Why is it, that the simple truth is the most difficult to accept? Actor, William McInnes recently reflected upon the journey that we all must face, our mortality. He described the grace and courage that his wife, displayed during her stages of dying. He reflected that medals should be given for such displays of human excellence. These are, in general, reserved for acts of heroism in war and on the sports field. It is curious what virtues our society rewards and how unprepared for death we often are. We do not engage in such discourse, for fear of being labelled morbid, odd or negative.
It is far too easy to fall into a state of complacency as the roller-coaster of cancer treatment begins to slow. After the initial healing from surgical intervention occurs, and the heavy grey days of nausea, nerve pain, mouth ulcers and exhaustion during chemotherapy cycles fade and fatigue from weeks of radiation eases, a new phase of post treatment begins or so I am told. I am yet to complete my six weeks of daily radiation treatment, however I have gratefully experienced the lull between raging storms over the past 8 months.
I am not alone in wanting to return to the halcyon days of ‘pre-diagnosis’, before cancer became a word used regularly in my conversations. Often I awake stunned that I have had cancer. It still seems surreal, despite the evidence of trauma and pain. My face is now, one of the faces of cancer. There is no profound reason why I should not be. There are many others who have cried indignantly when diagnosed, living poster lives of healthy, fit people. Cancer is far more complex than the surface read.
I simply had not scripted a life threatening illness into my journey. Who does? Rachael didn’t either. At 41 with 2 children under 10, a husband and family that loved her and a career as a Federal Government public servant, Rachael was mostly content. No different than most of us. That was until she found a lump in her breast. Rachael had a little over two years to live, dying on the 22nd August 2012, taken too early at 43.
I had lost contact with Rachael, due to my relocation back to the West in late 2010. The last time I saw Rachael was at a luncheon in her honour. She was mid-cycle in her chemotherapy rounds, and wore a brave face generously, to make it less confronting for the rest of her work colleagues. A face that I now recognise as reflective of my own. I decided, post my diagnosis and majority of treatment to search Facebook for her. I found many others including a recognisable Australian actress, who borne her name, but not the Rachael that I had worked alongside. A simple Google search lead me to the Canberra Times obituaries.
Suddenly the possibility of my death became ‘real’ again and the bubble of ‘complacency’ burst. The illusion is that we all live with the presence of death in every second of life. Those of us who have had cancer are more acutely aware of what is at stake. We are encouraged by spiritual gurus, to live in the now, adopt a state of mindfulness and balance work and life. I’m still working on the first one and frankly I struggle with it, as I am ricocheted from memory to memory. Ironically, I have less problem with a fantasised future.
Rachael is the first woman that I have personally known to die from breast cancer. All the other women that I know that have had breast cancer, are thankfully still living. We can thank the Australian Government for the early intervention, screening and monitoring service that we can access, though free access for women under 40 and over 65 is still a barrier. Most of these women I know, have passed the 5 year mark, some with reoccurrences, though the majority are living the new ‘normal’. I am shattered that Rachael will never experience the milestones with her children that I have with my beloved sons, and that they in turn have lost her generous and gentle love.
It is for Rachael, as well as myself, that I have recommitted myself to the lifestyle changes that I must adopt to secure the best chance for my survival. Words like rare, aggressive, and difficult to treat, haunt me. I hang onto descriptors like clear margins, clean pathology and early diagnosis. It is not the wealthy Angelina Jolie, whose preemptive mastectomies performed by a top plastic surgeon who inspires me. When I waver, I think of Rachael. I have found the secret to happiness, it is being healthy and loved. Thankfully I am presently both.