That didn’t happen.
Five years ago, when my sons were barely over the threshold of adulthood, I was diagnosed with secondary cancer and I was afraid I would die and that I would not be around to see them complete their education, start work and relationships and move into their own homes.
That didn’t happen either.
But a couple of weeks ago, I was given the news by my consultant oncologist, who I know so well by now that we’re practically friends, that the tumour in my neck had grown. I was shocked - literally speechless, which as anyone who knows me will testify, is almost unheard of. The medication (Faslodex) which had been injected into both my buttocks every month for two-and-a-half years wasn’t working any more. I needed to switch to something else (Tamoxifen) immediately. I didn’t manage to ask any questions, except the ‘big’ one: what did this development mean for my overall prognosis? The consultant was doggedly optimistic. She reckons I’ll still be trudging to the hospital long after she’s retired.
I’m a little more cautious. Almost exactly a year ago, I’d been told I was in stable remission and I feel like I let myself be lulled into a false sense of security. Why else had I stopped taking the long list of supplementary and herbal medicines I’d taken for years? Why else had I sauntered into the clinic alone to get the CT and bone scan results? I go to hospital so often - sometimes for other, less pressing health problems - that I always go alone unless I’m waiting for test and/or scan results. I’m heartily sick of the place myself - excuse the awful pun - so I save up the favours I ask of family and friends.
I loathe the combat metaphors that are so often applied to cancer, with its so-called brave, battle-scarred survivors and fallen soldiers. I don’t want to battle through life. I want to live it. And I’ve been ‘living with cancer’ for so long, I suppose I should be used to it. To a certain extent, I am. I have learned to pace myself and I choose my activities - professional and social - within the constraints of my levels of stress and fatigue. I have learned to cope with the symptoms and with the side-effects of the treatment. I’ve moved past the compulsive touching of my body’s scars and ‘lumps’ and worrying that every ache or pain is a progression of the disease. And I don’t look ill, so I am used to the surprised tone of voice and facial expression that people have when they observe that, far from looking like a wasted bag of bones, I look so well.
I’ve ‘raced for life’ and I make a monthly contribution to Cancer Research UK, but I’m not really a fan of pink ribbons and bows, and I’ve never been a member of any hospital or community support groups or online forums. I have a small, but supportive family and circle of friends and over the years, I’ve made full use of the complementary therapies on offer through The Haven, Cancerkin and Macmillan - and even the activities offered by Sail4Cancer and Odyssey. But these organisations mainly direct their services to newly- or recently-diagnosed cancer patients - and rightly so. I understand that they do not have the money and resources to support someone living with cancer long-term, but that didn’t stop me bursting into tears this morning, when the Macmillan volunteer told me I couldn’t have any more massage treatments.
As I sat on the tube on the way home, sobbing into a soggy tissue and feeling sorry for myself, I realised that since I saw the consultant two weeks ago, I’ve been numb with shock - and carrying on as normal with my writing and teaching. But yesterday, I had to have yet another CT scan to see if the cancer has spread to my skull. And, heaven help me, I am knackered! I am fed up to the back teeth of pulling myself together. Trying to be positive is getting on my tits - and this time, I don’t even care about the bad pun!
Of course, no one knows exactly when they’re going to die. Everyone lives with this uncertainty and in the end, everyone has to face up to their own mortality. And in a weird way, that is one of the positives of any life-threatening diagnosis. Living with cancer has influenced many of the life-decisions I’ve made - ranging from stopping smoking to stopping full-time teaching and becoming a part-time, self-employed writer, and from travelling and spending all my money on holidays instead of saving for a rainy day - but only after I’d pre-paid my funeral expenses, of course.
But today, all I can think of is that cancer scares people - including me. I’m scared that I will die and that I won’t get to dance at my oldest son’s wedding or my youngest son - or my 9 year-old nephew’s.... Today, all I can do is hope that when the time comes, I’ll still be around to say:
That didn’t happen!