If you haven’t read the first part of this blog, you can reach it by clicking here… or here… or even here. But NOT there – really… don’t click there! You’ll regret it!
It’s a very strange thing, being told by a doctor that he suspects you have cancer.
If some random stranger came up in the street and shouted “You have cancer! I can smell the filth in you!” you’d probably take no notice of the information they’re attempting to express to you, most likely running away instead.
But a doctor… you know they’ve trained for years to recognise that sort of thing; their words carry a weight of authority, so that when they tell you they suspect you have cancer, you suspect you have cancer, too.
To say the news was a bolt out of the blue was an understatement…
An hour previous to walking into that surgery for my appointment, I was living the greatest time of my life… I was happier than I’d ever been, I was content in my job, I was filled with such an exquisite sense of inner-peace all of the time, and after decades of allowing myself to be tossed and blown around by the storms in my mind, I had finally reached a point where I could look at my thoughts and find nothing, absolutely nothing that could hurt me.
Walking back down the road from the doctor’s, I have to say that I was shaken out of that peace… mentally and physically, with tremors in my hands.
It wasn’t that I wanted to sit down somewhere and cry about it… there was a numbness to it all… a feeling that it just wasn’t fair.
I mean, it felt like a rotten trick – after all these years – to be happy, and for that happiness to be slashed away through the news that I could have some sort of terminal illness; that, now I’d found out what real life was about, it could be taken away from me.
Despite the doctor’s advice not to worry, he was working on the assumption that the mark on my toe had only been there for a couple of months, whereas I knew that it had been there for significantly longer.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell him that information. I guess I felt stupid – faced with the prospect of it being cancer – that I hadn’t sought help as soon as it appeared, because of course I would have spoken to someone about it if I’d even had the remotest of a suspicion that it could be life threatening.
So… it wasn’t just the possibility of having cancer that was a concern, but the possibility of having cancer and, through complete ignorance, allowing it the time to spread.
I made my way back to the Scout camp. It was running with a skeleton staff (not literally, which was good, because that would have made things even scarier) and there was only one person covering the kitchen that day… a young chef named Nicky.
I was still in a state of shock when I asked if I could talk to him. I supposed I felt the need to talk to someone, but, on hindsight, Nicky probably wasn’t the best option and he confirmed that by bursting out laughing when I told him the news from the doctor.
He said: “I am really, really not the person to talk to about this.”
I’d reached that conclusion already.
I know there was no malice in his reaction… that it was probably a nervous thing… but there was nobody else around and that left me feeling a little lost.
I went back to my room, sat on my bed and tried to take it all in.
I didn’t have my computer up there at the time, so I couldn’t even get on Twitter or Facebook to post a status update: Les is now in a relationship… with cancer.
I couldn’t phone my Mother about it as I didn’t want to worry her. She had turned 71 a month earlier and wasn’t in the greatest of health herself, so I didn’t want to be telling her that her ‘baby boy’ might have something terminal.
My ex long-term girlfriend, a wonderful soul from Sweden who I was still good friends with, had lost both her grandmother and, more recently, her father to cancer, so as much as I wanted to phone her up and talk to her, I didn’t want to upset her.
Bizarrely, the greatest comfort came from a BBC TV ‘celebrity’ who I’d befriended on Twitter not long before, but she’s always been a woman of few words… she offered me positive affirmations when actually what I could have done with was a hug and someone to talk with, not listen to, but she was appreciated.
I still believed in loneliness then, and, thus, I felt lonely.
I spent the evening up at Scout Rock…
The smile had turned into a frown; my brow was furrowed. The awakening occurred just over a month earlier, catalysing a time of pure joy, but there I was again, contemplating the dark possibilities.
I wondered, was it all over, so soon? Was this the descent back to how it was before?
Something was different, though…
I knew that if I’d been given that same talk by the doctor two months earlier, I’d have been a complete wreck. I’d have quit my job and headed back home, back to the comfort zone of feeling sorry for myself and having people around me who would feed me sympathy. I’d have entered a state of limbo and allowed my mind to torture me with all the possibilities ahead, and it would have burned me until I found out exactly what was wrong.
Instead, I was just a bit low… but I think it’s fair to be ‘just a bit low’ after a doctor tells you that you may have cancer.
I sat, watching the clouds drift by, staring at the mountains and the tide turning on the loch. It was wondrous. There was a bat darting around as dusk fell, running a circuit that brought it to just a few feet above my head.
I noticed that the memory of the day slipped in and out of thoughts. When I was absorbed with just watching the world, there was peace, but then I’d bounce back into thinking, and that’s where the mind’s discord began again and I’d follow the fear.
Then it hit me…
What exactly had changed between waking up that morning, happy, and then me being there, sitting on that rock, being worried and unhappy?
If I did have cancer, then at most there would be a few extra nasty cells in my body, but I didn’t feel any different… I hadn’t suddenly developed cancer pain and my hair hadn’t spontaneously fallen out (though it looked like it had, sadly).
The only discernible difference came from processing the information I’d picked up from the doctor, which I’d allowed to become a source of great discomfort… in my mind.
Yet, when my mind was silenced by the sensory overload of witnessing and being a part of the breathtaking scenery around me, there was no discomfort. There was no fear whatsoever.
Since the awakening and moving up to Lochgoilhead, I had been using the mantra ‘My reality!’ I’d say it when I was on the mountain, or standing by the loch, or sitting in my room in the staff-block… it was an affirmation of the present moment… of being alive and feeling happy.
I smiled and said it again, in the indigo dusk.
Nothing had changed that day. I was as alive as I was when I woke that morning.
Even if I did have cancer, I was alive right then… so why would I waste my time fearing a possible grim future when I had all that life available to me in that moment?
This was before I’d ever heard of Eckhart Tolle, ‘The Power of Now’ or present awareness, and there I was, sitting on the mountain, practicing the lessons in a multi-million-selling book which I wouldn’t read until seven months later.
I woke up that day at peace and happy… and I went to bed that night at peace and happy.
The next morning, with a new group of kids due in, there were three of us in the kitchen – myself and two chefs, Nicky and Gillian.
Gillian was a big lezza, as she described herself, and such a lovely woman. She’d run up and hug me for no reason at all, so was much more supportive than Nicky hadn’t been the day before. Her mother had died from breast cancer, so she knew a lot about the process from referral to treatment and was giving me nuggets of very useful info on the whole procedure.
What she didn’t give me was sympathy, but she didn’t give it in a much more positive way than when Nicky hadn’t given it. She made me laugh instead of allowing myself to slip into feeling sorry for myself… and despite the revelation of the night before, there were those moments where I’d frown and think too much.
We always had music playing in the kitchen outside service times, and Bob Marley was the first song of the morning…
Gillian came up to me, with a smile on her face, and said: “Bob Marley died of cancer. I think he died of toe cancer, too. Spooky, eh?”
Nicky started roaring with laughter, but I laughed too… probably calling them a bunch of bastards, and rightly so.
The next song was Fields of Gold, by Eva Cassidy – who died of cancer.
Gillian was practically crying with hysterics when that came on. I wondered if they’d both conspired to make a ‘died of cancer’ playlist on the iPod, but she assured me – after reciting the Twilight Zone theme – that it was just a coincidence.
The cancer jokes were thick and fast after that (and in the days ahead)… it may sound a little grim, but they were so helpful in keeping my spirits up. I laughed a lot, and laughing is an excellent reminder that you’re alive.
I received the letter from the hospital a few days later, confirming the appointment with the dermatologist, and I have to admit that my hands started shaking again when I read it.
|The letter from the hospital...|
Although I was generally doing pretty good, there were times when the possibilities hit me like a freight train… really shook me…
I had aches and pains in my back and sides… some quite brutal headaches from time to time, and I wondered – especially after reading up about that particular flavour of melanoma, and that there are often no symptoms until it is well advanced – if it had spread around the rest of my system.
Was the rapid weight loss really down to exercise, or was something more sinister causing it?
I was 35-years-old… I’d hoped, even though I’d left it late, that I’d find someone to settle down with and maybe have children one day.
It dawned that there was a chance I’d never experience being a father… or a husband… or even fall in love again… that I could be bones in the ground the same time next year.
I didn’t have the ‘skills’ I have now… so even with a positive mind set, those darker possibilities crept in. I’d shoo them away, but they’d keep coming back.
Then, sometimes I’d think that I was crazy even considering I had cancer… that there was no real proof except for what the doctor had said, and that he was wrong… but then I’d flip round and realise that he’s a doctor, and wouldn’t have told me that for the fun of it. He must have had real cause for concern.
The letter from the hospital was looked at too many times. It was unreal, but I’d keep reading it just to check that I hadn’t imagined the situation.
The pattern of gliding and crashing repeated over that intervening period, though the crashes were never really more than a bump on the ground before I pulled myself skyward again.
There was no prolonged terror… just the sudden realisation, now and again, that I didn’t know what was happening inside me, and I wouldn’t know until I got to that hospital and saw the dermatologist… and then there was another stretch of time after that, from biopsy to test results.
But… on the whole, I was filled with a determination to live, simply by living and enjoying my life. I increased my walking routine and would go up to Scout Rock two or three times per day. I enjoyed the company of my new friends… went to the pub a few times per week and shared the laughter, there.
Despite the possibilities, and apart from those moments I hit the ground, I was happy… and I’d never been so happy before in my life.
The morning of the appointment came… I wanted it out of the way… and it was snowing when I looked out of the window.
Mike, my boss at work, had offered to drive me to Alexandria, where the hospital lived, but when I went in to see him, he shook his head and said the pass had been closed. Delivery drivers had been forced to turn back… basically, nobody was getting in or out that day.
It was the mountains…
… and it was particularly shitty timing by Frosty the Snowman, who I’d previously had a lot of respect for.
So… I had to rearrange the appointment and was given a new time, a week later… which meant another week of having to fight that fear of the unknown…
I’d say that time felt longer than the two weeks, previous, because there was the added stress of wondering whether there’d be a fresh snowfall which would block the pass again – and also because I didn’t know what was going on inside my body. I could picture the docs telling me: “Well, if we’d caught it a week earlier…”
But I trudged on… sometimes creaking… the cancer jokes weren’t as fun anymore…
The day came, again – this time, no snow. It was two days before my 36th birthday.
Mike had a busy morning in the kitchen, but he told me he knew the route and the time it would take, so there was no chance of me missing the appointment. I was getting a little nervous as the clock ticked on, but then we were on our way.
I kept looking at the clock as we were travelling, thinking that I’ll know what’s happening in a couple of hours… that I could plan my next move… if it was cancer, then at least I’d know it was cancer.
Just outside Alexandria, we hit a traffic jam, and I started to get a very bad feeling that I was going to miss my timeslot and have to rearrange again. We inched through the traffic for hours, even though it was only 15 minutes or so in real-world time…
Half a beard later, we got there. Mike pulled up outside and said he was going to park up and have a ‘power nap’ in the car while I saw the consultant, so I wandered around to locate the right part of the building and spoke to the receptionist. I was a couple of minutes late, but she assured me it wasn’t a problem, which was a huge relief.
A while later, after staring at daytime TV, I was summoned by a woman with a big smile, who led me up a corridor, into a treatment room.
Her small talk was ace and she put me at ease straight away, directing me to sit up on a bed and take my shoe and sock off.
I watched her face as she frowned, looking closely at the mark on my toe.
“I don’t think this is pigment,” she said.
I didn’t have a clue what that meant.
She grabbed a scalpel and took a sliver of skin away… then another…
“No, it’s not pigment.”
I still didn’t have a clue what that meant, until she looked up and smiled.
“You haven’t got anything to worry about, here,” she said.
Gosh, I’ve got happy tears in my eyes just writing that down.
The relief was… something else. It was almost (but – really – not) worth thinking I had cancer, to find out I didn’t have cancer.
I grinned the bigliest I’d ever grinned as she explained that it was likely a haemorrhage – that I must have burst a tiny vein in my toe and, because the skin is so thick, it had settled underneath the layers, turning that shade of dark brown, which looks almost exactly like a melanoma. She couldn’t tell for sure until she cut the skin away. If it had been ‘pigment’ it would have gone through to the flesh.
Marriage, children, happiness, peace… life… all back on! Decades suddenly stretching ahead of me again, rather than months…
It was a beautiful moment.
I was on a high for the rest of the week, despite getting back to the camp and being told by everyone that I’d just been attention seeking for the past three weeks by pretending I had cancer.
It was definitely one of my greatest birthdays, too… and very good to know that – unless I got cancer or something – it wasn’t going to be my last.
In fact, it was so good, that I had another birthday the day after, so the 8th and 9th of April are now my Happy TwoBirthdays.
Summing up… though I’m obviously delighted to report that I never actually had cancer, physically; on a psychological level, I went through the same process as someone who didn’t get such a fortunate diagnosis… and I’d say that highlights just how much agony the mind can put us through – pulling us out of real life and into that realm of over-thinking… of focussing on the worst possible scenario, rather than waiting until all of the information is in and then coming up with a positive action plan on how to deal with it.
When you’re sick, the last thing you need is your own mind turning against you.
There are so many inspiring stories of bravery from people who didn’t get the good news. As much as I can emphasise with that period of suspicion to diagnosis, I can’t relate to the knowledge that… yes it is cancer. I don’t ever want to know what it’s like, either.
But one thing seems clear… when that bad news is absorbed, the light of life so often shines the brightest it ever has in these people. They realise that, though time is short, they are still alive and they will squeeze every last drop of joy from that life while they can.
We’re here to live…
… don’t wait until your time is running out to realise that.
Life is right here, right now.
“With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
- Max Ehrmann, ‘Desiderata’
|Taken later in the afternoon, after returning from the hospital with an 'all clear'. :-)|