My partner is a film director so I feel I have watched more movies than the average person. Which means I have watched an on-screen, dramatic reveal of a patient’s cancer diagnosis many times. The doctors always tend to look solemn as they draw a curtain around the patient’s bed, clutching a clipboard tight with both hands as they deliver the predictable “this is so hard for us to tell you, but…”. A scene that I’ve watched so many times that I became completely desensitised to the gravity of the whole situation. So when my diagnosis was delivered to me in the exact same fashion – curtain drawn, clipboards clutched, exact opening line – it didn’t really hit me at all. Despite my partner, who up until this point had been holding himself together rather well, being reduced to tears almost instantly, I still didn’t really grasp how serious the situation was. The doctors explained a malignant tumour with a diameter of 5cm could be seen from the MRI they took. In my mind I interpreted that as something the size of a 10 cent coin and thought that was good news. They told me it was closer to being ¼ the size of my left hemisphere. “Oh… that sounds pretty big” – I said it still not really understanding its size.
Fast-forwarding to today when I am undergoing chemotherapy treatment, it is difficult to reflect back and say when the gravity of my situation actually sunk in. I’d like to say it was when I was called into my neurosurgeon’s office just prior to my craniotomy two weeks later to see the images taken from that initial MRI. Physically seeing this gigantic mass in the front of my head that had squished the rest of my brain to the point where all the crevasses you would expect to see had been pushed into one rounded ball made me wonder how the hell I was still alive or functioning. I knew I felt 100% and had experienced no symptoms prior (emergency-room inducing seizure aside), but seeing that cancer mass in the flesh (literally) definitely sunk in that it was real. Its existence confirmed that everything was actually happening, unlike the dream-like haze I’d been wafting through up to that point. The tumour was certainly big, but even that wasn’t enough for me to understand that it was life-threatening at that point.
Truthfully there was no one point during the whole process of my cancer journey that I can say was that ‘Hollywood’ moment, where all the stars aligned and I finally understood what it felt like to know the weight of my own mortality. This is because, for me, it didn’t happen in one single moment – it happened on several occasions grouped together in what I can describe only as a roller-coaster of emotional impediments that made me question every choice I had ever made in life to end up where I was in those moments. I can narrow them down into four simple stages:
- When I understood that my career goals were going to be set back (or never achieved)
- Struggling financially and the stress of wondering what would happen to my partner if I wasn’t there for him anymore
- Facing the reality that I may die before I get to have children of my own and raise a family, or be there to experience other milestones of my friends and family
- When I contemplated taking the ‘bucket-list’ approach to my life and ending it on my own terms (after following many stories covering Brittany Maynard’s chosen path)
Each of the above is listed not only in the order that they occurred for me, but also in order of severity in terms of how much harder I was hit by the looming cloud of my ‘inevitable’ death. By the time I had considered a bucket-list I knew I wasn’t coping as well as I had made out to everyone else around me. From the outside no one could know what was going on for me when I was constantly smiling and keeping a positive attitude up. Little did they know that there is a fine line between maintaining a positive attitude and living in flat-out denial of your situation. I think at most times I had even convinced myself that everything was fine, yet from the inside I knew I was beginning to crack not only from the challenges I was facing, but the feeling of doing it alone, as though I had to bear the burden myself in order not to worry anyone else or cause reason for panic from my family and friends.
In the end I was blessed with a therapist that not only enabled me to acknowledge everything I was feeling at the time, but to learn where my feelings came from and to not be ashamed of them or try to suppress them in any way. I began to learn a lot about co-dependency very quickly; a subject that now fascinates me and has helped me to understand so much about my behaviour and my relationships with others. It soon became easy for me to recognise how much I had grown in terms of personal development with each therapy session I had, and I consider myself very lucky to have such support in place during such a difficult time. I was especially lucky to also have my partner attend sessions with me – a practice that certainly helped us strengthen our bond, even though I thought at the time it couldn’t be stronger! I highly recommend couples’ therapy to anyone who is going through such a rough patch, it certainly proved to me that there is always room for improvement in every relationship no matter how close you may be.
I had nearly given up on everything; I was telling myself I had no reason to be sorry for myself because my fate was inevitable, unavoidable and I should therefore just spend the rest of my ‘very limited’ days left ensuring I would leave this world with no loose ends. I had my will officiated, I pushed to clear all debts I had outstanding so that no one would inherit a financial burden, I ensured my life insurance would be distributed as I wished. I started writing letters to each of my family members and friends just in case my death came unexpectedly. I did everything to ensure my death would be as efficient as possible as I felt there was no escaping it anymore. Death was inevitable.
During that time, I felt I was just doing what any responsible adult would do having received news they had brain cancer. I didn’t think I was harming anyone in the process; how could I be when all I was doing was ensuring everyone I knew would be taken care of to the best of my ability after my death? However, one day I explained this to my therapist and she pointed out that, from her perspective, I was already deciding whether I deserved to live and that, from the actions I was taking, it appeared I didn’t.
This was the trigger I needed – I realised in that moment I was still in control of my own choices and I was choosing to put the needs of others above my own needs. It’s a habit I’ve always had, but I never realised the impact it had on my mental state. It was time to put myself forward and ensure I was meeting my own needs first, starting with the decision that I deserved everything I was afraid of losing – my partner, my career, the children I may never have – and that I was not going to give up on it without a fight.
So whilst I am definitely living my life with a bit more excitement in it these days, and I am taking out more time to enjoy the things I tended to push back on (usually due to work commitments), my ‘bucket-list’ does not have an expiration date anymore. I may live to tick everything or nearly nothing off that list. Who knows? Either way, as long as I am happy I don’t really mind what happens next – no one will ever achieve everything they want in life, and the things I have done to date I couldn’t be prouder of. So despite no ‘Hollywood’ epiphany, at least I can ensure I’ll always have a happy ending.