Having lived through a long and savage chemotherapy regimen as recently as just eight months ago, I often find myself reflecting on what this has taught me. From the moment my legs buckled under me at being told my diagnosis, it has seemed imperative to me that it held a lesson. This surreal journey into such a frightening disease and its treatment had to have some other meaning, outside “just one of those things”.
So what was the secret that I needed to learn here? Vulnerability? Impermanence? How would I be remembered? So many thoughts and feelings of what it could be swirled around my mind during those long 8 months of treatment. I prayed that over time the lessons would become apparent. Now, 8 months on, as I try to carry on with my old life as if it had not been suspended, as if I was the same me, I have many moments that I stop and tap into myself, and notice what comes up for me. What have I learned? One pervading feeling that mostly occupies my mind and heart these days is the separateness of cancer patients undergoing treatment. The seemingly parallel path to the rest of the world that exists from the moment of diagnosis, to the time that treatment spits them out at the other end. This separateness for me had two faces, both of which had something to teach me.
One is an obvious physical separateness whereby each chemo treatment for those who suffered as I did, sees them in bed for 10 days out of 14 and the remaining 4 are spent in frailty not allowing much interaction with the outside world. Noises outside the bedroom window echo sounds of life, laughter, traffic, exhibiting so plainly the unknowing that those like me, were suffering. It told me that the hugeness of my struggle didn’t stop life going on. It was a painful realization but it taught me something to hold in my work as a therapist and more broadly as a human being … that on my best day it is someone’s worst, and on my worst, someone’s best. So in order for those days of struggle to have meaning, I needed to remember that whatever kind of day I now experience, there is always someone experiencing the opposite; and even though they are strangers to me, I want to stop and think of them so it matters.
The second is the loss of one’s physical self. For me it was bloating, baldness, skin sores and paleness. Where once I was met with smiles and hellos, I became invisible. Sales people, strangers, fellow pedestrians, looked away from me. Whether it was because of shock or just my lack of relevance to the aesthetic world, for me it was palpable and sad. Not sad as much as you may expect because I was not seen. But sadder because I wondered for how long in my life had I treated others as invisible when it was difficult to look, when it challenged my sense of aesthetic normalcy. Had I? Sadly, I think I recognized this in myself.
It occurred to me I had ironically chosen a profession where I valued a lack of judgment of people’s psychological selves as part of my role as a therapist, but how had I translated this into making sure I saw all physical carriages as relevant in my day to day life and not just in my life philosophy? I’m not sure.
My own experience of invisibility reminded me that everyone’s heart beats the same, everyone has the same need for acknowledgment of their physicality, to be loved and thought of as a relevant part of others interactions and lives. I try so hard to “see” more today. To really be mindful of those around me, and when I feel myself wanting to look away, pull my eyes back and try and smile. It seems so little to do, but so important to those who have felt that absence, as I did.
So looking back on “just one of those things”, the fear of that very scary disease and my ongoing terror of it ever returning, I’m grateful I can glean the gifts amongst all the weeds. Hopefully these lessons will serve to help me be a finer therapist and a more mindful and compassionate human being.
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.