The here and now

by Hilla Duka

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I am now past what has been the worst week of the worst treatment so far - finally I can say that it’s over. The treatments, or rather my reaction to them, seem to worsen for each time, and this round I was knocked out for six days straight. Six days of having nothing but the taste of vomit in my mouth, not being able to eat or drink anything with relish, of my head feeling very drugged up, and my body aching, left completely without strength. As day four, and then day five approached, I hoped and thought that they would bring comfort, that I would feel better, more like myself. On both those mornings I woke up, looking for signs that I was past it, only to find it was still as bad. That crushed hope was hard to take, although I hope now to have learned for how long it will be bad, and accept it better next time. Next time… Four treatments left, all-in-all a month of feeling this ill, albeit split up over four different weeks. I try not to dwell on that too much, but look forward to two weeks of not feeling like that anymore, and to try to imagine a time when the treatments are done for this time, to imagine receiving good news at the last checkup, to having some time to be well after chemo is over for this time.

 

The days that I am so weak are hard for me to go through, but I think much harder on those around me. I hate that they suffer, hate seeing them worried about me and not be able to reassure them in any way. Cancer has affected everyone in our family, and their lot seems to me to be worse than my own: I can think of nothing as heartbreaking as watching someone you love go through this and feel so helpless as there is nothing you can do. But then I think of how horrible it would be if I did indeed go through this alone, without anyone to care for me or worry for me, and I am grateful to be surrounded with people who love me, who are prepared to be there to offer what support can be had, even though it hurts them.

 

As I was at my worst, in a rare moment of actually being in control of my head, I realised something that I think is fundamentally important: This is in no way different from anything else in life. Yes, I have cancer and it is a chronic and terminal disease - but so is life. Life hands us good turns and bad, and when we’re on a high, feeling loved and successful we feel as though nothing could touch us. But then life takes a turn, be it cancer, or divorce, or any other punch in the stomach, and we’re down, feeling like failures and miserable to the boot, but we get up, lick our wounds, and come back.

 

These turns are part of everyones lives. There is only one time, and one time alone, that we do not get back on our feet and put ourselves back together again, and no one can know when that time is to come. And we cannot live our lives in fear of that time, or in denial of that time, we can in no way let that one, future time when we don’t get back on our feet rule the life we have. I am thirty five years old, I have thirty five years of experience in putting myself back together and making the best of new situations. This I must rely on. It is exactly the same now, with the cancer. Right now, I’m in a bad situation, one I would not wish upon anyone, but I need to focus on getting through the treatments, and picking myself up, because after there will be good times to be had, times of feeling loved and successful, before the next blow comes. And I will be ready to enjoy the next good roll. I know there will come bad blows again, the cancer will flare up again, and then I will work with my body to help it rid itself of it again.

 

When I found out I had cancer, it was as if I died then and there. I mourned the life I would not have, the loss my children and loved ones would have to go through, even before it happened. This new understanding has brought me back from that place, has made me realise that I can live with cancer. No one can say for how long, and I will not dwell on prognoses: they are statistics, no one has seen me fight this before, and so cannot predict for how long or how well I can do this. I don’t mean that in some megalomaniac, narcissistic way: I by no means think that I am fundamentally different than the scores of other women fighting this illness, I just mean that each person is unique. Our makeup, our DNA makes us all different, in ever so small but important ways.

 

When doctors use the term “terminal cancer”, they mean that medically, but we as patients take their words as law - the diagnosis and the prognosis. Yet if I am in remission, if there - for a period of time - are no cancer cells in my body to be found, then I myself must think of myself as well, and enjoy that time, be it six months or ten years. And I must make as much of that time as I can, that is what I owe to life, and to myself. It is the debt we all have to life, and to ourselves: to enjoy our time as much as possible, to face life full on, grab it by the throat and enjoy it in every single way we can.

 

If the end goal of life is to cheat death, then we are all losing. We live in a time when most of us are not forced to live with death as a part of our lives, and so we ignore it and think that we can go on ignoring it forever. But all of us will one day die, the goal cannot be to survive for then we will all fail, it must instead be to have as much time as possible, as good of a time as possible, and a clean death at the end of it.

 

If I look back on the thirty five years I have lived so far, there are of course things I regret. Lost chances and words spoken harshly mainly. But there are so many things I feel I have done well, and I afford myself to look on those things with pride, to take pleasure in remembering them. I am proud of myself for the chances I did take, I am proud to have loved and been loved, and I am proud of my children. The things I regret I don’t dwell on, but use them like I use the things I am proud of: as guides to what mistakes to avoid in the future. So that when my time comes, I can look back on my life, and feel peace in that I lived it well, that I fought to get as much time as I could, that I fought to make that time as good as it could be.


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