I’m not sure where I am. It’s somewhere quite dark and bleak, and barren. It’s like a desert but cold and grey. I’m stuck there. It’s hard and rocky, and everywhere is shrouded with a veil of darkness. I try to look around but I can just make out shapes, indistinct and brooding hulks of things, at the corners of my vision. Every now and then I feel something scuttle past me, barely alive but moving quickly, searching for something in the shadows. I freeze in case I’m the thing it’s looking for.
I’m scared. I don’t know how I got here or where I am. I’m alone, but I can sense a presence somewhere, in the arid air around me and in the quiet pulsing throb of the gloom. The ground is hard, like rock and the atmosphere is heavy, oppressive, weighing my chest down like a leaden slab. I can’t quite fill my lungs and I gasp raspy breaths, but try not to make a sound. I don’t want it to hear me, to know I'm here. But it’s already here, a dark cloaked figure in the omniscient silence of my present and my future, and it knows it can take me, whenever it wants.
A World Away
Yet somewhere else, maybe in my subconscious mind or somehow projected onto a kind of gossamer screen surrounding whatever this world might be, I can see the other world, my old world, faint and faded. With people coming and going, and laughing and smiling and being together. I think I can see my friends and family. I can’t make out anything they say, but I can hear sounds and sometimes I can almost taste the freshness of the air where they are. I can see someone, someone who looks like me, in my life, sitting quietly in a chair whilst the world moves on around them. But it isn’t me, it can’t be me, because I’m here, in this place.
Whoever they are, they look sad. I try to call out to them, to any of the people on the gossamer cobweb screen, to get their attention, but they don’t react. I can’t shout out so I wave my hand, but no one sees me. I tear my attention away and back to the reality of this other place, this realm in which I’ve found myself and I try to recall how it was I came to be here.
How it Was
Last time we talked (I know, I generally talk and you generally listen, but in my head you talk back to me, like a collective consciousness that walks along with me) I was just about to head into chemotherapy. It seems like forever ago now. The dates were mapped out on my calendar, 12 weeks of chemo, 5 days of radio, another 3 months of injections, throw in a couple of contingency weeks for sickness and bam, October half term had a big red circle round it and I could almost hear the crackle and fizz of reality returning. It tasted like toffee apples and spice, it was filled with the sounds of laughter and children’s footsteps and the rustle of fancy dress costumes. It was so real I could close my eyes and feel it, and I wanted to wake up and just find myself there, with all this behind me. I still do, but it now seems like another dimension entirely.
The colours of hope that painted that picture are missing from the monotone palette of this greyscale landscape. It seems that Life, and its darker shrouded cousin, have decided that my path needed a few more twists, diversions, potholes, traps. Perhaps I was coping too well, or maybe I was naive to think that I could have a fling with cancer and walk away with just a handful of battle scars and bruises. There is no battle to be fought, in this reality, my role here is not one of gladiator. I am here just as a playing piece on a board, to be moved at will by a hand far more powerful than mine. All I can do is hope that the dice rolls in my favour. This time it has not.
Let me explain.
Three weeks ago I was referred to the gynaecology dept, following some abnormal bleeding. My positive consciousness classified it as something to do with the fibroids I have had for years. But when you have cancer, every twinge, every niggle and every tiny difference summons the icy finger of our shrouded friend. He places them just above your shoulders, and you wait for him to take hold, whenever the hell he wants to. I’ll spare the details of the clinical process that followed, but 2 biopsies were sent off for investigation. There was a polyp. It would be another 2 weeks of waiting before the results came back.
I shrugged his bony fingers loose and assured myself that this was fake, a trick to mess with my mind. A lesson to keep me in my place. I had been far too cocky. Chemo preparation was in full swing. I had my intravenous line installed to receive infusions, and my first chemo session was booked for the day after next. I was ready. It was also 13 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes since the 2 week cancer referral window for my gynae problem opened, so the results had to be clear, it was too late for them not to be.
And then the phone rang.
It was a nurse from the gynae unit.The letter hadn’t gone out yet, but she wanted to let me know as soon as possible (within the two week window, by the skin of your teeth, NHS). The biopsies had shown ‘suspicious pathology’. They needed further analysis and I needed to have an urgent pelvic MRI. It hit me, hard and out of nowhere, a sledgehammer to the side of my skull and I sensed the air changing around me instantly. The colour started draining from my landscape like furious grey raindrops washing away watercolours. I was falling quickly down a long dark hole and I tried to grasp at fragments of reality as they sped past me.
I remember speaking into the echoing void.
“Suspicious pathology? Does that mean cancer?”
“It means it could be, I can’t confirm..”
Her voice is quieter now, further away.
“So the breast cancer has spread or is this a new one?”
“I don’t know, I can’t tell you….wait for...tests..”
“BUT HOW?” I’m howling into the nothingness
“I’m so sorry...I don’t know how...you’re...coping”.
A whisper, and she’s gone.
And then I’m here in this dark, deep cavern, and I don’t know anything about how I’m coping. I don’t know anything at all. I can’t get out, I don’t know how to move or how to breathe or how to take a step in any direction. And I can see him now. He’s looking straight at me. And my heart is icy cold.
It’s been 6 days since I came here. Since then I’ve had contact from oncologists, radiographers, nurses, chemotherapists, they’re trying to rally but there is a large dark cloud gathering apace. They have paused the chemotherapy until they know more. The two teams are talking, tests are planned, plans are being rapidly rewritten, but no one will say the words I want to hear. Medications are being hastily prescribed but it’s a storm of reaction and defence rather than solution. I hear from the Macmillan nurse. It’s extremely unlikely that the breast cancer has spread, so this looks like it could be a whole new one. A rarity but not impossible. I do like to go one better. She also tells me she doesn’t know how I’m coping either. Somehow they assume I am. I suppose I must be, I don’t have any other options.
It seems that only cancer people can reach me here. I can’t communicate with anyone else. They try but I can’t reply. I ignore emails and messages from the other world, I can’t engage with them. There is a rope though and I’m clinging to it. At the other end are four women who will never let go. Women who have been here before and have looked him in the eye too. They understand and they know. They will never let go of the rope.
They are holding me up, they have wrapped me tightly and are bearing the strain. They are constant and true and I will never be able to repay them.
We have no choice now but to wait. To see what number I have been rolled and whereabouts I end up on the board.
I am trying to come back. My spirit is growing, my strength and power are keen to flex and fight. My anger is raging and I will not lay down. But the dice is not mine to roll. Not this time.