The Cancer Train…

Someone once said that a person does not get cancer. A family does.

My daughter with my beautiful late Auntie

Living under the shadow of this intangible yet omnipresent force is a heavily emotional experience. Whilst the illness hits the individual, the whole family feels its tremors. The ground, which was once so steady now undulates, gathering you up as one, united in faith and fear, but then leaving you stranded alone, lost in your own muddled thoughts and fear. At the epicentre is, of course, the person you hold dear who carries the unique burden of knowing they are ground zero for both your love and your pain, on top of their own. I don’t know what that must feel like for them, but I know what it looks like. I saw it once in her eyes.

The same week we tenderly but so regretfully committed her to memory, we got the news that he had it too. And just like that there we were back on the cancer train without so much as time to catch our breathes, calm our minds, or allow our hearts to heal. Back on a journey no-one wants to be on, but no ‘leaves on the line’ sadly stop that train from departing.

Nothing weighs as heavy as cancer. Nothing. But yet that train goes forth as if the weight of your pain is negligible.

My lovely Dad with his granddaughters

This time the journey was different. Less urgent, more hopeful. This was no fast train hurtling forth to a destination we never picked, more a winding passage where it seemed we reached the end of the track after an operation was deemed a success. Yet, whilst we gobbled up this news (because cancer literally is a timeline punctuated by news: some you grab with both hands; some, no hand wishes to touch), the sudden ‘end’ to the journey felt equally as de-stabilising as the arrival to a whole new terrain upon which you need to root yourself. Is that it, then? What happens now? Do we alight? Is it finished?

Yes, but not quite. An oxymoron. The word ‘cured’ was used but normal life now nestles alongside check-ups. And periodic tests with names made from acronyms are still needed because no one ever really signed him off. But neither does anyone seem that worried anymore. It’s confusing and feels like we are ‘good but perhaps not off the hook’. Is that how this is now? The cancer is neither there, but nor is it not there. Detectable traces, they say, but indeterminate at the same time. More oxymorons. None of it really computes but life goes on and every few months they monitor him. Monitoring is very different to treatment and whilst monitoring never fully eradicates the ‘what if’ – nor, of course, does treatment – but it carries a whole heap better odds. So, with those better odds, you indulge in the ability to exhale; just not fully. This new world demands much tentativeness. I guess you can say it’s a bit like happily living in a gorgeous house, with lovely views. On the side of a volcano.

And so that’s where we’ve been these last few years. Going about our business on the side of that volcano. Often with our backs to it – looking outward – enjoying the view. An occasional glance at the volcano when it’s time for a review with the question weighing heavy but later appeased when the experts reminds you that, yes, it is still there, but oh so dormant, you need not care.

Complacency kicks in. We start to take things for granted in that very human way we are all guilty of when the question of mortality has not had to suddenly scrabble to the top of your priority list. At times, we don’t even think of the volcano, screw it, we even go on holiday and leave the damn thing behind. But although complacency blinds you, it’s not to the point you don’t notice that some experts recently turned up to poke and prod at that volcano. Levels have risen apparently. There’s activity. Worry takes hold but they reassure you that it’s still not a concern but somehow the levels continue to rise and whilst you are still told not to worry, the reassurance is accompanied with an unspoken ‘not yet’.

So thus, we become suspended once more whilst time marches on. Watching closely, our collective breathe held as the rumblings get louder. The thing has made its presence known, and its gravity is communicated through an uptake of scans and tests, but yet written communication lacks the substance to make sense of it all. Still. So, we second guess, we Google, we panic, we cry. Information comes in drabs because there are always more tests required, more time needed. More monitoring. The result is a roundabout of news, sometimes positive and sometimes, like today, not positive. It’s all just so confusing. You cry.

Today we hear the levels are now high enough to warrant treatment. So, it’s back then? And we’re back to where we were seven years ago. Round two. Did we get it all wrong then? Was the last seven years actually the reprieve and this is now the journey? Too many thoughts, too much feeling. Still the ‘what if’ but now with worse odds than when we were monitoring. And so, we await more news so that we can recalculate the odds within this new context. The terrain of treatment. I feel numb. Positive because we have to be, but worried, of course. Mostly stunned disbelief as I can’t believe we are here again. But not so stunned to know that we’re back on this train and it is time to hold on to our seats and each other. The train is to depart once more but this journey is not over. Not whilst we are holding on.

And still we hold on.

Always.

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