It’s been a tumultuous year so far (to say the least). I write this while lying sprawled out on a deck chair in the garden, watching as the African sun slips beneath the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m on a two-week holiday to my native city of Cape Town, South Africa, having finally found enough time to take a break from the demanding London schedule I have become accustomed to: Wake up, go to university, work, eat, sleep, go to the hospital, have blood taken and my PICC dressing changed, prepare for my triweekly immunotherapy transfusion, go home, do coursework, lather, rinse, repeat. This has been my life for the last six months, and admittedly, I’ve never needed a holiday so badly.
Although blue skies have replaced the gray ones, for now, the uncertainty of my health is here to stay. I’ve learned to live with it instead of resisting it, to embrace the unknown rather than cling to the false blanket of security we all seem to cower behind. My future is uncertain. So is everyone’s, although healthy people tend not to reflect too long over the impermanence of life. Most people are too busy planning for the future to realize all we really have is the now.
There’s a special beauty to be found in learning to live in the moment. To stop dwelling on what was, or what could have been, or what might be one day. I see this compulsion in all of my friends to discuss marriage and children, career plans, and travel. Instinctually, I too want to engage. It’s fun to fantasize. But this uncertainty around what will happen has forced me to disengage from the daydreams and projections and just be here.
And in that space, I’ve found a new type of joy previously denied to me. I am bewildered by the most ordinary of experiences — the purple mountains at dusk, the salty mist that lingers over the ocean in the early morning, the assortment of strangers temporarily packed together on the top of a double-decker bus.
There have been seasons of depression amid the joyful moments as well. Dark clouds that I’ve struggled to shed. The latest cold front arrived with the news that the second batch of chemo hadn’t worked. I walked into the oncologist’s office a nervous mess and left in pieces. Red-faced, puffy, inconsolable. Empty. I sat in a scalding bathtub on a Saturday evening, alone, sobbing, questioning the futility of it all, pondering the reason why I should carry on.
My father flew to London to be with me. He cooked me healthy dinners and helped me shed the grief that had encased me like a thick woolen blanket. He is the only person able to shake me from this dark place — a trait he has earned through a life riddled with its own tragedy. His ability to pick himself up after crippling loss and carry on is the quality I admire most and the one I try hardest to emulate. But how does one pick themselves up when they’re told their cancer isn’t responding to conventional treatment?
Months of disappointing scans and blood transfusions, hair loss, weight fluctuation, insomnia, fertility loss, hormone injections, and endless hours in waiting rooms had left me emptied of all my joy and feeling as if I’d been robbed of my capacity to carry on. But what alternative did I have left?
There are two ways of going through cancer: One is to let it steal your identity by abandoning all your zest and passion for life. This is the one in which you give in to the illness and ultimately give up.
The other is to keep picking yourself up. Again and again and again. It’s refusing to let this disease steal your essence, refusing to be another victim. The latter is the only option for me.
Yes, this cruel illness has taken my hair, my fertility, and my energy, but it will not take me, not yet. I’m not ready to go. Fighting back, refusing to give up, filling my life with hope, with people and things that bring me joy, this is what I have to do.
I have to keep pushing against the tide because plain and simple, I want to be here. For the Tuesday afternoons, for the traffic jams, for the gray skies, even for the lonely bathtubs filled with tears. I don’t mind the pain, I don’t mind the heartache, but just give me more time. That’s all I want.
Because ultimately, it’s all worth it, just to have a few more warm African sunsets.
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