The Road to Recovery
Elephants and Tea – Dear Cancer Letter
Elephants and Tea have posted my Dear Cancer story under the title Dear Cancer, Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining. You can find a link to the online post here. The full magazine can be found here. You can purchase physical copies of the magazine on their website which is a great way of supporting their work. It is free to view online.
They do amazing work, providing support for Adolescents and Young Adults (AYA) with cancer. Early on in my cancer journey, I sought out several support groups to help me feel less alone. Although some of them had amazing people in them, no one was under the age of 55. It did sometimes feel isolating, as if I was the only person this young actively seeking support. Finding Elephants and Tea was a huge relief to me, and their online resources really helped me out. I was incredibly happy when they accepted my submission.
In the June edition, you can find many other Dear Cancer letters, from all different kinds of perspectives. I’m still making my way through them but have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I have read. It is also the first time that I’ve seen something I have written in physical print – exciting!
You can follow them on Twitter and other platforms (I assume, I don’t have any others). They will appreciate all of the support, whether it is having a read of their posts, buying a physical copy of the magazine or just engaging with their social media accounts.
The next stage of treatment commences: I have my first appointment at Manchester Royal Infirmary with the team of surgeons. After the disappointment I felt at the final scan results post-chemotherapy, where I went into the meeting thinking I would be getting more information than I did, I’m trying to keep my expectations as low as possible. Maybe my life goal should be to become a blank slate with no hopes, dreams or inhibitions; that would make dealing with cancer much easier. It is tempting to convince myself that this will be the meeting where they will tell me I will be having this procedure on this day and everything is ready to go, but I feel I’m setting myself up to be disappointed by creating those expectations. Perhaps I need to go into the meeting having convinced myself that they are going to tell me absolutely nothing. “It’s an induction meeting,” I’ll repeat to myself over and over again until I truly believe it. That way, no matter what happens, it’ll feel like progress. Unfortunately, I’m not a machine and my stupid emotions won’t allow that to happen.
At this stage, I feel quite sorry for the medical professionals who are dealing with my case. I’m always extremely polite to their faces and truly do appreciate what they do for me, I want to make that clear. After we were told that it may take the surgeons a month to contact me, though, Anna and I left the meeting feeling surprised. An entire month to be contacted? Isn’t that far too long? Why the holdup? Surprise turned to righteous preaching as we spoke to friends and family about the meeting. “He even told us that if they do not contact us within a month, we should contact the surgeon’s secretary! How can they expect them to be so disorganised?” We were riling ourselves up. Righteous preaching turned to minor rage. Then, we realised that hearing nothing from them for a month meant a month of true freedom. No chemotherapy, no hospital appointments, nothing. We decided to do the things we haven’t been able to: go to London, visit Anna’s family in Dorset, enjoy ourselves. I’ve settled into the new life. It almost feels like I don’t have cancer anymore, other than how bad I feel every time I go running. For some reason that is only getting worse. Also the neuropathy. Also the abdominal pain. Ok fine, it doesn’t feel like I don’t have cancer. I’m even using double negatives now; everything is going wrong.
Wednesday evening, as I sat at my friend’s house in north London having dinner, I received an automated message from Manchester Roal Infirmary. ‘You have a new appointment letter. Click here to open it‘ it read. Here we go again – back on the appointment clock. The period of peaceful bliss only lasted about 12 days. Now I’m scorning the medical professionals for contacting me too quickly. I can’t even keep up with what I want from this process; I’d hate to be them on the receiving end of my negative energy (which I keep completely contained between me, my family and my friends, and which only ever lasts a couple of days before I see how unreasonable I was being). It is why I feel sorry for them, but I don’t actually criticise them. I realise that they are probably managing a lot of cases. You need to vent about things to your friends and family, it helps you process information that is difficult to comprehend.
The link that they had text me didn’t work at first. I called home and spoke to my dad to see if I had a physical copy of the letter but there wasn’t one. “Just move on,” I said to myself, trying to seize the day and just let it be. Ten minutes later I tried again; how can I seize the day when I might have a letter telling me that I am going to have my organs pulled apart by someone I have not yet met? This time the link worked and I was in the hospital mailbox. The letter didn’t contain the words ‘we are going to pull apart your organs’, which was a relief. They went for the standard template of time, place, person I would be meeting. A bit boring but understandable. Some may find ‘we’re going to pull apart your organs’ a little too direct.
As I left my friends house, I called my parents to tell them. Once I had hung up I think it all hit me properly. I sat on the train home, holding Lucy, thinking about what might come next. In my head, I bounced between telling myself that it was good and that I need to do this to survive, whatever this was going to be. Then I thought about potentially being under general anesthetic for half a day, about a knife cutting away at my organs, about waking up in a hospital bed and not being able to see anyone that I loved. It should have made the train journey go quickly, but it didn’t. As my mind played mental table-tennis with itself, my eyes evaluated the tube map over and over again, counting the stops before I got home. Lucy the puppy was sat on my lap. She was getting irritated as I wasn’t letting her on the floor. I could see her eyes surveying it for any crumbs that she could lick up. London has been a revelation for her. As you walk her down the street, you have to constantly look out for stray chicken bones and other food that has been carelessly discarded. It is everywhere and she loves it. I didn’t have the patience to deal with her at that time and it was another thing that was stressing me out.
By the time I finally got home, I felt stressed. It took me a few hours but I managed to get out of that headspace. It has come back a bit at times, though. Last night I lay awake in bed for an hour or two. I wasn’t focused on it the whole time, but it regularly seeped back into my mental. It never felt like I was struggling to get to sleep, to be fair. I’d watch something on my phone, listen to a bit of music, read a few articles. Anything to distract myself. Eventually I fell asleep but I don’t remember when. Anna was up at 4:30 this morning for work; I vaguely remember waking up and looking around as she got ready, but not really. Luckily I slept more and I’ve felt energised today.
I’ve spoken before about how quickly humans seem to adapt. We felt it during the Covid lockdowns and I’ve felt it throughout my journey with cancer. For six or seven months, the chemotherapy cycle was everything. None of it was enjoyable, but I made it work. I’d make plans with friends to take my mind of it, joke around with the staff whenever I was attending appointments at the hospital and I’d think of things to write in the blog. It all kept me busy; the time flew by. Post chemotherapy, it took about a week to start winding down from it. Not having these regular appointments anymore started off feeling very scary. As I resumed living a somewhat normal life, I realised that it was a blessing. I can be more independent again – there really is life after chemotherapy!That feeling stuck and it felt like I’d taken a big step towards beating the cancer.
Why did it feel like that, though? I’m barely through the first phase of a complex journey – ever changing and unpredictable. Perhaps it is a defence mechanism. Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to feel like that; it did help me enjoy life much more while it lasted. Now I have appointments looming over me again and my expectations are building and building. What are they going to say? Will I finally get some concrete answers? Why can’t I just relax and let whatever it is, just happen? Doubt is back and the reassurance of familiarity is gone; no more appointments at The Christie hospital, no more nurses and doctors I recognise. It is all about Manchester Royal Infirmary now. I’ll have to make new connections, learn new processes. Who knows what I’m going to go through in those hospital buildings.
So, this blog post is more for me than anyone else, and it is to remind myself of a tough truth: YOU wanted this, Dan! You wanted them to contact you quickly, you want the surgery (or whatever other procedure you may need to get you to the surgery) and these days you have spent enjoying your life should be the motivation for getting back to normal life, cancer-free and rocking a badass scar. You can tell people that you were attacked by a shark or were involved in a skydiving accident. Or, you can tell people that you went through a major operation, after months of chemotherapy, and likely before months more of chemotherapy. Through the years of abdominal pain, the weeks spent jaundiced in hospital waiting rooms, the shifting diagnosis, the shared tears with your family and loved ones, the sleepless nights and the fear-filled days, you fought on. You did all of that. That should be enough. Sharks and skydiving aren’t necessary. It’s time to sink or swim, and although you hate swimming, you’d rather do it than sink.