Last I left off, in chronological order, was surgery. Having the surgery. The surgery in hindsight was not nothing, but it paled in comparison to what came next, because we all thought the surgery was the end of it, and therefore the shock of finding out the opposite was all the more jarring.
I want to preface the next few paragraphs with a hypothesis I have, about how life shows up on your face and body. Stress can make your hair fall out. Hard falls leave scars and bruises. Laughter leaves laughter lines.
Set aside you hatred or admiration for the following example; Tony Blair (yes) was on Parkinson in March 2006. My grandpa was sick but we did not know quite how sick. My cancer was an impossibility. I remember watching this man, the ultimate politician, who had all youth, vitality, and charismatic ease only six years previous, and I thought about his face.
I remember thinking that one half of his face seemed older than the other. I thought, that this half of his face has absorbed all the stress of his time in office. The Iraq War, The ‘Sexed Up’ Dossier, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and so on and so forth. I thought that all of that showed on one side of his face, whilst the other stood older but less ravaged, moving deliberately through the interview.
Do not mistake this reference for sympathy for Blair. This is just the first time I thought about how life can etch itself on your face and body.
Friends, new friends especially, look at old photos of me from before cancer. The last few of my thick and lengthy brown hair. Most people say I look like a different person. I absolutely do…I was fifteen then, I’m twenty-three now. But especially to me, that person is unrecognisable. Honestly, I thoroughly dislike that person. From the start of chemotherapy, elements of my face started to alter. I have deep dark circle under my eyes now, that have never left, but some a lot of different aspects of my face have changed that are hard to describe. And even though my family might tell you differently, I think one half of my face has sagged a little lower, and maybe looks a little older, a little sadder.
After surgery I thought we were in the clear. I really did. No seriously. I thought I got out without a scratch (except for the long jagged scar). After the big ass tumour was removed, we found Dr. Philip Savage. Easily one of the most important people in my, and many other people’s lives. Who I thought I would barely get to know, because surely everything was back to normal from here on in.
Mum was going to start work that week. We were focused on recovering from the surgery. Walking and eating and pooping (yeah that’s actually the biggest post-surgery challenge). We had a blood test, and a scan. The scan involved a painful needle that I complained wildly about, and ended up bloodying my hospital gown. I felt no foreboding, no sense of dread, no fear, no anticipation of the results.
In December, not long after the scan, the phone rang in the kitchen. I was home alone. Mum was on her way home from work. Dad was on a train. Juliet was at school. I was wearing my Mickey Mouse mosaic t-shirt from Disneyland, soft and comfy from sweat and overuse. The house was dark, except for a lamp in the kitchen. It was pitch black outside and I picked up the phone. Dr Savage wanted to speak to my mum, so I said she wasn’t there and I insisted he tell me what was up. Dr Savage was not at all happy with this situation. I forced it. Withholding the information meant it had to be something worth knowing.
I don’t remember what he said exactly. Adrenaline shot through me like a bolt of lightning, I felt like my stomach was ripped down and out of me, and all I could think about was not crying on the phone to Dr. Savage. I don’t remember exact sentences, just words: “spread…lungs…metaticised….when….tomorrow….chemotherapy…HCG…CA125….I’m okay just tell me, I want to know”. I told Dr. Savage to call my mum on her mobile and hung up. I called my dad on the train. I called my friends on the bus.
Writing this I asked my parents what happened and how they felt, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a brain blockage. Dad said he broke out in cold sweats. Mum had to pull over.
I gave a talk at school a year after chemo finished about a project I was working on for the Teenage Cancer Trust. I talked about the night I found out that it spread. I called my best friends, who were on the bus home from school, and said something along the lines of ‘Sorry guys, it’s not over…looks like I’m going to need chemo…bummer.” They said they would come over as soon as they got off the bus.
When I think about the, maybe, twenty minutes between hanging up on my friends and them arriving at home, I remember dead silence. I was scared shitless. I felt cold and alone. I panicked. I remember giving myself twenty minutes to get my sh**t together before they got to my house. To get myself into airplane mode. I stared at my hair and face in the mirror.
I tried to breath and calm down. I turned the lights on in the house. I played the piano. I had just written a song about a boy at school I really fancied, which I played with my friends when they arrived (this mortifying pile of rubbish stayed on their iPods for the next couple years).
They asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I said ‘no’. I said that we would deal with it as it comes. Motherf**king mature for a 15 year old?
My mum’s brother Robin came down from London. Mum called Grannie, who had just lost her husband to cancer, and they cried. Dad chose not to tell Grandma and my American family just yet, it was too much and too far away. We sat around the kitchen table, me in my Mickey Mouse t-shirt, and the adults in their work clothes. They clutched glasses of wine. I sat on my hands, and we talked about the year behind us. Mum and Robin were talking about how shit it was (fair enough).
This is why I love my family. We talked about Grandpa dying and what that had done to the family. How dark and sad the year had been. I piped up after a while: ‘Hey it’s not so bad! We had that great holiday in Canada’. Robin turned to me and said ‘Yeah it’s easy for you to say!’, and I nearly laughed those little tumours out of my lungs. For hours we sat around that table with heavy chests and heavy hearts.
That night is the saddest and most surreal it ever got for us, or me rather. Post-surgery, pre-chemo, pre-cure. We had hospital first thing in the morning. Mum hugged me and Dad researched the chemo drugs I would be taking. I remember looking at my face and feeling old, and wondering how old I was going to get.
I’m sorry that this is such sad post. But sometimes you have to let things be sad, to give them their proper credit. From this point on it was rough but, as you know, I’m still here. That isn’t the same for everyone. It is incredibly hard to comfort and console people who aren’t contending with a situation that will get better. This post, for those in any sort of similar situation, doesn’t have any advice or solace beyond the comfort of friends and family at a shitty and scary time. If you are in this situation I hope it helps to know that other people have been scared by this too, that to me always makes these unknown and frightening times less lonely. Less unchartered.
I can still see, subtly and overtly, what cancer has left on, and taken from my body. My face. My hair. My scar etc. They make me sad but they also remind me of what I’ve been through. When I start to take life for granted again, they remind me of its frailty and of its value.