“We are the lucky ones”
Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After lots of tests and surgery, I was prescribed chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Fortunately, I responded so well to the chemo, that it turned out the radiotherapy was not necessary. My cancer is not curable, but all these years later I’m still here and there’s been no relapse. Which makes me very lucky.
My chemo was tough – although not half as bad as the regimes that some patients endure. Nonetheless, I had serious allergic reactions to my drugs, and some very bad infections. It was one of the most challenging moments in my life.
And yet, as I look back on the events of 2007, I find that I’m very glad that it happened. The experience precipitated some major changes in my life, and most of them were for the better. It may seem paradoxical, but it turns out that my experience is far from unique. The nurses at my hospital tell me it is quite common for patients to respond in this way.
When cyclist Lance Armstrong first got his cancer diagnosed, he received many letters from well wishers. One, from a cancer survivor, said: “you can’t know this yet, but we are the lucky ones.” At the time, wracked with fear and uncertainty, he naturally concluded that the letter writer was crazy. And yet, when he recalled these words after his treatment, he came to understand their wisdom.
Finding the positive intention
Of course, anyone whose treatment for cancer is successful is lucky, but I don’t think that is what the letter writer meant. He meant that we are lucky to experience cancer – regardless of the outcome. This may seem like a shocking idea. Or even a crazy one. But it’s actually similar to one of the beliefs of excellence in Sue Knight’s book NLP At Work: “behind every behavior there is a positive intention”. We can choose to believe that even cancer has a positive intention towards us.
For someone undergoing treatment, this “crazy” idea can be a very empowering belief. It is also a very general statement, open to broad interpretation. It allows us to negotiate our own path through the experience, and find our own meaning.
This is the story of the path I took. My own personal journey through treatment and recovery – and the lessons I learned along the ways from some very wise and brave teachers.
I came to view the cancer as a kind of test, or trial. And to my surprise, I realised that I had passed it. Passing the test did not mean getting well. Credit where credit it due, that was mostly thanks to the doctors. No, passing the test involved discovering that I was stronger than I had ever realised, and that the experience of recovering from cancer was what enabled me to release this untapped resource of strength.
“People never change”
At first, my diagnosis seemed like nothing more than random bad luck. Something else to add to what I thought was my ever growing list of problems. But the truth is that it dwarfed all of my other problems, to such an extent that I knew carrying on as normal was no longer an option. I had got a little too comfortable grumbling about all of my problems. But this was a problem that I would have to address head on, because, like it or not, it was big, and real, and coming my way.
I had always believed that people never change. That we are born predestined to be the way that we are. But now, I had to hope that I was wrong. I realised that I was going to have to change my ways to survive, and that perhaps this was cancer’s positive intention for me. It was an undeniable, inescapable instigator for change.
But how was I going to change?
“I don’t know anything”
In the movie Avatar, there is a moment where the hero is challenged by a tribal leader, who asks him what he knows. Previous visitors to this tribe have been scientists and soldiers. They had all brought their preconceptions with them. But our hero believes that he is not supposed to be there. He was a last minute substitution. So he answers the tribal leader by saying “I don’t know anything”. The tribal leader is impressed, and grants our hero unprecedented access to the tribe in response. He recognises that “I don’t know anything” is the starting point of wisdom.
Through luck rather than judgement, I’d arrived at a point in my life where I didn’t know anything. I had no idea how to go about making the changes that were long overdue. But my need for change would drive me to explore options that I would previous have rejected. I read books that I would once have scorned as “mumbo-jumbo”. One book, in particular, made a deep impression on me at the time: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.
I tried things that I previously had no interest in, like NLP, meditation, running and the gym.
“This is a difficult moment for you. Are you paying attention to it?”
Before my diagnosis, I’d lived the first 37 years of my life in a state of lifelessness. Not really happy. Not really sad. Not really feeling much at all. My life had little flavour or colour. And, perhaps most important of all, no sense of meaning. Of course, I wasn’t aware of this at the time. I wasn’t really paying attention as my life went by. I was sleepwalking through it, barely experiencing anything. Always worrying about the future and agonizing about the past, but never really focusing on the present.
Until one day, I walked into a consulting room at my local hospital and the doctor told me I had cancer. That got my attention.
The nurse told me that I must be very shocked. But that’s not how I felt. I felt surprised. Surprised and something else. Like I’d just been abruptly woken from a very long sleep.
Like I was fully awake, for the first time in my life. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I still can describe every tiny detail of that scene, right down to the bland decor of that nondescript room, and the consultant’s unconvincing attempt at a reassuring smile.
Suddenly, I found myself completely focused on the moment. As someone who had never practiced meditation, I was about to get a crash course in mindfulness. For the first time in my life, I was living in the moment.
Goodbye reassurance junkie
Looking back, I realise that I had learned to repeat a certain pattern of behavior over and over again. One that only served to make me very unhappy, and maybe even precipitated the advance of my cancer.
I had become addicted to reassurance, or to put it another way, I was a worrier.
As a former worrier, I can maybe explain to those who don’t suffer from this affliction, what it’s all about. Worriers don’t like worrying, even though they spend their whole lives doing it. They crave reassurance. They become so hooked on it, that they’ll belligerently worry about anything, just to experience the high they receive from reassurance when it finally comes.
Quite quickly with my cancer diagnosis, however, I realised that this kind of reassurance was never going to come. Diagnosis and treatment was going to take months. And even if the treatment was a success, the doctors were still promising only “remission,” not a cure. However I looked at it, I could see that there was no path to reassurance through this experience. For the first time in my life, I started to see the futility of worrying.
Self fulfilling prophecies
Something else I learned from Sue Knight’s book was to look out for self fulfilling prophecies. We should always focus on what we want, because when we focus on what we don’t want, we have an uncanny way of making it happen.
I realised that my cancer was just one of those situations. I’d spent the first 37 years of my life perpetually worrying that something very serious was about to go wrong. And whenever one problem was resolved, I’d almost immediately find a new problem to start worrying about.
As a result, I lived my life in an almost perpetual state of stress, and this stress was beginning to take its toll. Months before my cancer diagnosis,I got shingles, which was unusual for someone my age. The doctors told me my stress levels had depleted my immune system and I had to take things easier. But this just stressed me out even more.
Ironically, it seems that my anxiety that something was about to go wrong may very well be the cause of what finally did go wrong. I worried so much about getting ill, that the stress depleted my immune to the point where the cancer progressed to stage IV.
The tumor and the rental car
One event in my life, more perfectly than any other, illustrates the futility of worrying. The night before I was due to go on holiday for a week traveling around northern Italy with a friend, I found a very large lump in my groin. I’d never felt anything like it before, and as I inevitably did back then, I worried about it. The next morning, before setting off for Italy, I made a quick visit to a walk in health clinic, hoping for some reassurance that it wasn’t anything to worry about. The doctor duly obliged, telling me that it was probably just a lymph node draining an infection.
So I went on my holiday. Within an hour of collecting my hire car, I’d managed to put a dent in it. I proceeded to spend the entire holiday worrying about how much the car rental company would charge me for the damage.
As it turns out, the dent was so small, the rental company didn’t make a charge. But the lump in my groin turned out to be a very serious tumor.
The irony was perfect. I’d spoilt my entire holiday worrying about a problem that didn’t even exist, when a far more serious problem was looming, that I was blissfully unaware of.
Worrying sometimes gives us the illusion of control, allowing us to imagine that we have complete control over what will happen to us. Somehow, worrying feels like a constructive thing to do. If we worry about something enough, then maybe it won’t happen.
But this is just an illusion.
My trip to Italy made me realise that I didn’t even know what I should be worrying about. Not only did I not have control, but I was actually blind to the future. I’d been worrying about something as trivial as an imperceptible dent on a car, when, at that very moment, there were tumors growing inside me, they came very close to killing me.
With this in mind, I began to realise that there was not point to worrying at all. But how was I going to stop?
Breaking the ‘bad mail’ loop
In the months prior to my diagnosis, I’d had various minor misfortunes. I’d got involved in a dispute over a car insurance claim, and the freeholder of the building I lived in was in dispute with the leaseholders. As a result, I’d had a few unwelcome letters through the mail.
I became quite preoccupied by the anxiety of receiving what I called ‘bad mail’. I got so skilled at worrying about bad mail that I devised a routine for doing it. Each morning when I woke up, I’d wonder what bad mail would arrive that day. It would be on my mind at work, and my anxiety would increase on the way home, because I always checked the mail when I got home. By the time I was actually checking the mail, my heart would pound in my chest. And any news that arrived in the mail would go around in my head all evening, as I rehearsed in my mind how I would respond the following day.
My cancer diagnosis shed a new light on this little psychosis of mine. I began to see how absurd I was being, and how I was getting these issues entirely out of proportion.
“It’s not cancer”
“It’s not cancer” quite quickly became as useful refrain, as I began to measure all my problems by this new yardstick, I found that I didn’t really have any significant problems apart from the cancer.
But there was still the issue of the bad mail to solve. Even though I had come to realise that that it was nonsense, and that it had to stop, I’d got so good at doing it, and it had become such an established routine, that it had become almost involuntary.
The solution that I ultimately arrived at worked perfectly, but not for the reasons that I originally anticipated. I forced myself to leave the mail overnight, checking it in the morning on my way to work, rather than in the evening when I got back from work. I thought that this would make me worry less, because if there was any mail that I need to respond to, I could do so immediately by phone that morning, rather than worry myself to sleep about it in the evening.
The reason it actually worked, turned out to be quite different. Each evening I felt a strong compulsion to check the mail, but filled with resolve to beat the cancer, I resisted this compulsion. After two weeks, the mail didn’t seem like a big deal any more. By forcing myself to leave it unopened overnight, I’d been sending myself a powerful signal that I was in control of the situation. That the mail couldn’t be important because I wasn’t checking it. It could wait. I even stopped checking mail at weekends.
After a few weeks, I’d broken my worry routine altogether. If only I’d addressed it earlier, maybe I’d never have contracted a stage IV lymphoma. Now that my worrying was addressed, I needed to focus on my treatment. But would getting well prove to be as easy as addressing my worries?
“You can choose to be a victim, or you can choose anything else you’d like to be.”
There is a special word for ex-cancer-patients. They are called “survivors”. I find it empowering. Rather than being a “cancer victim” who “battles against a disease” it gives us an inspiring identity to live up to.
I’ve learned a lot about the importance of identity as a result of my cancer experience. Before all this began, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of myself as a survivor. I thought I was weak. And by weak, I mean that I thought I was both physically weak and a coward.
They say that denial is one of the stages you go through after diagnosis. Like the five stages of grief. I couldn’t quite believe it was happening to me. But it was more than that. It was a question of identity. I remember feeling that “this is not who I am”. Cancer patients are brave, and stoic and inspiring and strong. That is not me. I am not any of those things.
I’m a coward. A moaner. I have no tolerance for pain. I’m even scared of needles. I’m weak, both mentally and physically. That’s honestly how I thought about myself. But I also had two other qualities, at the bottom of my psychic barrel, which would prove to be invaluable and transformative.
Stubborn and vain.
I was stubborn and vain.
My stubbornness meant that even though I didn’t think I had the resources to beat the disease, I refused to give up without a fight. And the vanity? Well as soon as you tell people you’ve got cancer, they start telling you how brave you are, (how little they knew). But the vain side of me rather liked this new identity, and came to prefer how people saw me, to how I saw myself. This gave me not only a desire for change, but a map of how to change. I wanted to become the person that people already thought that I was.
I wanted to be brave, and stoic, and inspiring and strong. I wanted to be a survivor.
My fear of needles vanished with the repeated poking and prodding of chemotherapy. And with each procedure – bone marrow tests, biopsies or whatever – I’d limp back to work as quickly as I could. People told me how strong I was. And it made me feel strong.
“As an athlete, physical challenges are something that I’m good at.”
Lance Armstrong once described chemo as a physical challenge, and explained that when he was told about his grueling treatment plan, he felt confident because it was essentially a physical challenge, and as an athlete, physical challenges are something that he is very good at.
It’s easy to think of chemo as being something disempowering, debilitating and overwhelming. But by reframing the situation, Lance Armstrong turns it into something empowering and challenging, like the Tour de France. Not something for weak, sick people, but something for world class athletes, like himself.
How we think about something like chemotherapy has a huge impact upon how we experience it. And how we think about ourselves – our identity – can limit us, or empower us to find the resources that we need.
I didn’t (yet) think of myself as an athlete, but I was starting to think of myself as someone who was brave and strong. Someone who would keep smiling when things got tough.
“You must be going out of your mind with worry”
Because my cancer was very rare, the diagnosis stage took a long time. From my first biopsy, I had to wait months for the histologists to arrive at a verdict. My cells were bounced around from one lab to another, as they marveled at the rarity of my condition, like stamp collectors. My consultant had already told me that I’d need chemo and radiotherapy, but he couldn’t confirm precisely what my treatment would be until the histologists had completed their deliberations.
Each week, I’d call my nurse at the hospital to ask if there was any news. My nurse was incredibly supportive, and I could tell she really felt bad for me. On one phone call, she said “I’m so sorry. You must be going out of your mind with worry.”
Fortunately, just that week, I’d been reading the chapter in Sue Knight’s book about hypnosis, and so I spotted the embedded command in my nurse’s words. In a well meaning attempt to demonstrate that she empathised with my situation, she was mind reading, speculating that I must be worried. But what she was actually saying was an instruction. She was literally telling me that I must go out of my mind with worry. And as I’ve already explained, worrying was something that I was very good at. There was every reason to suspect that my unconscious mind would process and obey her unintentional command.
So I tried intercepting it instead. I told her that no, I was quite relaxed about it. I found it reassuring that the histologists were taking so much care over my case, and I even joked that I was flattered by all the attention.
I felt my entire body relax as I said this. The humor had somehow dispelled the moment, and I think it helped my unconscious mind let go of the embedded command as well.
“Take it one day at a time”
When you have a chronic illness, a lot of people tell you to “take it one day at a time.” I prefer to think of it as living in the present.
For the first few weeks, I was still waiting and hoping for the doctors to concede that there was some kind of mistake. That everything could go back to normal. But equally, a part of me knew that things could never go back to normal, and I didn’t want them to.
My past felt meaningless and hollow. My future frightened me. And so, for the first time in my life, I started to dwell in the present.
But existing in the present needn’t be because of fear of the past and future. In The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman puts it like this:
“You don’t have more than a few years left. No one does. So be happy now, without reason, or you never will be at all.”
I was halfway there. I was finally focused on “now”. But it would take me some more time to discover unreasonable happiness.
The comfort of strangers
Every week, chemotherapy patients from the lymphoma clinic at the Royal Marsden Hospital meet at the Medical Day Unit to receive their medicine. Most cytotoxic chemotherapy is made from platinum. A beautiful metal when worn outside the body, but deadly when inside it. It kills cells. The trick is to take just the right amount of it to kill all the cancer cells before it kills you.
The stuff is so dangerous that it has to be pumped into your veins very slowly, to ensure that it circulates evenly around your entire system. That means sitting still for hours, hooked up to a pump that infuses the chemo into your veins.
So, each week, we’d sit together in a big room, waiting for the chemo to take effect, at which point we’d start to feel sick. I got talking to a few fellow patients, but mostly we all just sat in silence, reading books, or staring into space.
But despite our lack of words, there was something very special and moving about the Medical Day Unit. I think we were somehow all taking emotional strength from each other. There was a extraordinary kind of fellowship and camaraderie between us that I’ve never experienced before. And when a fellow patient completed his or her treatment, we all felt a shared elation for them. Something truly selfless, borne out of adversity.
I’d never felt connected with people in this way before, and it’s something I’ve kept with me since. I’m always looking for these unexpected, unspoken connections now.
Happiness is about more than pleasurable moments
Each month, when I had completed a cycle of chemotherapy, I would have a CT scan to measure the size of my tumors. After the first month, they had actually grown. The doctor told me that the treatment may not be working, that I might need to switch to tougher regime. The first month had been particularly tough, because I’d responded badly to the drugs, and the doctors were still adapting my regime, so I could tolerate it better. The idea that it had all been for nothing and that worse was yet to come was a crushing blow. I went home, by myself, sat down and wept.
I called my partner, who rushed home from work to comfort me.
Remembering that moment still makes cry. This was an extremely important moment in my life, and as frightened as I was, my partner was there to share it with me. And that made me feel better. It also enriched our relationship, and made it even more meaningful to me.
As painful as that moment was, it was also very precious. I like to explain it like this. Life is not a bowl of cherries, where you seek out one sweet sensation after enough. It’s far more complex that that. Like a glass of fine whisky. It has its sweetness, but it has more difficult notes as well. With a glass if whisky, you don’t just enjoy the sweetness, you savor the whole thing for what it is.
Cancer has taught me that life can be a lot like that.
If we treat it like a bowl of cherries, attempting to hop from one pleasurable experience to another, we strip away all of the meaning.
I mentioned Dan Millman’s book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. There are many great lessons in this book, but one of the most important, and I think the hardest to grasp is unreasonable happiness. That, no matter what the circumstances, we should be happy. This is how Dan puts it:
“Feelings change. Sometimes sorrow, sometimes joy. But beneath it all remember the innate perfection of your life unfolding. That’s the secret of unreasonable happiness.”
I struggled with this idea for a long time. How could my life be innately perfect when I had cancer? How could it be innately perfect when I felt sorrow? But in the midst of my treatment, these words started to make sense to me. Even as my mood changed; even as my optimism waxed and wained; even as the chemo drove me to a nadir.
As I had come to understand that life was a glass of whisky, not a bowl of cherries, I was learning to appreciate it. I was learning to take pleasure in the small things. I was learning to forgive myself when I was weak, and recognise my achievements when I was strong.
The small things in life, like time with friends and family, all suddenly took on a great deal more meaning for me. Rather than thinking “I have to do this” I was starting to think “I get to do this.”
There was an underlying happiness in my life. For the first time in my life.
Diet. Exercise. Rest.
Are you eating well? Are you sleeping well? Are you getting enough exercise? These are fundamental questions. Getting these three things right is essential to keeping well. And when you’re on chemotherapy, being well is not something that you can take for granted.
The kind of chemo I was on is particularly hard on your bone marrow, which manufactures blood cells. Each cycle, I when I reached my nadir (my weakest point in the treatment), I’d become neutropenic, which means that I had little or no white blood cells. Or in other words, I had no immune system left.
When you’re neutropenic, you have to take your health seriously. And I did. And I have been ever since. Once you properly start looking after yourself, you never want to stop.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said he’d loved to go to the gym as often as I did, but because he was self employed, he just didn’t have the time. I told him about the triangle of wellness – diet, exercise and rest. I told him that, from painful personal experience, I knew that life is fragile, and we have to take our health seriously. And I told him that without his health, he didn’t have a business anyway. I said he should make time. And I meant it.
He just laughed and told me I was lovely.
I wished I knew how to properly share this lesson with him before it was too late for him, as it almost had been for me.
As I learned more about meditation and mindfulness, I came to understand the importance of not allowing my mind to draw my attention away from the present. Learning to let go of fears about what may happen in the future, or to predicate one’s future happiness on a particular outcome. But paradoxically, I found that this didn’t mean letting go of hope.
There was a song that kept coming into my mind while I was on chemo. The song has a serene and melancholy tone, with a particular lyric I remembered:
“September again. It’s come so quick. And we’re trying to break through to Bethlehem’s gates.”
In June, as I lay in a dimly lit room, fighting off nausea, with the sunshine blazing beyond my drawn curtains, I would imagine myself listening to that song in September, when the treatment was over. The idea of “Bethlehem’s gates” became associated with hope in my mind (even though I’m not religious). I would find myself singing that song over and over in my head.
When the treatment was over and my consultant told me that, to his great surprise, the scans were now clear, the first thing I did was go home, play Bethelem’s Gates and burst in to tears. It was September again, just like in the song and I realised that I was going to be alive for Christmas, and that was what the lyrics of the song meant.
My trip to Italy had taught me that I couldn’t predict the future, and so there was no point in worrying. The same is true of hope – to a point. There’s no point in hoping for a specific outcome, since we can’t know what is going to be best for us. How could I have known, for example, about all of the positives I would get from cancer. But there is an important difference between worry and hope. And it is this: worrying about an undefined negative outcome is destructive and empty; while remaining hopeful for an undefined positive outcome gives us the resources we need to carry on.
I’m still here! What now?
I hadn’t been expecting to survive. That is the startling truth that I was coming to terms with. For months, the news seemed to have got progressively worse. The cancer might be in my bone marrow. The regime isn’t tough enough. The tumors are still growing. We need to give it another month and then we’ll see… The doctors are trained not to give patients false hope, so whenever I asked them if this might be the last chemo cycle, they would say “we’ll see” with a pained smile on their face.
So when the PET scan revealed no trace of cancer activity in my body, “PET negative” as they call it, it was not only joyous news, but it was also a surprise.
I felt like I’d been following a map for the last few months, and now I was blundering forwards without one. What was I going to do now? Who was I? I knew that I’d grown and evolved and become a different person, but what did this mean?
It took a few weeks for the news to sink in. And I was back to square one – I knew nothing. But there was a difference now. I now knew that it was great to know nothing. To be open to new experience. I just had to wait and allow the answers to come to me.
And I didn’t have to wait long.
“Yes, but how do I know what I want to do?”
One way I like to sense-check what I am doing is this. I ask myself, if this was the last day of my life, is this something I’d want to be doing with it? If the answer is no, then I know I need to reappraise my priorities.
Talking to people about my experiences, a comment I often get is that I’m lucky, because I know what I want to do. I know I want to run, for example. They then say “but my problem is that I don’t know what I want.”
This is a problem that I understand very well, because I felt exactly the same way before my diagnosis. The answer for me was to learn to listen to my unconscious mind.
A few months after my treatment was over, I was starting to realise that things could return to normal. But because I’d been so unhappy before, the last thing I wanted was for things to return to normal. I needed a new direction. This left me in a state of ambivalence, that made me more receptive to new ideas than I had ever been before. This ambivalence is what enabled me to start listening to my unconscious mind.
It began with an image, that started coming into my head at quite random moments. The image was vivid and clear. I could see a man running through a city. He looked calm, relaxed, confident, strong and healthy. He somehow embodied all of the qualities that the cancer experiences had made me aspire to.
Oddly, over time I recognised the image as having come from a TV ad for Nike running shoes that I’d seen many years before. It hadn’t made much of an impression on me at the time, or so I had thought. But how fascinating that my unconscious mind had resourcefully stored it aware, ready to make me revisit it at precisely the right moment.
I’m not a sporty person
Almost without thinking about it, I went out and bought a pair of Nike running shoes, and I’ve been running ever since. I’ve run over 5,000 kilometers in the past two years. I’ve raised a lot of money for Cancer Research UK. I joined my local running club. I’ve run races all around the country. I hope to run the London Marathon next year and I’ve got very good at running.
Before cancer, I had never run anywhere in my life before. I didn’t do any exercise. I was overweight and unhealthy. Now I run over 7 miles a day, and it’s always one of the most joyful parts of my day. I know that running is one of the things I would want to be doing on the last day of my life, so I never regret going for a run.
Of course, as much as I love running, I realise it may not be for everyone. We’re all different, and we all have different dreams and desires. But if you’re like I was, you may not have any idea about what those desires might be. All it took to work out what I wanted to do was to create some space to allow my unconscious mind give me the answer.
Forget the eraser
The experience of cancer has changed me so much, that it sometimes feels like I’m a different person today than the one who walked into the doctor’s surgery in 2007. But of course, I know that’s not the case.
I sometimes meet people who are half my age, and already seem to be way ahead of me in their personal development. While I marvel at their emotional intelligence, I don’t regret being a slow learner. Every event in my past led to me becoming the person I am today, and I’m happy with who I am.
As a teenager, I didn’t study a “proper” degree. I went to art college instead. Whatever subject you choose to study, a good art college will make you learn to draw first. It’s an essential skill for any artist, regardless of discipline, because it teaches you observation and honesty.
One of the first things a good art teacher will tell you to do is to discard your eraser. Artists never user them. This is not because they don’t make mistakes, although they rarely do. It is because drawing is a process of mark making, and using an eraser negates this process. If you make a bad mark, move on and make a better one. A skilled artist will make bold marks with confidence, allowing the motion to flow from their upper arm. Each mark tells a unique part of the drawing process, as the artist finds her way towards describing her subject.
Tattoo artists are the boldest of all. Not only do they not use an eraser, but their marks are indelible. Impossible to erase. Before cancer, I didn’t understand why anyone would want a tattoo. Why would someone voluntarily make a decision that is irrevocable. But I now realise that I was looking at it the wrong way. Life is like drawing. All of the decisions that we make are irrevocable. We have to make them boldly and with confidence.
The red queen’s race
Some cancers can be “cured,” others, like mine, can only be knocked back into remission. But whatever your prognosis, no one is ever going to tell you that “it’s all over, that cancer is not coming back.” The truth is we just don’t know.
So every few months, cancer survivors return to their hospital for a checkup. And during a routine checkup earlier this year, my doctors found a new lump. A CT scan was required, in order to determine if the cancer was back.
The scan was scheduled for the day after the Bath Half Marathon, my first big competitive race. I’d been training for it for months, and I was fitter than I had ever been in my life before, even though, ironically, I could be back on chemotherapy within days.
In Lewis Carol’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen presides over an absurd race, where the contests must run very fast just to stay still. Being on chemotherapy had reminded me of the Red Queen’s Race. I’d taken great strides forward in my personal development, just to stay in the same place – like running on a treadmill. When the treatment was over, I had carried on running – quite literally – and I felt that I had been making great progress, leaving the treadmill far behind me. Now, the treatment was looming again, and very soon, I thought I’d be back on the treadmill.
Never stop running
Using all of the skills I’d learned during treatment, I focused entirely on the race that day, and I put in a great time for me, placing within the top 10 percentile. When the scan results came through, they were good news, and I celebrated by signing up for more races.
I was moving forwards again. But as I mused over how differently things might have turned out, it suddenly struck me. I’d never left the treadmill, and I never would. There would always be ups and downs in life. Sometimes I’d have to work hard just to stay still. Other times, the treadmill would come to a stop, and I’d hurtle forwards. The Red Queen’s Race is just life. What is important is to keep running.
“You must be very frightened”
After I’d got the hang of running, I started looking for my next challenge. I was taking delight in doing things that I would never have done before the cancer. Things that would surprise and shock my friends.
I joined a gym, for the first time in my life. The running had resulted in me losing a lot of weight, and my hospital was becoming concerned, because unexpected weight loss is a “b symptom” for lymphoma. I thought, what better way to prove I was well than to start putting on weight, but by building muscle rather than fat.
My fitness instructor at the gym was an energetic young twenty-something. His impressive physique made it patently obvious that he could impart to me the skills that I was looking for. I think I seemed impossibly old to him at first, and he found it amazing that I’d never been to the gym before. The challenge ahead of him in making me fit was evidently daunting. He said “So this is really the first time you’ve ever been to the gym?! You must be very frightened.”
I smiled, remembering my nurse’s words twelve months ago, where she had told me much the same thing. I thought about what a long way I’d come in such a short space of time. Before my cancer experience, I certainly would have been intimidated, both by the gym, and by my fitness instructor. But that wasn’t how I felt today.
“No”, I said, emphatically. “I feel intrigued. I’m really looking forward to doing this.”
Today, I can do unassisted supersets of pushups and pullups without breaking a sweat. I’ve put the weight back on in muscle, and any anxieties from my doctors about weight loss are forgotten.
At the age of 37, I had finally become an adult
During the Second World War, Queen Elizabeth (the queen mother) famously remarked “now I can look the East End in the eye”. Previously, the East End had born the brunt of the bombing raids. This was the first time that the palace had been hit.
After my experience with cancer, I had a better understanding of what she had meant. The cancer had been like a bombing raid. It gave me a shared understanding with other cancer patients and survivors. But it went further than that. It had given me a connection with anyone who had been through a tough experience – and, one way or another, that’s most of us.
For example, if someone cried in front of me, I previously had no idea what to do. I never used to know what to say or do at a funeral. Comforting someone with a hug at the right moment was outside of my behavioral vocabulary. I felt that it was such a big deal that someone had died, that anything I might say about it would seem false, or even disrespectful. Now, when I saw someone was upset, I could relate to them. Instinctively I knew how to respond.
At the age of 37, I’d finally become an adult.
- Always stay hopeful, but don’t predicate your happiness on a specific outcome
- Embrace every experience, and look for the positives – there are always more than you anticipate
- Live in the moment. Make the most of now, since no one knows what will happen tomorrow
- Focus on what you can do, that gives your life meaning
- If you want to know what you should be doing more of, listen to your unconscious mind
- Explore what the positive meaning of cancer is for you
- Seek out activities that bring pleasure now, and build into something more over time
- Don’t be shy to take advantage of the positives – enjoy the attention!
- Experience each day with a heightened intensity, now that you know how precious and fragile life really is
- Use your experiences to build new and unexpected connections with people
- Look out for well intentioned mind reading, and challenge it if you feel that it is limiting your potential for recovery
- Mind and body are one system. There’s a triangle of well being, that if you keep in balance, everything else falls into place: diet, exercise, rest.
Embracing every experience
Recovering from cancer is not about leaving the disease behind or running away from it. It’s about embracing it as a part of your life. It is about accepting what is, and adapting. It’s about carrying it with you for ever, and realising that it’s OK. That the experience has become a part of you, and that you are richer and stronger as a consequence. And I believe that this insight, which I found to be true for myself through painful experience, can be applied to any experience, by anyone.
“Graham – I said this before – but, the hour I that I sat and listened to you was one of the most powerful hours I have experienced….so much so that I have been going for a run for the last two days…!!! And intend to continue – those that know me a little better will know that I have told myself a recurring story of not being able to run since I had phuemonia a few years ago and lost much of my lung capacity…..but no more..!!! Thank you – and thank you for sharing the transcript – I have a real desire to share it amongst some friends – and wanted to ask if this would be okay…??”
“I also really enjoyed reading Graham’s story. I didn’t see Graham’s talk on his recovery from cancer but believe there are so many great messages in his document which I am already learning from. I was out running the other night and it was hard work and not fun. Graham’s words came to mind and I decided that if I only had one day left I would choose to run and that as I don’t know whether that would be my last day I may as well enjoy it! Amazing how much easier and enjoyable it became in an instant. I hope it has the same effect when I’m next playing golf!!!!!”
“Wow – that puts stuff into perspective! Thanks for sharing. I wish I had seen Graham’s presentation too.”
“Thank you so much Sue. I was fortunate to hear Graham speak and it was a really moving and inspiring experience. Lovely to have his notes.”
” I missed Graham’s session so it was great to be able to read his story and wow, what a powerful story it is with so many lessons and tips.”
“Absolutely phenomenal; this is going on my shelf alongside my favourite books of all time,”
“Fantastic! I loved listening to every minute of this presentation. I could not speak to anybody for at least 10 mins after listening as I really needed time to digest. This was one of the most powerful talks I have every listened to and I will remember forever”
“felt privilege to share the experience with Graham as he told his inside story on his fight for cancer and how it had changed his life. i hope he finds opportunity to share with more people. You could see his design skills in the choice of visual metaphors that went with his simple phrases the framed each step of the story. It seems the cancer is prevalent decease and i had much to think about. one of my Sally’s good friend finally succumb to it in the early hours”