Wednesday 16 January 2019

I believe God's heavenly rays healed my cancer hell and dragged me back to life

The argument in favour of euthanasia can be compelling in certain situations, writes Gerry Andrews

HEALED BY THE PASSAGE OF TIME: The sun’s rays shine on the once-troubled Vietnamese mountains. Photo: Gerry Andrews
HEALED BY THE PASSAGE OF TIME: The sun’s rays shine on the once-troubled Vietnamese mountains. Photo: Gerry Andrews

Gerry Andrews

'Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light' wrote Dylan Thomas.

Life is random. Why does death, serious illness and heartbreak appear to track some families relentlessly? There comes a point in time when suffering can become so unbearable that it is possible to be at peace with the very concept of imminent death. I justified such thoughts by thinking, death is inevitable - it's just a timing issue.

For years I regularly asked myself, how much pain and anguish should a person have to endure before the inescapable process of dying is complete? How much punishment should a body have to absorb before being granted that final and welcome release from grief?

When loss, pain, sickness and exhaustion engulf the body, it's easy for a person to surrender and become reconciled with the inevitability of death.

The argument in favour of euthanasia can be very compelling in certain circumstances. Four years ago I would willingly have accepted such an option, if only it had been available to me. Cancer had taken my beautiful young wife some years previously and now it engulfed my body.

Every day the doctors came with some bad news.

'The tumour is aggressive and might paralyse you - we need to act very fast!' 'The cancer is treatable - but it's incurable!'

'You have kidney failure and need immediate dialysis!' 'You will need a stem cell transplant to save you - but you'll have to survive the treatment first.'

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, dialysis, blood transfusions, endless medical procedures - infections, pain, sickness, exhaustion - can't stand, can't walk, can't sleep, too tired to talk, no energy to read. Music was my only sanctuary. I faced long-term hospitalisation and, to me, the future looked bleak. 'Is this a battle worth fighting,' I ask? 'Bloody right it is,' the doctors reply. 'OK! Now dig deep and fight. Fight hard!'

And so it was. Everything became important. The daily hospital routine became a battle for survival.

Standards had to be maintained: shave - rest, shower - rest, get dressed - rest, walk the length of the hospital corridor - one hour recovery, 15-minute visit from friends - one-hour rest, eat - get sick, write for half an hour - confusion, disorientation, exhaustion followed. And then there was the endless toxic treatments and tests and the cold: oh the biting cold! In spite of a warm hospital bed, a bitter, freezing cold penetrated my very bones.

One day at a time - tomorrow will be better, little victories followed by big setbacks; when will it all end? When will I get home?

A nurse smiled. 'On a scale of one to 10, how's the pain today?'

'Why stop at 10,' I ask? 'How can I help?' asked a friend? 'Bring me a gun instead of grapes!' came my swift reply.

'Is this a battle worth fighting?' 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' I scream to myself!

'Dig deep and fight hard' was my mantra. 'Do it for others, if not for yourself,' I repeated to myself. 'Keep busy, keep active. Don't let your grandkids remember you like this.' 'You're very determined,' the nurses observed. 'Too stupid to know when I'm beaten!' was my reply. One day at a time - everything matters - tomorrow will be better.

And slowly it turned: a little further along that corridor, a little more energy, a little more writing, a little more confidence, a photographic challenge to record my own stem cell transplant.

'How's the battle going?' a doctor asked? 'I'll keep fighting, you keep supplying the ammo!' 'What motivates you?' another asked. A good question, one that had many answers: my family, new life, new love, new goals, an unfinished legacy.

Some time later I stood on a mountaintop in Vietnam. I looked into a valley in that once-troubled land - a scene of conflict, death and destruction, healed by the passage of time. The scars of battle were no longer visible to the passive observer.

'Was this a battle worth fighting?' I pondered hard on the self-imposed question and I had no doubt about my reply. My personal battle certainly was, I thought.

The sun dropped low in the sky. A late evening haze filled the valley below. The clouds parted and the heavenly rays engulfed the majestic mountains. As I captured that moment the sun shone through - and I believe God smiled at my response.

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