I was 42. To all intents and purposes, I should not be diagnosed with cancer. I had done all the right things – I was not on the pill, except for a few months right at the beginning of the marriage; I had children young, the youngest child was born when I was only 31; I breast fed all my children; I ate reasonably well, was mildly overweight – but that was about it. I did have a very stressful time in the year 2000. Surely that was not enough to cause this “sudden” tumour? Just in 1 year?
The “whys” and “how comes” soon gave way to thoughts of the children. My son was going to do his A levels the year after and my youngest would be preparing for her PSLE. These are important exams and they certainly should not have to worry about mum on top of these. What could I do to minimize their worries and their fears? In the midst of all that, I remember thinking it was a good thing I got married and had children young. Imagine if they were still toddlers!
After a harrowing time in the hospital, getting registered and signing forms so as to be ready for an almost immediate warding for surgery, it was time to go home to break the news to the children.
That must surely be one of the most difficult things I had ever done in my life.
By the time we got back, it was almost dinner time. My husband and I forced ourselves to eat. After dinner, we sat the children down and told them the news. I was careful to mention people who had cancer and who still lived to a ripe old age after that. Still, the silence that ensued was so uncomfortable and so unnatural. My husband was uncharacteristically quiet. The patient had to do something to alleviate the tension.
“It’s okay,” I chirped with a cheerfulness I really did not feel. “I have no intention of dying and leaving you to your father. I cannot trust him to feed you properly. He will only give you junk food, and you know I will not have that.”
Uneasy giggles and a mock protest from the husband followed. I could not bear the tension, so I said, “Now, let us go shopping.”
We went to the malls, a normal family on an evening out. It was the quietest shopping trip I had ever made, but it was better than moping at home. In any case, for the youngest one at least, it reinforced the idea that cancer was just an illness and one that could be controlled, if not totally cured. Besides, we had God on our side.
Did I panic, did I cry? Of course I did. I did that when I was alone in the mornings. I prayed and complained to God. I verbalized all my fears.
It was not easy. I had to come to terms with death. I had to accept that possibility and to check my spirit if I really believed what I had been professing – that I believe in eternal life and salvation through Christ Jesus. I also had to surrender my children to the only parents I could trust them to - my God, and with His guidance, my husband. I had to convince myself that without me, their lives could still be amazing. It was immensely difficult, and there were upswings and downturns. By the grace of God, there were more ups than downs, and I found peace slowly being more dominant than fear.
With that settled, I began to fight to live. You see, I could only fight when the most negative outcome – death – had lost its sting, and when the most crippling emotion – fear - was replaced with calm.
I was not afraid of death, but I was not going to be cheated of life. I was not afraid of death, but I refused to allow my children to be deprived of a mother, if I could help it.
The fight continues today, ten years after the first pronouncement. How to fight? The most important battle is in the mind and in the emotions. I refuse to allow cancer to occupy my every thought. I refuse to let it control how I feel. Sure a good medical report uplifts the spirit and a poor one can throw me into depression. I try though not to wallow in the emotions. I allow some time to work the issues out, but I have learnt not to allow negative emotions to dominate my life.
I have a life to live – and cancer is just an obstacle along the way. There are many other challenges in life, and some of these, especially when they involve the children and the husband, must take precedence over needless anxieties and fears.
Many cancer survivors/patients talk about how cancer taught them to live life more fully. I have never felt that way. Cancer or not, I live life the way I would have lived life – in my own laid back manner. I do not give cancer any credit for the way I live, nor do I blame it for the not-so-positive aspects of my life. Yes I do have an issue with the medications I have been on – they really make me weightier! And yes it has made me more aware of healthcare and its attending costs. Nonetheless, cancer is just what it is - one of the ailments that afflict human beings, a nuisance we need to learn to live with until it can be eradicated for good.
I do feel immense sympathy for those cancer patients who suffer much pain and agony. I am by no means downplaying their suffering. But for those whose lives are still fairly normal, and life can be almost perfectly normal, do not allow cancer to control you. Avoid moping. Acknowledge its annoying presence. Embrace the joys that surround you, if you will only open your eyes to see them.
And live on.