This article was written just over one year since I was diagnosed with cancer.
Since then I have had surgery, chemotherapy, six months of lying around on the couch staring out the window at the dappled light of days yawning and stretching over the sky until the night slinked in. I felt suspended in a giant aquarium of a cisplatin; time stopped for six months.
I questioned myself, my work, the world, death, and the spirit beyond. I struggled to have faith in the doctors, in the treatment, and in myself. Everyone was so sure I would be fine – I was such a ‘positive’ person – I would be back and at it in no time.
Truth is I was scared, very scared, and all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and hide under the blankets.
But I didn’t die.
I lived. Once treatment was over I was ushered back out in to the world with ‘off you go then’. No guarantees – just the long wait between checkups to see if cancer had returned.
There was no ‘end’ to cancer – just a finished chapter with the next one waiting to be read, with no hints at the ending. I had a choice: live worrying whether the cancer would come back, or live expecting the cancer to be gone. No guarantees either way, but it sure felt better to expect health than worry about sickness.
So I learned to live not knowing if the cancer would come back, but enjoying each day anyway. I make plans anyway. I look forward to the future anyway.
And all the time I am so grateful. Grateful for my friends, for my family, for my colleagues, for countless of strangers who prayed for me around the world. I am grateful for the sunshine, the sea, and the lime tree that grows new shoots outside the office door, the cackle of cockatoos. I notice small things; I savour moments like when an unknown child grins deliciously at me with a full sparkle of joy in the supermarket, or the guy at the fish shop with his wry smile in his green galoshes winks and gives me a special deal.
In facing death I have come to love life so much, even the hard, yucky, nasty bits. When I heard news this week of a colleague, who took his own life after a long struggle with depression, I found myself angry, sad, and disillusioned. I struggle knowing that someone can fight so hard to live while another discards his life and all the promise of the future.
Yet I know the darkness of illness. Chemotherapy was at times so oppressive, like a steel coffin bearing down on me. I prayed for relief, prayed for escape, and I understood then why thoughts of death as an end to suffering come to us. Not the most beautiful sunrise, or glorious vista, or warm hug from a loved one can cut through this kind of pain.
It is so difficult to feel joy when you are sick. I knew my nausea would end – I had to make it through ten days of debilitating sickness each round of chemo, but I knew eventually it would recede. The days where I woke up without feeling sick were so fantastic – my spirit lifted and soared in relief.
For someone with mental illness, however, there is no promise of an end to suffering. Sometimes medication can dull the effects; sometimes a manic swing can pull them through the dark tunnels. Sometimes, for those who suffer mental illness, in their eyes the only way out is permanent darkness, an escape to the spirit world.
If my friend’s death teaches us anything it is this: life is short and precious. Don’t waste another minute being miserable. Show those around you how much you love them. Look with a child’s wonder and delight at the world around you. Find reasons to laugh and smile. Love yourself. Love the gift of life.
In remembering my friend, in remembering my cancer journey, I choose living now. I choose delirious anticipation of the small miracles I know will appear each day.
I choose love and lightness and laughter. I wish the same for you.