The way I found out, just as with my diagnosis, was via a segment of a conversation about other things. I was sitting with my wife in my consultant’s office, chatting. She had examined me for lumps, and handed me a leaflet about seeing a specialist counsellor. ‘You’ve been through such a lot,’ she said, ‘now might be a good time.’ I wondered out loud if she might know when I would move from what she and the other doctors had been calling ‘partial remission’ to the full-blown actual thing. ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ she said. ‘You’re in it right now.’
‘Does that mean I’m better?’ I said.
‘Yes. For now, it does. That’s exactly what it means.’
‘But you don’t say ‘cured’?’
‘We have trouble with that word here,’ she said.
‘I see. Great. Wow. Thanks!’
‘And you’ll be needing this.’ She handed me the leaflet containing the counsellor’s email address. She smiled at both of us as we stood to go out. Shaking our hands she said ‘Take care of each other,’ exactly the same words with which she had finished our first meeting some eight months previously.
I have written here before about the immediate days after being told I had finally reached remission, and of how they were anything but the Champagne-popping celebrations of popular legend. I won’t say they were just as bad as my chemo and radiotherapy treatments, but they did bring their own, very distinctive challenges. Ten years on -it feels so strange to be writing that- my main memory of that time is of endlessly crying for no reason: in the supermarket, when my daughter played Nick Drake, or just watching the sunlight on a wall. Anything, it seemed, would set me off. I am so pleased I opened up that leaflet to send the email saying I needed help.
If I am honest, I am still learning the significance of that last phrase. In spite of all my treatment, during cancer and after it, I still find it very hard indeed to say when I need help. Not quite two years ago I walked into a room and found myself answering questions, first from one woman, and then another, which persuaded me that I had for some time been living beyond my normal means of being able to bounce back and remain ‘chipper’ about things, the great irony of which was that my refusal to admit I had a problem, combined with the energy I used in remaining so chipper, were actually making me worse. As in iller. As in depressed. I am not in that place now, thankfully, just I am not in the cancer place now. ‘For now, at least’, as my doctor would say. What this has taught me, as if cancer was not enough of a wake up call, is that life is precious, and vulnerable, and indescribably wonderful. And, at the risk of annoying all of my poet-friends, I would even say beautiful. For a reason I don’t think there is much mileage in analysing, I had forgotten that somewhere. I am glad to say I have found it again.
You can read more of my reflections on cancer, remission and depression at the links below: