Stories of Cancer
Giving Voice to Real Experiences

Looking for dharma

Dharma means “truth” and as time goes on I realise I am on some sort of a spiritual quest – trying to work out what my truth is and how to speak it. I am trying to make sense of the cancer experience, the brush with mortality and the fact that I seem to be surviving, so far! I’ve always rejected organised religion but am increasingly feeling the need to connect with myself and the world in a spiritual way. I am meditating more regularly and find it’s of enormous practical value – it feels like a deep healing rest (when my head isn’t full of worries!). Buddhism becomes of interest to me and I begin reading books about spirituality.

Walter, the cat, died about two years after I finished treatment. He’d been ill a long time and was over 20 years old, but it was still upsetting. I held him in my arms as the vet gave him the injection. It was weird feeling him die, he just went away, one minute there and the next – just gone. A few days later he comes to me in my dreams:

… a big, fat, black and white cat, it’s Walter, in his prime, before he got old and thin. He’s really happy and comes and sits on my chest with a paw on my shoulder just like he used to

and then I have another dream about reincarnation:

… I meet a red squirrel at the market and I know its Sally, I say to it ‘if you’re Sally will you please climb up onto my shoulder?’ and it does, so I knew I was right, it was Sally

I don’t really know if I believe in reincarnation, and don’t really want to become a Buddhist but I do find the idea of something beyond dying comforting at that stage. Now I think I am more of an existentialist – I don’t really think there is anything beyond death – and the fears are not about being dead but about the process of dying which I know can be pretty horrible for people with cancer.

I go to a Breast Cancer Care event and enjoy the opportunity to meet other women in the same situation, though I think its hard for all of us to be reminded of what we’ve been through and are still struggling with. We are all trying hard to be bright and cheery, good positive cancer patients, but beneath the surface lies huge anger, fear and distress, usually erupting in complaints about doctors or the NHS. I think it may be part of my role in future to speak the words that go unspoken – to counter the cultural belief system that we all have to be brave, especially if that means denying ourselves the opportunity to express our true feelings.

Although I’ve stopped working in the sense of working for money, I am still trying to support the development of a new organisation, and as the year goes on I realise that it is taking up a lot of my limited energy. And my relationship with work is still one of anxiety and worry and hurry. In June I overdo it in a big way and end up in bed for a few days, with a cracking headache, flu-like symptoms, an upset tummy and a skin reaction on my face. Whilst I’m sick I dream that:

I nearly hit my sister with a big glass jar, I could have killed her, when she’d only asked me an innocent question about where we might stay that night. I wake up thinking “doesn’t she realise that I’m working really hard here to do the best I can?”

My protestant work ethic is still alive and well!

I go to Bristol again and realise that I just need to wait, to be patient, that the lack of energy is forcing me to wait anyway. When the time’s right I’ll put it all back together again. It might take longer than I want it to but it will take as long as it takes and my trying to push myself doesn’t help. I have a fantastic walk with mum when I stop over to see my parents on the way home – wonderful autumn colours, there’s beauty everywhere if I’m relaxed enough, receptive enough, to see it. In December it’s my birthday and its three years since I was diagnosed. Terry and I have a good day in town, eating wurst and strudel at the Christmas market, doing a bit of slow shopping. I dream about us being on holiday together, in a new cottage with a fire in every room – four fireplaces and an Aga – heaven!

Eventually I did get better at pacing myself and at accepting my limitations. I start to learn what tires me, how stress can send my energy levels plummeting, how having a virus can leave me depleted for weeks, and that there are good days and bad days, sometimes for no reason. At times, I have too much time to think – although I practice meditation, its rare that I can clear my mind to a state of emptiness, and when my mind isn’t empty its busy, busy, busy with the latest thing to worry about or plan.

I feel a longing for more quiet, more still time in my life and yet I’m also scared of it, and tend to feel that if I have time, I should be doing something productive with it. The idea of ‘just being’ is great, but not one that comes easily to me. If I’m not busy doing something I’m usually knackered, or filling the time with telly / books and distractions. What do I want quiet time for? What is this peace I’m craving? I find it sometimes when I meditate or when I’m outside in nature. These calm, oceanic moments are fleeting times of contentment, and they feel like restoration, healing is taking place, if only I’d let myself be. I decide to focus on three things: walking, meditating and writing. Writing these stories becomes my number one ‘productive activity’ and I drop other work type activities that I was involved in. I walk round the park saying “walk, meditate, write” so often it became a mantra. And I do find that walking, writing and meditating have indeed become my priorities. They feel good for my body and good for my soul. When I was at Bristol we did lots of meditations and visualisations during the daily programme, and I found I had energy left right through into the evenings.

I keep dipping into work type activities during the year and when I do my head isn’t clear and my ability to problem solve seems to have gone. Yet without work in my life who am I? I know the world I was working in is carrying on without me, as if the waters have closed behind me. This must be what its like when you die, everything just carries on as normal. I get a card from a friend I met at a cancer centre, she’s very poorly and thanks me for all I’ve given her. I think ‘what is it I’ve given her?’ ‘is it something I could give to other people?’ I have a glimmering of an alternative career path, but then realise I haven’t got the energy for that either and I have a sense of falling into a scary emptiness. A dream sums it up:

I’m running away from some bad men, some big cats, terrified. I end up sitting in a ‘cage’ of trees, hiding, it’s a good hiding place, they can’t see me here. I do multiplication tables in my head, reciting to myself: 3×7 is 21, 4×7 is 28…. And then I suddenly realise I’m all alone, totally alone, its only me, that’s all there is. I’m on my own in this.

I’m reading Momma and the Meaning of Life by Irvin Yalom around this time, and he says that some people so fear the debt of death that they refuse the loan of life. I don’t want to do this, and yet I do feel I’m not having much of a life at times. He also says that those who most fear death are those who approach it with too much unlived life within them. And I realise I still have stuff to do. I don’t know what it is yet but there is something more for me to bring to the world. I’m not dying, yet, I have got through cancer and its time to move on.

Someone somewhere said “cancer is the wisdom disease, bringing a realisation of how short life is, how precious, and a need to answer the question ‘what was this life about anyway?’” I am beginning to glimpse what my life after cancer could be about but, still limited by fatigue, it might take a while to come into form. Although life is indeed short, I also have to be patient with myself. I’m experimenting at the moment, developing awareness of what depletes me and what nourishes me, what opens my heart and what makes me happy, in the hope that I turn in the right direction.

I want to end this last story of mine on a positive note after all the complaining that I feel writing this has given me space to do. On the other hand I don’t want to be sentimental or romantic about it. Life after cancer is not easy, with or without fatigue, and yet it can also be an opportunity, as it has been for me, to reassess your life and to turn away from a lifestyle that isn’t healthy towards one that is. I don’t know, as I write this, when I will return to work and if I do, what the work will be. But my goal at present is to fully accept the limitations of my energy without holding myself back from having a creative and fulfilling life. I’ll give the last word to some notes from my journal. Writing in my diaries has been such good therapy for me over the last three years, and I’ve often found that I am my best adviser!

…. turn towards what gives you pleasure. Focus on what brings you alive. Your purpose is to live, to breathe, to love and be loved. Doing what you are doing is enough. Go outside and breathe the cool air in, look at the blue sky and the green plant life. Cook good food for yourself. Remember to meditate. Tell your lover and friends what you need. Rest quietly somewhere for ten minutes every hour, and for an hour every afternoon. Give and get hugs and love as often as you can.