“One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness). One only meets each hour or moment that comes. All manner of ups and downs. Many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst. One never gets the total impact of what we call ‘the thing itself.’ But we call it wrongly. The thing itself is simply all these ups and downs: the rest is a name or an idea.” A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
So abstract and yet so potent, some of the most formative moments of my life were brought about by this thing called Cancer.
There’s barely a time when I drive across country from Dublin to Clare that I don’t recall the frozen landscape that lay ahead of my brother and I as we drove to the hospice where my father spent his first and final night on this earth. I will never forget the knock on the door of the little terraced house I shared with friends. That door. The opening. My brother’s gait as he stood there in early morning, having to break the news. That drive. The bleakness of that journey. Our arrival in this place, where this thing called death became our reality. My mother. Utterly bereft. The haunted look in each of my brothers’ faces.
My father had been diagnosed 11 months previously, having had issues with eating and swallowing his food. Tests revealed a tumour that would require an intensive course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy prior to having surgery five months later to remove part of his oesophagus. A tremendously strong, rugged and earthy man, it was impossible to imagine how my dad would cope with being so ill. I was living in Paris at the time and came home to help my mom take care of him that summer. I had just turned 21 and I would say Dad and I had turned a corner in our relationship which through teenage years was a little fraught. He didn’t quite approve of my creative career path, wayward friends and my desire to live in a city so far from county Clare. He feared his only daughter getting lost and was pleased when I arrived home.
That summer was full of moments that define my experience with cancer. My father, undergoing chemo and radiotherapy, struggled to accept his sickness and his inability to be the doer he always was. Not one for pretence, his frustration was palpable. I remember the long journeys we made to the nearest hospital where he received his daily treatment. The horrendous nausea he endured. Whenever he had a chink of strength in those weeks, he would disappear outside to dig the garden or lay the patio, as my parents had just moved into a new house. There was a period of him being tube-fed which made us all feel very bad about our need to cook and eat in his presence. Of course he insisted on our doing so. I clearly remember one heart-breaking moment as I witnessed dad stick his finger into a tomato and lick his finger, then close his eyes-his first taste of food in a very long time. I remember the day before his major operation that October: he, my mom and I walked by the sea, the place my parents got engaged and I remember him sitting on a rock by himself, staring into the ocean for what seemed like hours.
His operation was supposed to be the last step on the road to getting back to good health. Prognosis was hopeful. However, sadly for Dad, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, which meant he would barely leave the Intensive Care Unit or High Dependency Unit for the following five months. He suffered one setback after another. He lost the ability to speak and had to communicate through the use of a chalk board. His body swelled up and then diminished to half his normal size. He was quite unrecognisable as the man he had been mere months before. I struggle to think of how he endured those months. His chest and back looked war-torn due to the scars of so many procedures that were promised to help him recover. And yet the sparkle in his blue eyes never faded as he kept rallying through so many nights the doctors told us he most likely wouldn’t survive. In turn, we never lost hope as he kept surpassing the expectations of his condition and through it all he gave us many a smile through things he’d write on his board; witty observances or nuggets of wisdom. One day he wrote that he’d give anything to feel the earth on his hands. My mother, his most fearless advocate, always strove to get him the best possible care. She was by his side every day, bar one, when she had a cold, for those five gruelling months. She fought to get him home, which she eventually succeeded in doing, albeit very briefly. My last memory of him was looking back to see him in his armchair watching TV, banging his walking stick on the floor as the Irish rugby team scored a try, while I left to travel back to college life in Dublin.
He would die within a few days. Our journey through grief would unfurl. Always surprising in the moments it would creep up on you or in the moments it would grant much-needed release. Like grief, cancer shapes us in ways we cannot ignore. The fear of it. The pain it has the power to cause. The sheer power it holds to knock the most powerful people in your world.
As abstract a thing as Cancer is, we do hold some of the power, the power to coexist and not just be consumed by the dread it conjures in all of us. Cancer grows within us, it feeds off our bodies and yet so often we feel so divorced from our bodies and the signals they send. My father, for instance, permanently had a packet of Rennie in his pocket. So many nights before bed, I witnessed him take Andrews Liver Salts or dissolve bread soda in a glass of water. For him this was normal and not something he ever questioned. It haunts me to think that through being more mindful about his diet and foods that obviously weren’t agreeing with him, he might have avoided the stomach acid that no doubt contributed to the development of oesophageal cancer in a man so fit and healthy who never smoked or drank much.
We all have a story to tell about cancer. It’s time we unite in our fight against it. Connect with ourselves before this connection is forced. It’s our duty to be mindful of our bodies. Listen to their cravings and complaints. Not accept as normal regular discomfort. To be good to our bodies. To relish living. To accept this thing called cancer. For it is among us. The moments it brings shape us profoundly. Moments that give power to the importance of truly living. Let’s harness the memory of those moments. Together, let’s get cancer.