The art of living

by Hilla Duka

2014-07-26_06.31.25

In June 2014, my life changed forever. I finally got to see a doctor who took all my strange symptoms seriously, examined my breast and my swollen lymph nodes, and who answered me gently, but made it clear that cancer was a real risk. The next day, after I had left some blood samples, a doctor called me and ordered me to go to the emergency to get a blood transfusion. As my doctor’s office and the emergency didn’t have the same data system, my doctor’s office had faxed my papers, and as I signed in to the emergency room, I was given those papers, to give to the doctor I would see. Naturally I checked them, and from the statement and values it was clear to me that I had cancer. The next day, I was told that it had spread to my lymph nodes, and a week later that it was also found in my skeleton and bone marrow, meaning that it was stage four cancer, with no way of ever being cured from it.

 

Since then, so much of what it is that I’m coming to terms with, is a question of learning how to live with death as a part of life. This is not something we’re forced to do in this day and age, and learning how to is alien and stressing and strange. My reality is that the best I can hope for is that my body can manage all ten chemos now, and that the cancer cells can't, and then… Well, yes, then it’s the question of what then. Basically, after that, it’s living with death around the corner. Even if (or when) I manage to get through all ten treatments, and they give me the amazing news that they can find No Evidence of Disease (NED), the rest of my life will be spent worrying about some lump I’m feeling or a pain in the side or whatnot. I’ll go on checkups, and when I get all clear and they tell me they can’t find anything, I’ll celebrate. And then the next day I’ll start worrying about the next checkup, the next lump, until one day they tell me they can find new spreadings. Coming to terms with this kind of future is taxing and difficult and horrific, and is not something I would wish upon anyone.

 

I’ve done my fair share of trying to negotiate with this unarmed weapon pointing at me, hell - I’ve probably done most peoples share of that. I will willingly, gladly, accept this future as long as there is a future and it’s long, but simply accepting it isn’t the same as understanding what it will mean. It’s a bit like when parents tell someone who doesn’t have kids that they’re tired, and that person goes ‘Yeah, I totally understand’. They don’t, because you can’t unless you’ve been there. It’s not that they don’t want to understand, it’s just that unless you’ve stood there with the baby that just won't stop screaming unless you carry it and rock it at exactly the right pace, while you’re legs are aching and you’re ready to fall asleep standing up, indeed walking around, for the fifth night in a row, you really can’t get it. I think it’s the same now. It’s like I’m standing on one side looking into this thing that will hopefully be my future, and trying hard to accept it and understand what it will be like, only I can’t really understand it yet, because I’m not living through it yet. Almost, but not really yet. One leg is there, and the other is still standing in chemo-reality.

 

But as they say, hope is the last thing that leaves you, and as humans we must have something, that is just maybe out of reach but not entirely, to hope for. And as I’m not religious I can’t really hope for salvation or heaven, and I’m not really interested in eternal peace anyway. The only thing I can hope for is more time, more future. So it stands to reason that a lot of the machinations of my brain will therefore investigate what kind of future I can hope for, if all goes well. It turns out, even in the best outcome of this I have to accept death, as part of my new life.

 

Ironically, I’m actually way better at living since I found out I’m dying. I mean, not right now, and in some sense we’re all dying, but you get the idea. I’m so much better at life, when life also involves death. I’m better at embracing my feelings, I’m better at being grateful, I’m more conscious of the sort of thoughts I allow into my head, and whether they’re worthy thoughts or not. I’m better at enjoying the here-and-now moments, and I’m so much more grateful. Before, I had a good job, decent money and great friends and family, and while I did appreciate every bit of it, I think in some ways I felt entitled to it. It was due to me, as a result of who I was, of what I did.

 

Now, as I’ve struggled to understand how wholly unfair life actually is and that there really isn’t anything you can do about it, whether or not I deserve something is completely unimportant, because you don’t actually get the things you deserve. In comes the gratitude. Yes, I may have cancer and it will change everything about my day to day life and my future, and my death, and it’s not fair in any way, but it’s just part of the portion I’ve been served. I’ve also been given incredible kids, a wonderful husband, loving family and friends, great opportunities to do amazing things… The list goes on and on.


I’ve had to give up basically everything that I was, everything that I thought defined me, but in return I’ve gotten something back. It may not be a fair bargain, but I’m so not left empty-handed in this. If the price I’m paying for living is a life with death as a participant, I’m ok with that.


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