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.