Tuesday 25 June 2019

Emily Hourican's Cancer Diary: If Bowie could die, then any of us could...

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

The day David Bowie's death is announced is a sombre one in the radiotherapy waiting area. "Did you hear?" we ask each other. "Terrible, isn't it?" Because the truth is, if Bowie could die, with all his incredible beauty and grace and talent, all his money and fame, any of us could.

Or at least, that's how it feels to me. I have never, in all of this miserable process of cancer, confronted the possibility of my death even for an instant. Perhaps that particular treat is waiting for me when I am out the other side of treatment, when I am over all the miseries of getting well, perhaps then my mind will have space to consider the "but what if . . ." of it all. Until now, I haven't done this. I have had complete and utter confidence in the outcome - a complete eradication of the tumour and all its works - from the first minute I was told about it. I have only ever feared the cure, not the lack of one.

Which is partly, I think, what has made me a slightly unwilling, even at times petulant, partner in 'the process.' "Is this really necessary?" I have been wondering silently to myself from the beginning. "Are they not overreacting, just a little?" Now, for the first time, I begin to think, perhaps they are not overreacting. Perhaps this is all really necessary. Instead of the possibility of my death being a morbid thought, it is actually quite a galvanising one. After all, if I must jump through hoops of horror, at least let there be a good reason for it. The best possible reason.

And now that the going is really rough - and rough, by now, it really is - I find myself weirdly more able to cope. Perhaps because the moment of crisis, the things I have been dreading for so long, are here at last and I can now confront them, face them down, instead of just anticipating and dreading them.

My mouth is very sore, my jaw is stiff, swallowing is difficult, I am on constant, albeit still low-level, painkillers, my neck and face itch with a radiotherapy rash, I am exhausted - so much so that I am sneaking off to bed most afternoons for a lie-down that usually turns into a full-blown nap - and I don't even bother pretending I'm going to get up with the kids in the morning any more. I have the beginnings of at least one ulcer and I don't much want to eat, because eating is painful, food is uninteresting - actually, nearly everything just tastes of ashes - and the desire to vomit kicks in after just a few mouthfuls. Yes, it's all happening, just as they told me it would. And my response, so far, is a sort of Spirit-of-the-Blitz type thing.

When mealtimes come round, as they do with what feels like dismaying frequency ("God, lunch already," I find myself thinking. "Surely not . . ?"), I swing into a pathetic semblance of action. "Right," I say, "let's do this thing!" I swill yet another mouthwash, the numbing one this time, and approach whatever bland, paste-like substance is waiting for me - porridge, Weetabix mushed up in loads of milk, risotto - and begin to eat with grim determination. And without much pause. If I stop for too long, I know I will never start again, and so I march onwards until I feel I cannot manage another bite. This, unfortunately, doesn't take very long. Then sometimes I go and lie down, to prevent myself undoing all the good work by getting sick.

Fun stuff, eh?

On the plus side, I have been revisiting some of the wonderful puddings of my childhood. Rice pudding, bread-and-butter pudding, something truly delicious called a Queen of Puddings, which is sponge, with a layer of jam, topped with a layer of meringue.

My mother - a wonderful queen of puddings herself - has been making and dropping these in to me. I try and think back to the days - all of about three weeks ago - when I would have merrily eaten my way through an entire bowlful of any of them, take a deep breath and manage a few bites. Even they taste like ashes. "Did you sprinkle the contents of the fire-grate over this?" I ask my husband after he has presented me with a bowl of something. Yes, this is what passes for humour in our house these days.

I have adopted a similar sort of grim heartiness in my interactions with my 'team' at the hospital. "How are you?" they ask. "Dreadful," I say in cheerful, ringing tones. "Perfectly dreadful. But it's only going to get worse, right?"

They look shifty, as well they might. After all, what are they supposed to say? 'Yes' is the only accurate answer, and, although I asked, it's really not what I want to hear. Instead they tell me "you're doing great". And it is amazing how galvanising praise is. Being told I'm doing well gives me the courage I need for a few more steps.

Actually, I make reasonably light of my symptoms in hospital, but heavy weather of them at home. I don't know why this is. Perhaps it's the brave face we all try and wear in public, dropped like a stone when we come through the door of our own houses. Perhaps I only have the energy for one lot of pretending and I have decided my family must bear the brunt of the truth. Or perhaps it's because proof of worse is all around me in hospital; evidence of all the many ways in which I could be and feel even more miserable than I do, and the perspective afforded by this panoply of suffering shames and silences me.

I can't smile much at the moment. My mouth is so sore and my lips so cracked at the corners that smiling is painful so I am rationing it. It is mainly just for my kids now. Having always been a naturally very smiley person, I am, in essence, doing the exact opposite of Brendan O'Connor's pre-Christmas Smile Revolution. He found that the world, smiled at, tends to smile back. He must be right, because I am finding that the world, dealt with via a rather blank visage, tends to give blank back. My face-to-face interactions are less warm than formerly, no matter the efforts I make to communicate goodwill, interest, empathy, through the eyes alone. Years of watching America's Next Top Model and listening to Tyra Banks going on about 'smizing' -"smile with your eyes" - should have prepared me for this, but I am finding that the world is not really getting my 'smizes'. Actually, the world seems to think I am pretty grumpy. The world might be right, and now that I am without a smile to cover up the grumpiness, I am exposed.

And meanwhile, the flow of good wishes goes on. Every day brings more cards and gifts, through the post and in person, from people I know and people I have never met, probably never will meet. I cannot get over the decency and kindness of folk. That too is galvanising. Three more weeks of this. I think I can do it.

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