One year on

Last Sunday was my birthday. The plan was to spend a fair chunk of it at a picnic in leafy-green Yarralumla, getting some sun on my face as I ate imported cheese, quaffed sparkling white and threw soft toys at my baby daughter in the naïve hope that she might make some motion to catch them.

It didn’t quite go to plan (a public yoga presentation and a howling gale put paid to that) but it was still a whole lot better than last year’s birthday. That was spent in the cardio-thoracic ward of The Canberra Hospital, awaiting the results of the biopsy on the huge mass that had been found in my chest.

There was a small part of me that feared that last year’s birthday (documented here) might in fact be my last one. Or at least my last one in the carefree happy-go-lucky life to which I had become accustomed.

But a year on, I remain largely free of care (perhaps sometimes too free of it for my own good), still chugging along much as I was before my cancer struck. The biggest change by far in the intervening year has instead been a positive one – the safe arrival of Amelia in May.

The cancer has retreated from being the life-defining event I feared it may have been to instead be a brief episode that yields nothing more than anecdotes to fill lulls in future conversations. A year on, it feels like little more than a biographical quirk.

Of course, I would be a fool to think it has passed entirely. I will be in remission for at least another four years, with regular blood tests and visits to my specialist. And even it that passes period without recurrence, I will for the rest of my life face an elevated risk of cancer, not just from the disease but also from the chemotherapy.

The physical evidence of my treatment will forever remain. Five small scars mark the right side of my body – one from the biopsy and another four from where tubes were put in place to deliver chemotherapy. In a way I’m glad to have them there, offering me a daily reminder of tougher times if they ever stray too far from my mind.

As for my hair, it remains noticeably wispier than the locks that once stood in their place, and far more difficult to tame in the morning. But as my mother can testify from her own experience, after a while things return to normal up there. 

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Plenty of people diagnosed with cancer don’t get to experience their next birthday. Their journey from diagnosis to death is an express route that allows little time for contemplation. But that’s not my fate. Instead I join the millions-strong army of survivors, getting on with life.

I feel an obligation to pay forward all the support I received. Throughout my treatment I heard from several friends, some I hadn’t spoken to in years, about their experience with cancer. Their words help gird me for the pathway through chemotherapy; the aching fatigue, the dulled sensations, the existential angst. I stand ready and willing to offer support, advice and even just compassionate listening to others going through the experience. Don’t be shy now.

All up it’s been a year of making memories. From the darkest days in the cancer ward to the lightest of joys in the maternity suite, there are plenty of things that will stay in my mind from the previous year. Here’s hoping the year ahead yields more of the good type.


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