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Closing the loop on cancer – reflections

Posted in Health, and Life & Love

tightrope walkerWhat I didn’t confess to anyone, and for good reasons, is that, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I obsessively read books on death. Not because I thought my demise was imminent – I knew full well this brush with disease wasn’t going to fall me – but because it comes the time when we have to start thinking about the business of dying in more practical and less abstract terms than just knowing it will happen. I forget who said that we go through life thinking we will be the ones touched by immortality – and it’s rather true: we know we will eventually die but the concept is wholly abstract when applied to us.

I didn’t tell anyone because I knew what the (well-meaning) response would have been: you are being morbid; nothing is going to happen to you; you need to stay cheerful. All good advice I didn’t quite need nor did I want to be in a position to justify what I needed – that would have dragged me down.

The misconception is that having cancer, a potential deadly disease, will change you. Mostly for the better. Has it changed me? No, it hasn’t changed who I am, what I do. There wasn’t a major life overhaul because I didn’t need one. A psychologist I met in various social settings was sitting next to me recently, at a lecture, and, no doubt well-intentioned, started the conversation with “You look really well. I bet you are looking at life through rose-tinted glasses now!” If there is such a feeling as irk-ness, it crept up my spine in a nano-second. I could have chosen to shut up and nod vaguely, politely, but the assumption that cancer was akin to reading some self-help book, that I drew some cosmic lesson from it is the kind of cliché I cannot take shutting up. Let’s just say the conversation didn’t flow naturally after my retort.

Yes, there are things I learnt, mostly about myself, in the last six months, and they can be summed up thus:

  • Accepting and asking for help is not defeatist;
  • Looking for lightness, especially for someone so duty bound, like me, is an excellent pursuit;
  • Eliminating flotsam – emotional or practical – can be liberating (I don’t return phone calls or emails from people I don’t really want in my life anymore. This has freed up a considerable amount of time);
  • Time must be found for nourishing my days with people and things that interest me;
  • Good books and good friends are still the best investments.
  • I also learnt that people say the stupidest things. The degree of stupidity must be considered: sometimes it is just benevolent ignorance that can be politely rectified and sometimes it is just crass insensitivity one must walk away from. For good.

Brussels cafeI learnt that inspiration can be found in humble souls: the patient who, knowing nothing of my troubles, held my hand and told me she wanted to die only to laugh a moment later at the list of reasons I gave her to keep on fighting; Ottie, my ancient dog, who has the same zest for life and need for adventure he did as a puppy, and keeps on going for it, despite his physical limitations. He will not be stopped, there is fauna to be chased – and he still chases it, only with longer naps in between – and that is what I did when I felt less than peachy. Kept on chasing. Took longer naps.

I learnt that asking too many questions, being a pest and trusting my instincts are the best ways to navigate illness.

I learnt that if the whole point of life is to balance gracefully between preparing for death and finding meaning, a sense of equanimity and a sense of humor are both required. If we never stray too far from either, we will mostly be ok.

In a conversation with Iggy Pop, in the pages of  The Guardian, Josh Homme, said:
“That notion of talismans, to have a touchstone of your own mortality…so much of today’s world is about not focusing on what’s beyond. Stay focused on buying something! Or something to that effect. To live while knowing it’s close, and you can be young or old, it doesn’t matter. Being able to keep it there, even at arm’s length…I think you live better because of that awareness. Awareness is worth a lot.”

That is probably why I read on death compulsively. I knew it wasn’t my time but I was given a taste of things to come and it was better to deal rather than pretend this would never happen again.

Mostly, I learnt I am even stronger than I knew. And a lot more mortal. Both realizations will serve me well.

Best book on death and dying, that should be required reading for everyone, including doctors, was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.

Top image courtesy of Giovanni Tarsia

Middle image courtesy of Aleksander Kats

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19 Comments

  1. When I originally saw this post, I confess I gulped, took a deep breath and realized I’d need to have a couple days to process it in its entirety. Knowing that no one gets out of this life alive, I have been struck by your dignity and grace throughout the entire experience. My hat’s off to you. We are truly grateful, amazed and so very thrilled at the closing of this loop. Thank you for your reflections and providing such remarkable insight to a personal and challenging time. ღ

    March 20, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you Monika. I suppose that putting my experience into words was my way of making sense of it. By sharing, I was hoping to give an honest insight someone else could draw from in the future. I was so astounded at the amount of ignorance, misconceptions and cliches that get thrown around on the subject, and I was trying to set some of the record straight. Hopefully, I won’t have to revisit the subject.

      March 21, 2016
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  2. Dogs have a great deal of wisdom for us 🙂 Thank you for writing this thoughtful post.

    March 15, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      My dogs are a continous source of entertainment, affection and yes, wisdom.

      March 21, 2016
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  3. I admire how you know yourself. I might begin to doubt if my impulses were right or wrong in certain circumstances.
    I had a mammogram a few weeks ago and got the results of Normal in a letter yesterday (although I have dense breast tissue I discovered which can make anomalies more difficult to detect). I thought of you opening such a letter and how casually you might have torn the envelope–like it was a bill or something, and then reading the contents. My thinking of that was maybe a form of what you are talking about. In our busy day to day, how little we reflect on where things are going and how from one second to the next they can turn in that direction and then you have no choice but to confront them.
    Happy you’re well.

    March 15, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      When I start fretting about the future or worry about one thing or another, I notice how, in the exact moment, I am ok and try to stay with it. It used to be an abstract oncept but it has become easier to master and, for that, I am grateful. For the record, if you do have dense breast tissue (like I do) you are eligible for an ultrasound whenever you go for a mammogram. You might want to have it done now and then (altough my anomaly, as tiny as it was, was picked up by the mammo and confirmed by the ultrasound).

      March 15, 2016
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  4. I always love the depth of your posts. Making time for the important things and discarding the flotsam is one of the most important lessons we can learn. xx

    March 15, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Less elegantly put, everything and everybody now have to pass the “do I give a f*** filter”. It has indeed been useful.

      March 15, 2016
      |Reply
  5. Maurits Kalff
    Maurits Kalff

    Beautiful post and such a great example of not only resilience, but also of what psychologists call ‘Post Traumatic Growth’. There is no such thing as a reset button to where you were before being diagnosed with cancer. “Mostly, I learnt I am even stronger than I knew”, you said and that’s what is both inspiring and encouraging. When we’re able to make life more meaningful as a result of adversity, we are stronger than ever.

    March 15, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I read an article, not so long ago, on a study conducted by Centro dei Tumori in Milan on the long term psychological effects of people who survived cancer and they are akin to post traumatic stress. The study was conducted because more and more people live much longer and nobody really studied how their lives were affected in the long term. It has ben interesting, to say the least, and if I gained some resilience, that is not a bad thing. I still could have done without it though!

      March 15, 2016
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  6. It actually doesn’t really alarm or surprise me to read this – probably because you don’t seem like someone who never thought about life and death, or who never reflected on all the good things in life, before being diagnosed with cancer.
    I will be adding ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ to my reading list.

    March 15, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I did indeed think about death before this episode but this was the first time I reflected on the psychological and practical effects of it, having to live with some time knowing that death is near. It has taken a little bit of the fear away but none of the pain. Still working on it.

      March 15, 2016
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  7. Elma Jonckheer
    Elma Jonckheer

    Such a special blog. Thanks.

    March 15, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you Elma. I really appreciate it.

      March 15, 2016
      |Reply
  8. Ellie Toffolo
    Ellie Toffolo

    I am glad to read this – and for more reasons than one – your own coming to terms with the many things resulting from your experience of cancer being the most important (and I am so so happy for you that it’s over !!!) – but also talking about death in normal terms. We are so emancipated nowadays, yet death is a huge taboo, we live longer compared to our less emancipated forefathers who were probably better able to cope with it. There are practical reasons why I wished I had known more about death when I had to deal with the death of my parents – by ‘deal’ I mean both emotionally and practically, for them and for myself. Yet after their deaths I met so many people that I could talk to freely. They were mostly women, who, after all, have always been the carers, looking after births and deaths since time immemorial. I wished I’d had those talks before. Experience needs to be shared – other people’s experiences complete our own – makes me think of John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” (memories of my school days and English Lit). You did right to read, and you do right to share your thoughts – and I really appreciate what you say about the need for a sense of equanimity and humour.

    March 15, 2016
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    • This is an amazing post, one of the best I have read in a long time- so well written and personal. I am so glad that you have finished all your treatments and from someone who has gone through this though many years ago and seen several close friends die of cancer in the last few years, if you take away only one thing, it is enjoy life to the fullest every day, follow your passion and take time for yourself above all.
      Big hugs

      March 15, 2016
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      • camparigirl
        camparigirl

        Thank you Nadia. These I float on a high that I realize is not sustainable. Hopefully, everything, the good and the bad will start to recede and will become memories. For now, I just enjoy the feeling.

        March 15, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      We tend to sweep it under the rug and learn to deal as we go through it – mostly through the death of our loved ones. I started some conversations with my mom and my husband as to their wishes so some things are clear before we are thrown in the maelstrom. But yes, death should be confronted the way we do so many other subjects. Will have to revisit John Donne now.

      March 15, 2016
      |Reply

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