There were 12 days between being told I had cancer and being given a prognosis. What do you do in those 12 never-ending days?
Immediately everything else mattered only in proportion to the news that will soon come. And how can anything else compare to the biggest news of your life? But you have no agency over that news. That die is cast, bouncing it’s way along the table as you consider each face’s consequence. So nothing in those 12 days felt as though it really mattered. Mundane tasks found me during the day and sleep escaped me at night. I walked and ran. I was scanned and tested.
And then some friends who have lived with cancer made two suggestions. One was to write this blog. The other was to break the news to people in writing to lessen the emotional burden on myself and to allow others to process the news at their own pace. So I drafted that message. Most of you reading now will have received it.
I’ve spent much of my career writing. Trying to capture the nub of a complex issue with as much clarity and brevity as the pace of events will allow. Or attempting to record the nuance and humanity of meeting for an audience thousands of miles away. Allowing that distant reader to feel the warmth of the room as well as grasp the cold facts. So a long text message was, for the most part, easy to write. Give people a scene setting warning. Give them an unequivocal statement of the facts. Tell them what the future holds. Ask of them what you need. Tell them where to go for more information. Allow them space to respond. Top notch civil service drafting. Sir Humphrey would be proud.
And so I began. The words were there easily for me until the the paragraph about what the future held. You see I didn’t know. The die was still rolling. I wanted to write the message before the diagnosis – one less thing to worry about afterwards. And so I drafted two versions of that paragraph. The first explaining that the prognosis was good and that I was likely to recover and a second saying I was not. They sat their in the draft under the simple sub-headings [good news] and [bad news] waiting for one to be deleted and the other to be my new reality. And for 12 days life was that simple.
Now of course it’s not actually that clean cut. We knew that as we walked into the meeting with the consultant. We’d sat in the car beforehand and reminded ourselves that it was just the first turn on a long journey. An important one but not the only one. If it were good news there would undoubtedly be things that went wrong along the way. If it were bad news not every day would be bad. But black and white was easier to deal with and in fact i dealt only with black. I somehow knew that the prognosis would be bad. The cancer would’ve spread and would be incurable. Treatment would be aimed not at cure but at managing symptoms and time. Dealing with those 12 days seemed easier without hope. I made a list of targets to survive for. Could I get to my younger son’s first day at school? My tenth wedding anniversary? To the age at which my father ‘died young’? The emotion of this was too big to fit in me and so this process of charting my mortality was very matter of fact and devoid of any great feeling.
But then, as you of course know, I deleted that paragraph. The consultant’s words are a blur but they included “no spread”, “local cancer” and “curative treatment plan”. We started crying and he left us with the nurse for a while. He talked and explained what would happen next and that the plan was to cure me and that there was no reason I shouldn’t have a normal life expectancy. We hadn’t planned for hope and didn’t know what to do. We felt as though we should be popping champagne and yet knew so much uncertainty remained and so many difficult days were clearly ahead of us. We went for a walk under blue skies and sunshine.
At home and I sat in the garden. I pulled up the draft of that message you received, selected all of [bad news] and deleted it. For now that future is gone. For now the first turn on a long road has been a good one and for now the future remains happy and hopeful.