to take the downtime. On the whole, having a quiet patch or a complete break from the career path is quite a normal thing to do and doesn’t hurt in the long run.

    The bitterness you feel towards not being able to plan exciting things is also there mostly because you’re not in control of the very real and binding restrictions you are living with at the moment, I can imagine. Possibilities in life always change over a life time, sometimes because of changes you’re not in control of, and sometimes because of active choices. Maybe your sources of feeling content need to change and adapt to the current possibilities a little… Instead of banking on a trip or a full schedule to instill happiness, you could look for the same levels of happiness in the little moments all around you. It’s a difficult task when you’re in pain and feeling sick of course, but it’s also a conquerable challenge. Observing a sunset, diving into watching birds bathe, or focusing on a bee gathering pollen – all these things can make you immensely happy and content if you let them. I hope you find the energy to enjoy the things that are in your current radius.

    Don’t let bitterness take charge.

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    1. Thank you for this – very controlled and thoughtful as always! Sometimes I think I just forget the number of things hanging over me at the minute and expect myself to deal with them better. The upturn in weather these past few days have really helped me feel more positive. I’ve got such an amazing family around me too and that always helps get me through. Last week was just particularly tough I think. Hoping this cycle brings a bit more relief!

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  4. Kate says:

    Hi Dan sorry you’ve had such a rough time lately but keep your head up and soldier on.I know people who have worked thru chemo but they have only been on the short sessions not the 6 hour one we’ve been on with the extra dose as well,I could not have done it what with all the tablets,injections,neuropathy and clinic appointments I was retiring anyway so never returned to work after being diagnosed which was sad as I couldn’t wind up my workload and have a proper send off and now don’t have many contacts from work,whether it’s because they don’t know what to say or they get fed up of talking about the C word I don’t know but to be fair I didn’t work locally.I don’t make plans and don’t have a bucket list I do what I want when I feel like it as you say we can’t think that far ahead I just hope to keep the next 3 month check up.This illness takes over your life you wake up thinking about it and go to sleep with it on your mind but it’s the time in between you have to try to function normally I’m better being outside walking and visiting places.Reading about other sufferers newly diagnosed we are already on the radar and having or had the treatment and the poor people in Ukraine have a worse life than us which a makes me thankful for a loving family and safe home.

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    1. So true about it taking over your life. There are so many things going on in the world which remind you how privileged you are, no matter what the position you’re in. I think there was just too much coming on me last week and with the additional stress of going to the hospital and having the word ‘bone cancer’ thrown around, I just lost sight of things a bit. I wanted to capture that somehow, though, so I wasn’t pushing this narrative that everything is always fine etc etc. Hope you’re doing well! Dan

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