Following my article ‘Travelling Hopefully’ recently published in ‘The Friend’, I have received a number of emails, enquiries and comments asking for more information about how I am dealing with my terminal illness. They usually ask if I am having counselling or other support? My answer is that I usually find the support that I need within my ‘reserve bank’ of Quaker wisdom and beliefs, together with the love and support of my partner, family and friends. Since my diagnosis in October 2021, I have experienced much the same roller coaster of emotions as many other sufferers. I have no answers, but I hope that my limited experiences so far will be of some help to others in my position.
A good friend of ours passed into the Light recently after dealing with cancer bravely for many years. Although we had corresponded spasmodically over the last thirty years or so, we counted Bob as a good friend. I recall his last letter to me; one that he had written shortly after hearing of my own cancer diagnosis. I recall one sentence with clarity because, at that time, I was a little puzzled by what he meant. “We each deal with cancer in our unique way”, was one of his comments; several months on the cancer journey, I think I now know what he meant.
Following diagnosis, particularly of the terminal cancer kind, there comes a period of acute distress, denial, which is often followed anger and, if we are fortunate, a kind of dull acceptance, often coupled with a determination to fight on. I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but this is my experience so far in this journey. Much, of course, depends upon one’s personal faith, or maybe lack of it, the love and support from family and friends, and the individual circumstances that we find ourselves in. We all hope that, in time, we are given the strength to deal with whatever is finally waiting for us.
From my own experience and observations, I have found that after a diagnosis of cancer has been given, many are either in denial and try to put the issue at the back of their minds, until they are ready, or forced, to deal with it; or they gratefully accept advice and support from whoever is offering it. In my case, I am blessed with an oncologist who understands, and appreciates my need to be told the unvarnished truth with as much clarity as possible. I am supported by a wonderful, caring group of nurses and ancillary staff who do their best to answer my endless questions, whilst retaining both humour, compassion and professionalism in their supportive words. The cancer charity, MacMillan supports patients brilliantly with excellent information, whilst offering support and assistance whenever they can.
Following my own diagnosis, I did as much research as I could on the Internet, quickly recognising not to trust many of the websites and information given. Spurious claims of wonder drugs and alternative therapies are freely available, and I quickly learned only to trust the NHS website and information given by organisations, such as Macmillan. I also read a lot, particularly about personal experiences of those living with cancer. Not all were helpful in my search for information, particularly about dealing with approaching death, which, as a society, we are very bad at acknowledging and facing realistically.
I recall one book in particular. It was one that I read about half way through, but became so irritated and at times angry with the author that I could not bear to finish it. The author was a woman who had her own unique way of dealing with her own advanced cancer, which was to unleash her anger and bitterness upon those who were trying to help her. She claimed that by insisting that she would only attend those appointments that fitted into her own busy diary, that she had access and personal detailed explanations of all scans, tests and drugs, and being generally unreasonable to all those that she came into contact with, empowered her and gave her the strength to fight her cancer. Some of her demands may not seem unreasonable to some, but within the scope of an exceptionally busy, overworked and underfunded NHS, her demands were unreasonable. The author was clearly a very unhappy and troubled woman who had yet to come to terms with the inevitable. I hope writing the book helped her to comes to terms with her anger and eventually result in acceptance and peace.
One of the reasons that I objected to the author’s anger, so vehemently expressed within the pages of this lengthy book, was that, as a Quaker, I try to avoid conflict whenever possible and “fighting cancer” is an expression that does not sit easy with my own philosophy. This is not to say that I do not get angry and depressed at my condition. I do, but I try to channel it in a positive way, recognising that in some ways I am fortunate in knowing the approximate timing of my departure, that I can plan and prepare in the best way that I can for my partner, making the choices and decisions that I want to make for myself, as well as hopefully avoiding the curse of dementia, or worse.
I also try to look at cancer as an organism in a positive way. Of course, I do not welcome its invasion into my body, but I also have to remember that it is a God created organism, created in a similar way to ourselves. The organism lives with its main purpose of reproducing itself as quickly and efficiently as possible. As far as I am aware, cancer cells do not wittingly intend to create untold damage to other cells in order to kill off the host body, but it does so presumably unaware of the consequences of its invasion. In many ways, the life cycle of a cancer cell has some similarity with human and animal life. Its determination also fascinates me, because as one cancer expert recently told me “Cancer always finds its way around the treatments that we use to try to control it. As yet, it won’t be controlled, and it nearly always finds a way through.”
As I progress through my own personal and unique cancer journey, I now understand Bob’s words. In some ways, I am grateful for the clarity and understanding that an ‘end of life situation’ can bring. Of course, I would prefer not to be in this position, but we have to deal with whatever situation that we find ourselves in. In my personal cancer journey, a Quaker perspective is both positive and helpful, which has added clarity and meaning to my life.
This article was recently published in 'The Friend', a Quaker magazine, published weekly.