Week 7: Facing My Own Mortality

Photo: Courtesy of Ariane
The beautiful thing about having cancer, probably the only beautiful thing about having cancer, is that it opens your eyes, wide, to life and all its possibilities and meanings – the things that we as humans spend a lot of our time searching for. The “What the fuck’s this all about?” conundrum that is life. Especially life when you’re in your mid 20s and things have gone, er, slightly off track shall we say. The 20s are a confusing time as it is. Will I ever be successful? What even is success? What does success mean to me though? If I just drink green juices for three days will I be that thin, successful person I keep seeing on Instagram? Shall I just fuck this whole career thing off and go travelling? Work or play, work or play? Am I drinking too much? Why am I drinking so much? Is there some deeper meaning to life that I’m just not getting? Do you think I’m infertile? Fuck, what if I’m infertile and can’t have kids? Do I even want kids? Jesus, am I living in a city full of selfish wankers who just want to make money? Surely there’s more to life than this? Ahhh, fuck this, I'll order another drink. Up until about four months ago this was pretty much my internal monologue, day in day out, night out after night out. Searching, endlessly, for meaning, understanding and something I believed in.

I got cancer instead. A fast-moving, aggressive cancer at that. Or, as my consultant put it in my diagnosis report, “In a nutshell this is the description of very advanced Hodgkin’s disease with extensive lymphadenopathy above and below the diaphragm and clear evidence of skeletal, splenic, pericardial and pulmonary involvement. It is many years since I have encountered a patient presenting such advanced features.” WOW – hold on a minute, Doc. Advanced? Advanced features? Two months ago I was at a festival dancing like a twat with people I’d just met, glitter smeared all over my face. Now I’m lying in a hospital bed, a stone and a half lighter, with stage four “advanced” cancer.

At the start of this journey, or race out of hell as I’d like to rename it, my body went into survival mode. Medical jargon and new information was hurled at me 100 miles an hour, leaving no time for me to fully comprehend my situation. My body slowly started to shut down: my periods stopped, I slept constantly and my brain, the little fucking genius that it is, stopped processing information that was going to cause me too much stress or anxiety. Believe it or not, I hadn’t really grasped the idea that I had cancer and what this truly meant, the gravitas of the situation, or put quite simply, the fact that I was dying. The fact that if I hadn’t gone to the doctors when I did, if I hadn’t been diagnosed when I was, I would probably have died, and pretty fucking quickly at that. Instead, I went into survival mode, flight or fight, and fight I bloody did.

'If I’m honest Ariane, the last time I saw you, I thought you were a goner.'

When you have cancer, no one likes to talk about the D word. I haven’t discussed it with anyone – my friends, my family, even my nurses or consultant. It’s a hushed-up topic, almost as if talking about death will somehow mean that you will do just that and die from this awful disease. I know of course that this is to protect me but also, I hope, because I have a “good” cancer, a cancer with a 90% curability rate. In other words: I am the lucky one, I am going to live.
The only person who did mention it to me was one of my chemo friends, Mary. She is a hilarious old lady, with a thick Somerset accent and honest, no-nonsense nature to match. She was having treatment on my first chemo session and a few cycles later I bumped into her on the ward again. She asked me how I was getting on and I told her much better. She agreed: “If I’m honest, the last time I saw you I thought you were a goner.” Cheers Mary, just trying my best to keep my chin up.

So finally, after a pretty delayed response to it all, almost post-traumatic stress-like, it has finally dawned on me in the last few weeks, in all its stark, black and white glory: Life and Death. And death has been following me around quite a bit since. I keep thinking about it, all the time. It cannot seem to escape my thoughts. I’ve even Googled “How do you die from cancer?”; trust The Guardian to have written a helpful little article all about this.

I’m not ready for you. Seriously, death mate, not now, not until I am old and grey and frail.

This was all part of the healing process for me: acceptance of my current state and facing my fear of death. After a week or so of playing the death card over and over again in my mind, I took a trip to Glastonbury Tor. Legend has it that the Tor is the gateway to the land of the dead, Avalon or Annwn in Celtic mythology. A world of delights and eternal youth where disease is absent and food ever-abundant. Standing there, at the top of the Tor, looking across the beautiful rolling hills of Somerset and beyond, my birthplace, I suddenly found a sense of peace and calm settling in me. I’m not ready for you. Seriously, death mate, not now, not until I am old and grey and frail.
Photo: Courtesy of Ariane
Glastonbury Tor
Who knows if we can actually sense our own, imminent death or not but standing there that day I just knew that now is not my time. It has helped me mentally so much to have faced this fear. I feel like I have made a breakthrough and much of my anxiety has since dissipated, allowing me to focus all my energy on healing.

Of course, we all have an understanding of death, and normally by 28 most of us have, unfortunately, experienced a loved one who has died. But when you yourself are faced with your own death, your understanding of what it means reaches a much deeper level. For once, I am unable to put this into words, it is rather more a feeling, a sense of something much greater than me, a spiritual awakening perhaps. With all this come questions but also acceptance, and peace. An unbuttoning of control, a loosening of desire and drive, a mellowing of the need to know one’s future destiny, living instead in the moment. This is what it must feel like to be truly free.

“Let’s get mortal” (aka horrifically drunk) and “I feel like death” (when describing a hangover from hell) are phrases I used to use a lot, back when I was well. Oh, the irony. Another of life’s little cruel jokes. I vow never to use them again. And of course my previous internal monologue also feels completely insignificant now, too. The pressure I put on myself to have a successful career, to be the perfect weight and size 8 body, to be rich, whilst trying desperately (as much as I hate to admit it) to be cool and “on trend” is slowly starting to cease, because let’s face it, when you’re lying on your deathbed no one, including you, really gives a fuck about all that.


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