July 2012 started as a very ordinary month: a quiet Sunday, travel to Dundee for Best Evidence Medical Education work, the gym, an evening playing bridge. It ended with confirmation that I have cancer of the uterus so I’m having surgery on Monday. In between the normality of those first few days and the unreality of today I’ve seen my GP, the gynaecologist, had an ultrasound, a hysteroscopy under general anaesthetic and finally an MRI.
My writing muscles were paralysed from that first discovery until now. Almost as if writing about anything other than what was happening to me was impossible but writing about the diagnostic journey I was on was equally impossible. I used the back of my notebook to jot down appointment times, scrawl questions I needed to remember to ask, instead of noting small moments that might lead to a poem. I tucked away the notes I’d made on the Damian Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, ignored the monthly reminder to send some poems to magazines, possibly enter a competition. To my surprise I stopped reading poetry, finding instead a deep need for engaging stories, and became thankful for Skippy Dies, The Patrick Melrose Novels and a cop-crime thriller by Karin Slaughter. In between, there was sewing, knitting, some sorting out of one or two pieces of work and a few games of bridge. And in this last week the Olympics –good dipping in and out of tv. But no writing.
I’ve had quiet writing times before, I’ve learnt to set them gently aside, to allow the muscles that link words into sentences, redraft and edit to rest, to have confidence that something that is very important to me has only slipped behind a curtain, is just waiting for the right time to resume its place in my life. That time is now.
I am writing again, prose that I think will remain as prose, rather than the narrative that might become a poem. Prose that I’ve now decided to post as a blog entry. My decision to blog about having cancer took some time. After all, who wants to read about my health problems and do I really want to go so very public with my gynaecological history? It was also about what happens in the act of telling.
Each time I tell a family member or a friend my news its confirmation to me of what the reality is. That I have cancer. Powerful words, setting in concrete what started as a thought, a thought that I hoped might float away taking with it all the possibilities of its reality. So at first I told only those who needed to know. A colleague who could run my workshop at the conference I was supposed to attend, my neighbour who was expecting to use my driveway while I was away, my dearest friend because as independent as I am, I know it’s not possible to drive yourself home after a general anaesthetic. Then James & Paul, trying to find the best words over the telephone, saying, this is not the best way to let you know this, and hearing but how else could you tell me, knowing that they understood and thinking of John –husband and dad- with similar news 12 years ago.
And it feels good to be writing again. Writing seems to take some of the sting out of the words, shows that cancer can be just a sequence of six letters, written, black on white, out in the open. That’s what I’ve said to people today, I have cancer, its very early, its treatable, women everywhere need to be alert for the signs of this disease. I’m thinking of starting a campaign to use white toilet paper and to watch that blot, because I could have so easily missed that tinge of pink. Indeed, the first time I thought, mmm, imagination, don’t be silly, you’re not likely to have cancer.
After all, I had spent the past few months preparing to donate a kidney, I was fit, all the tests had been for the donation has shown good health, well, except for some rather usual signs of aging not unsurprising given that I’m in my early sixties. That was the surgery I was planning for, just a small abdominal keyhole to remove a kidney, not a hysterectomy. In place of a verdict of good enough health so I can help someone have a normal life I’m told that some of my cells have changed for the worse and action is needed very quickly.
At this time on Monday I’ll probably be saying yes please to some painkillers, trying to sleep in a hospital bed, and I’ll be waiting once more for the pathology results that will enable accurate staging of my tumour –the best evidence on which to base treatment decisions. All the signs are that I will only need surgery but that wait will be like the others I’ve experienced this week.
I prefer to go alone when I’m getting the results, to keep myself to myself with my dry mouth, hands around a good book, and mantra of the waiting will soon be over, soon I’ll know more. Knowing is settling, it means that probabilities of what to do next become decisions, for me it’s a better place to be.
But I certainly don’t want to be alone as I start my recovery so its wonderful accept offers of to come and care for me from Beverley and Viv, to know that James will be there Monday afternoon once I’m awake and to look forward to seeing Paul later in the week. Offers of help from friends have made me feel very blessed and I’m going to try to heed the words of a friend who says she’s no good at guessing games so please will I ask for help if I need it.
Closing now as my writing muscles are starting to ache, I’m ready for a few more chapters of John Le Carre’s absorbing novel Single & Single. He is a man who can tell a good story page after page and a good story is one of the very best mind relaxers I know. Not sure when I’ll post the next blog ... hopefully it won’t be too long.