Dying to live – why being diagnosed with cancer isn’t the end of the world, but it sure will ruin your day – a personal tale of survival by Alexander Porter.
“The doctors say it’s leukaemia.”
With that, my world crumbled around me. Those words, so heavy with sadness and regret, delivered by my father. A veritable pillar of strength throughout my life and now a shell of a man who had, both emotionally and statistically, handed down a death sentence to his own son.
My name is Alex and I am a survivor.
At the age of 20 I was diagnosed with cancer. I was quarantined from the world and had a line attached directly to my heart for chemotherapy. On the plus side, living in hospital meant that I had a room to myself and as someone who grew up sharing a room with 3 brothers, this was a first. This spatial independence did come at a price as the team of doctors and nurses at Nepean Hospital worked around the clock to try and stem the flow of poisonous cells my own body was so eager to produce and to save my life.
Among the obvious feelings that fighting cancer invokes: fear, pain, sadness to name a few…this new feeling of receiving constant aid was one of the many unexpected consequences of my experience. There was only so many times I could thank them for cleaning my chemo lines, for taking my blood pressure and for bringing me back from the brink when my body went into shock and I started to die. At a certain point, a guilt began to foster as everyone seemed so devoted to saving me, no matter the time of day or night, regardless of how trivial my request or concern was and as days turned to weeks, weeks to months and months to years that guilt has remained. This is surely one of the most deeply ironic of emotions whereby I am so desperately sorry to have lived when others, equally as deserving of life as me, are just stories and memories to their loved ones now. It seems that is one of the many prices to pay when cancer is concerned.
However, to say that cancer only worsens your life would, believe it or not, be a wholly unfair statement. The stigma exists that this disease, simply, takes. A global population living in unspoken fear of their own Big C diagnosis.
There are two sides to this coin and despite the length of my hospital stay, 244 days spent waiting and wondering, I am thankful for the lessons I have learnt.
On one of the first nights spent in hospital, before the magnitude of what was about to come had hit home and before the reality of my reality had sunk in, my father gave me a piece of advice that remains the cornerstone of my life today. “This sucks mate, but I’m right here, we all are, and all you can do is endure. When it feels like it can’t get any worse, just endure. On the other side it will get better, and until then, endure”.
He could never have predicted how profoundly life changing that advice was. As the days ticked by and one awful experience was replaced with another, I did what he said. For every bone marrow biopsy that plunged deep into my being, for every surgery that scarred my body, for every night spent wide eyed and white knuckled, I did what he said and I endured. There was no recourse to this, obviously I had no choice other than to accept my fate, but by taking back ownership of my struggle, by getting on the front foot and inviting cancer to throw itself at me because I would take as many punches as it could throw, was empowering.
It would be a fallacy to say I did not feel the sadness associated with a cancer diagnosis, a lie to say I did not break down many times. Nights spent crying into pillows or pleading with the universe to give me strength, but I never gave up hope that I would be ok. I did what my father said and I endured. This attitude has stayed with me ever since and I am thankful for the way it has allowed me to approach stressful and difficult situations in the aftermath of my hospital stay and as I continue to stride forward in life.
Like hitting the reset button, my cancer enabled me to experience things like they were brand new. Setting foot outside of my hospital room after months trapped and feeling the breeze on my face, the sunlight on my skin and hearing the sound of people going about their daily lives were all reminders of what was worth waking up for. You have never known true gourmet food until you have sunk your teeth into a Big Mac after three quarters of a year unable to taste food properly due to medication. Everything was fresh, everything was new and it was the rush of a lifetime to be a part of that world again.
These are just two examples of the way in which my cancer was not the be all and end all. On the contrary, it was like being born again and, without reaching too deep into the bowl of cliches, having a second chance at life. For most cancer stories that is where they end, with the once sick caterpillar now living anew as a beautiful butterfly (damn, I went back to the cliché bowl), but that is not the end of the story.
It’s only the end of one chapter, for the next chapter begins with what happens after the cancer goes away? When the doctors sign off and the hospital closes its doors behind you? That’s when you are on your own and trust me when I say you are not the same person as you were before. After 244 days in my own physical and emotional prison I was free to go, completely and utterly institutionalised by this point. On the plus side, I had a handy dinner party story – “Oh yeah this one time when I had leukaemia…”
So where does the story go once the patient goes home and the surgeries end? Well that’s the beauty of writing your own book where cancer is concerned, the story goes wherever you want it to. There are moments where I will step into a crowd of people and be crippled with fear, the number of people around me is still a shock at times when I spent so long on my own. Yet there are just as many times when I feel invincible, like my own personal superhero who is capable of achieving anything, no matter what the odds are. For anyone out there who has had cancer touch their lives, and sadly that will be almost everyone, take solace in the fact that there is nothing you need to say and nothing you need to do differently when your loved ones are free from this disease. For they, like I have been and like all who follow, are just writing their own story as they move forward in life. In my case I have had a post-cancer life full of love and laughter and for that I am thankful no matter how much, or how little, time on this earth I have left.
There are countless survival stories from people far braver and far more eloquent than I. Stories that amaze and inspire in ways my story never could, and I don’t expect to change anyone’s life by talking about mine. I don’t expect sympathy nor do I want it. What I do want is for people to know that when I was diagnosed with leukaemia I did not stop living my life, I did not stop hoping for the best and no matter how many tears I spilled, I never gave up.
Life isn’t fair and it isn’t meant to be, but it is always worth it, if you want it to be.