When I was told three years ago, after several months and several doctors who poked and scraped and excised bits of me, that I had cervical cancer, I knew certain things were going to happen. I was going to have to tell friends and family news that I did not want to have to tell them. I was going to have a life-altering hysterectomy. I was going to have to talk about things pertaining to my lady bits with people who I never thought I would, like my father and that waitress at the local pub.
One thing I did not know, though, was that cancer would be with me in some form for the rest of my life.
I had it easy as far as having cancer goes. I did not have to go through radiation or chemotherapy. My external appearance remained unaltered. Aside from healing from tests and surgery, there was not much else that happened as a result of the cancer.
I felt guilty at the time because people showed so much concern when, physically, I was really quite well, aside from the handful of sneaky little tumours that had squirreled themselves away inside my cervix.
I had this naive hope that the surgery would be the end of that chapter of my life, and while I lay in bed cleaning my stitches, I looked forward to being able to go out for a drink. Then, when I went out for that drink, I looked forward to a time when people would stop asking me how I was while stealing glances at my belly. When they stopped asking how I was, I began to wonder why I did not feel better yet.
I did not feel better like I thought I would. That particular cancer was gone in flesh but not in spirit. Every cold, flu, and pain became a possible sign of new cancer. An ache in my breast meant a lump; constipation meant my ovaries had gone sour. I was afraid that my sinus cold was really a brain tumour. Every unpleasant physical sensation seemed like a portent, a mortal wound.
This is something I have had to learn to live with. I have been told not to think this way, but only by people who have never had cancer, because once you have had it, it is there. It just is. People get colds. Kids break their arms. People lose all of their worldly possessions in house fires. Nobody tells you this, but your friends will start dying in their 30s. And, a good number of us will get cancer. When a tragic event that happens to other people happens to you, it is no longer other. It is no longer a story told. It is real thing that you know.
The key, though, is to figure out how to live like you are living and not to live like you are dying.
I am figuring that out, but it is a difficult course to chart when the reality of cancer never fades out to what it was before you had it. I might be healthy now, but other people I know either have it or have had it — and I am keenly aware of their fear. The commercials about it on television push my buttons in ways they never did before. I see how thick my medical file is every six months when I go for tests. I have been asked to join an organization that raises awareness about gynecologic cancers. Cancer has become the annoying friend that refuses to leave the fringes of my social circles.
I used to look at my life as having two periods: BC, before cancer, and AC, after cancer. Now, though, I see those two halves differently. There were 34 years when I did not know cancer, and now, and for the rest of my life, I do know cancer. We were introduced, we had an intimate relationship, and I am forever changed by my knowledge of it.
When people ask me if I am grateful to be alive now, as if all things remain relative to one horrible point in time when I was probably not going to die anyway, I do not know what to say. I am not grateful. To what would I be grateful? Life has things in it. Some of those things are terrible, and some of those things are good, and I had the happy fortune to come through something close to terrible and find something good. I suppose that my answer is in that: I am better at being alive than I used to be.
Cancer, whether physically present or as an intimate idea, is both a fearful and engaging thing.
It did not make me a better person, and I would not want to confer its particular knowledge on anyone, but cancer’s psychological and emotional aftermath became an invitation for me. I was granted the exquisite experience of life as a finite and delicate seed of a thing, and I have been invited to act accordingly. I have been invited to thoughtful action, to a greater clarity of thought, to fill this space I inhabit with as much as I can. And though this invitation comes weighted with a need for a reason and maturity that it would be easier to shuffle off, I do not know how to say no. I cannot say no.
“Watercolour 2009:…light of a dream…or hope for a new love…” Nadia Minic @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.