A few weeks ago we welcomed the C word back into our life. When I say welcomed, what I really mean is – it turned up unannounced and will be crashing on the couch until further notice. Cancer is by no means our favourite house guest. Last time cancer came to stay was more than 5 years ago and to be honest we weren’t really expecting it back. Scott has been – and still is – in remission from Hodgkins Lymphoma since 2009. But now this.
I took Alexa with me to collect Scott from the endoscopy clinic. He’d been worried the night before, but a 30 hour fast will do that to you. I’d done my googling and was certain it would be no big deal. I think you’d call that denial. That said, Scott is not in a risk category for bowel cancer. He is young, healthy and very fit. He cycles more than 150km a week, doesn’t smoke, drinks moderately and eats a balanced, nutritious diet. With recurring IBS symptoms he took himself off to the doc because, as a cancer survivor, you take your body’s warning signs seriously. Still, it was most likely a polyp, inflammation or some kind of food intolerance; a matter of some concern, but easily resolved. Perhaps if I’d been my usual anxious self I would have arranged for Alexa to visit a friend, but somehow, in an out of character moment, I had chosen NOT to consider the worst case scenario. The girls at reception told me he was out from the colonoscopy procedure and about to meet the doctor. A five minute wait, I was told, so we settled in with some magazines. A moment later the nurse appeared beside us and suggested we come through to meet with the doctor. As she led me into his office she confirmed that I was his wife, nodded and said ‘Oh good’. And I knew.
The next 10 minutes were a blur. The doctor walked in and sat down, saying nothing at all. I remember desperately seeking toys or a book to distract Alexa. The gap between my chair and Scott’s was gapingly wide. I dragged my seat against Scott’s and wiggled Alexa over to my other side while the word Cancer hung in the air. Straddling the gap between chairs, I held my family together, squeezing too tight. We didn’t even react. Questions were asked, though I’m not sure who asked them. How big? What next? How long? Shock and numbness and dread, and all I could hear in my head was ‘not again, not again, not again’.
Three weeks later we are further along the path to acceptance. We know a little more, but not much. Scott has rectal cancer; a tumour in or just below the recto-sigmoid junction. In plain language, that’s the last little bend in the large intestine, about 10 cm before the ‘end’. Poo jokes are already de rigeur at our place. He is a patient at Peter Mac in East Melbourne and is midway through the usual tests and scans they do to stage and diagnose this kind of cancer. He had an MRI last week, is in for a colonoscopy on Tuesday and a combined PET/CT scan on Wednesday. A week from Tuesday we will meet again with his surgeon and discuss treatment. At this stage, a likely scenario is 6 – 8 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy followed by a further 8 weeks of waiting as it takes effect on the cancer cells. From there, keyhole surgery would remove the tumour and he’d have to wear a temporary colostomy bag while his bowel recovered from surgery. When we meet the surgeon again we’ll hear more about this and other possible scenarios. The chemo/radiation stage is dependent on what next week’s tests reveal, so there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Are we dealing with Stage 1 or Stage 4 rectal cancer? Could we skip the chemo or has the cancer spread into the lymphatic system? Is the tumour lower than expected or bigger than expected? Will the test results reveal things the doctors simply don’t expect?
The waiting is the worst thing. For 3 weeks we’ve been riding the roller coaster of not knowing. At least, I have. To be honest, while Scott is definitely at the theme park, he’s probably not on the roller coaster with me. While I oscillate between losing my breath and catching it again, he simply knows his time is not up and is clear what he has to do to get through this. His calm certainty is both a wonderful and terrible thing for me. I am comforted by the fact that he is OK; stricken by the fact that I am helpless. I sought help from a wise and insightful lady I know, and she told me something remarkable. “I am excited for you!” she said. “You will grow so much through this experience. You and Scott will grow so much as a couple.” She’s right. While the next 6 months will mean different things for each of us, we will go through it side by side and we can’t help but emerge with a stronger partnership, as more enlightened beings.
Some people have religious beliefs that help them apply meaning to the circumstances of their life. Others seek answers from the sphere of scientific discovery and find comfort in the certainty that offers. In recent years I’ve come to believe we choose our experience of this life. I see this as a soul or spirit choice rather than a choice we make as conscious beings. This is the journey we’ve all chosen. Scott’s journey requires him to experience cancer, not once but twice. The rest of us are here to learn something from the way we share that journey with him. If I’m right, then what’s the point in railing against what life presents you with? If I’m wrong, then what’s the point in railing against what life presents you with? Whatever happens, we are here and we are experiencing this and we might as well embrace it.
In my case I think embracing this experience is going to mean simply showing up. It might mean crying my heart out one day and cooking up a freezer full of curries, stews and casseroles the next. Embracing this means feeling what I feel and having the courage to express that in the moment. It’s being present to what others around me feel and having the strength to let them go through it in their own way. I’m pretty well practiced at being the strong one, toughing it out all day and not showing up emotionally until some stage later when it all comes crashing down. I’m trying not to be that person this time. I want to be present and real and authentic in each moment as it happens. For me, that’s easier said than done, but I’m working on it. I’ll keep you posted.