“What are you doing here?” rang out as my oncologist and I walked across the foyer of the treatment centre. The enquiry came from a nursing acquaintance who had not expected to see me. It was an unanticipated visit; my blood levels were accelerating skywards. My oncologist quietly answered for me - “Sailor’s been misbehaving”.
Later that day, unsure as to what would happen, what tests were to be done, what treatment would be offered - that statement rankled. It seemed my cancer had returned, that was not my fault, I was not guilty. I had not been misbehaving!
Three years had passed since my initial treatment, everything had gone well - as far as I was concerned I was well on my way out of the five-year square and into survivorship. Sure my blood marker level had gone up, but then it came down. There was a term for it, “the bounce”. If you had that it was a good sign - you were into long-term remission, some would even whisper that forbidden word ‘cure’. Yet there it was, the blood levels reaching for the moon, if not the stars. It was not my fault, I had done everything asked of me - good diet, taken all my pills as prescribed, exercised regularly, been positive - no, I had not been misbehaving!
Some years later I re-read some of the works of that dilettante, lawyer and divine, John Donne who bridged that transition from Elizabeth I to Charles I, and ended as Dean of St Paul’s. He married his 17 year old bride without her father’s permission and was flung into the Fleet prison, where he inscribed the words “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone” - at least we know how he pronounced his name! Towards the end of his life he wrote “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”. Hemingway used one of these in the title of his book “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.
My cancer is not foreign to me for nothing has invaded me. It is my cells that are aberrant, not another person’s, not a bacteria, not a virus. I am not battling an invader, so metaphors that belong to the military are not appropriate. What is growing in me are Sailor’s cells - they have changed, mutated, forgotten how to stop growing, but their DNA is my DNA.
If my heart misbehaves and stops, will not I stop? If I my leg is cut off, will I say I fought a battle with my leg? No it is part of me that is lost and I am the poorer for it. If my brain misbehaves and I become demented, will not people still address me as Sailor, and perhaps say, “Poor Sailor, he used to think a lot”? For there will still be a flicker of me left in the husk of a body. I cannot separate Sailor from the myriad parts of me, the millions and millions of cells that in some mysterious way form me. So if some of my cells changes and mutate and do abnormal things, is it not me who is doing those things?
My cancer is now part of who I am. It is not foreign, but truly it is part of what makes up Sailor. In a sense I have become my cancer and my cancer has become me. So if my cancer misbehaves, is it not me misbehaving?
Yes, Sailor was misbehaving!
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Cancer Council NSW would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work.We would also like to pay respect to elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people.